“It’s not news to the farming community that the organic label has been watered down,” Darryl Wong said matter-of-factly. In a puffy orange vest, Wong strolls the edge of the farm he co-owns. He points to where fava bean plants are poking out of the soil, and indicates further down the farm to where rows of strawberries line the ground.
Wong said organic certification is not the ultimate goal for a farmer these days. Wong and his partners, Amy Courtney and Kirstin Yogg, own Freewheelin’ Farm — an uncertified organic farm in Santa Cruz. Their eight acres are situated just off of the Cabrillo Highway and across the train tracks. Laid out among cow pastures and brussels sprout fields with views of the ocean, Freewheelin’ is the epitome of a local, small-scale farm.
The owners are all UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden Apprenticeship Program graduates and they’ve managed to wedge Freewheelin’ Farm into the Santa Cruz market. Wong said Freewheelin’ Farm’s lack of organic certification has not been a problem for their farm in terms of entering the local market.
“Even though we don’t certify,” Wong said, “we follow all the major tenets of organic farming.”
According to Organic.org, organic produce by definition is grown “without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms or ionizing radiation.”
Wong said the way Freewheelin’ Farm cultivates and harvests its crop is precise and calculated due to the variety of crops the farmers plant, which each have different growing and harvesting requirements.
“Our system is really complicated, because we have 30 to 40 crops,” Wong said. “It requires a lot of intellectual know-how in terms of how to grow these crops, but it also requires that you manage a whole host of different systems within a system.”
However, organic farming is not without its flaws, Wong said.
“Organic farming can be potentially harmful,” Wong said. “One of my farming mentors always said, ‘You can have a poorly managed organic farm that is more deleterious to the environment than a well managed conventional farm.’”
Wong said that if an organic farm were to pump a fertilizer such as fish emulsion into the ground to the point where the system could not handle it, this would result in nitrogen leach off. This could potentially affect drinking water from a well. In that situation, a chemical fertilizer applied in the correct amount would be better. The line between conventional and organic farming is blurry due to obscurities being revealed within organic farming and labeling.
An article published two years ago in the New York Times demonstrates the dubiousness of the organic label. Published in March of 2009, the article “It’s Organic, But Does That Mean It’s Safer?” was a response to outbreaks of salmonella from organic peanut plants in Georgia and Texas.
Laurie Demeritt, president of the market research firm The Hartman Group challenged the idea that organic certifiers are only responsible for certification, not food safety.
“Some shoppers want food that was grown locally, harvested from animals that were treated humanely or produced by workers who were paid a fair wage,” she said. “The organic label doesn’t mean any of that.”
The New York Times article raised awareness about the label and consumers began to wonder exactly what the organic label ensures.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates product composition in regards to varying levels of organic. The “100 percent organic” label denotes that the product is made from all organic ingredients, “USDA organic” means the product is 95 percent or more organic, and “made with organic ingredients” means the product is at least 70 percent organic.
Zachary Davis, co-owner and manager of the Penny Ice Creamery, said that as an establishment that supplies food to the public, their focus is not on organic standards but on creating a quality product.
“Organic certification is great, but it is not the be-all-end-all when it comes to products,” he said.
Davis said they do not call their ice cream “organic” at the Penny Ice Creamery. This is due in part to the drama that surrounds the organic label. Their focus instead is on fostering relationships with the farmers from whom they buy their ingredients.
“We know [the farmers], we’ve met them, and we don’t feel we need the certification,” he said.
Although consumers can depend on government labels to know just how organic the product is, the controversy associated with the label contributed to what Wong referred to as its “watering down.”
Unlike the organic label, buying locally provides consumers with the ability to meet the people who are growing their food. This concept, called “localization,” is based on individuals’ desire to support their community and an interest in knowing exactly where their food is coming from.
Organic certification is based on legal terms stated by the government. The surge in localization has provided communities across the nation the ability to become more self-sustaining and create a flow of money in their community, but what does organic certification provide? According to Wong at Freewheelin’ Farm, not much.
“We don’t get that much benefit from being able to say that we are certified organic … and I don’t think that with our existing customers and the way we want to grow our business [the certification] is going to make that much of a difference at all,” Wong said.
He said the fact that being certified organic is cost-prohibitive has kept Freewheelin’ from going through the certification process.
Wong attributes Freewheelin’ Farm’s success in part to the recent surge in buying locally.
“The local … food movement has been a huge push behind not only our success but the success of so many other small farms,” he said.
Localization is popular because consumers can know who is producing their food, and even see the farm.
“There is accountability [with buying locally] because we know where everything is coming from and we know the people who are making our goods,” said Karsten Mueller, lecturer on green building and sustainable development at UC Santa Cruz. “Socially, this creates a fabric in the community and people become engaged in their community.”
Another move towards localization is evident in the 2009 initiative launched by the USDA known as KYF2, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”
The program aims to “promote sustainable local and regional food systems that will support farmers and ranchers, strengthen rural communities, promote healthy eating, and protect our natural resources,” according to the USDA website.
Santa Cruz is a thriving example of this initiative at work because of the immense support the community funnels into localized purchasing.
Zachary Davis and Kendra Baker, who own the Penny Ice Creamery together, set out to make their establishment as accessible as possible, Davis said. As a result, they have seen “a darn good cross section of the public.” He attributes this to the fact that they try to keep their prices as low as possible, “because for us sustainable is being able to keep the doors open!”
An additional example would be that of the community-supported agriculture (CSA). This program allows members of the community to subscribe to a farm, or purchase “shares” of a farmer’s crop. In turn, throughout the growing season, subscribers receive boxes of produce from the local farmer from whom they’ve subscribed. This has benefits for the farmer and for the shareholder. This allows farmers to receive money at the front end of the season, but also assures the consumer that produce is coming from a reliable source.
Freewheelin’ Farm takes part in this program and provides boxes of produce to customers in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area.
“The real success [with CSA] comes from word of mouth,” Wong said.
He said that the program has helped Freewheelin’ Farm in establish themselves in the Santa Cruz as a farm and foster relationships with the community.
Many restaurants purchase produce each week at the downtown Santa Cruz farmer’s market, which is held on Wednesdays. Cassandra Brown is the lead savory cook and farmer’s market buyer for Café Delmarette, located downtown, and she also co-founded Freewheelin’ Farm. Delmarette sells food comprising organic ingredients, but — according to Brown — local produce is also a top priority.
“A lot of the farms we buy our stuff from are within a 10- or 15-mile radius. Some of it is a little bit further, but it is all within the California Bay Area,” she said.
Freewheelin’ Farm does not sell produce at the local farmer’s market. However, it has still managed to leave its mark on the Santa Cruz local market.
Freewheelin’ currently supplies fresh produce to local establishments such as Cellar Door Café, Ristorante Avanti, Gabriella Café, Café Delmarette, La Posta Restaurant and the Penny Ice Creamery.
Wong said establishing relationships with these restaurants has been tricky since it is so competitive locally.
“Especially in Santa Cruz, the market is in the many ways flooded because there are so many established farms that have been around for 10 to 20 years,” Wong said. “So, [restaurants] have a wide selection of people to buy from.”
Penny Ice Creamery co-owner Baker said the Penny’s ice cream flavors are inspired by the farmers, whom they have built relationships with. This is in part because their creative flavors are based on what is in season.
It becomes evident that the relationships being built between farmers and buyers are authentic in Santa Cruz. In fact, the localization movement has attracted all types of people to local establishments.
Jenn Toner, co-owner and manager at Café Delmarette, said that the café attracts many different types of people. They are ultimately drawn to Café Delmarette because “we make everything here. We are not just buying it and reselling it. They are interested in the homemade aspect.”
The fact that people are interested in quality and natural ingredients is one of the reasons that Freewheelin’ Farm has been able to prosper, despite the economic downfall in recent years.
“While the economy has been tanking, our business has been growing … in many ways that is the function of us being a small and growing business,” Wong said.
Wong attributes the farm’s success to the interests of the community.
“In the area we’re in … I think that if you were to have the people prioritize their values, clean and healthy food would be pretty high on that list,” he said.
As Freewheelin’ Farm prepares to harvest crops in months to come, local cafés and restaurants will prepare to buy the farm’s produce. In a community where local and quality food is valued, a variety of customers will continue to frequent local food establishments and menus will reflect what is in season.
At the end of the day, both the farmer and the restaurant owner’s needs will be met and it will have nothing to do with an organic label.