California Organic Agriculture

Spring 2008

Bob Cantisano
Organic crop advisor Amigo Bob Cantisano enlightened Farmer-to-Farmer participants with stories of the ‘Californication’ of organic production. He advised growers to stay under the radar and sell to local consumers as much as possible.

A 35-Year Personal Retrospective

In November 2007, MOFGA welcomed keynote speaker Amigo Bob Cantisano to the Farmer-to-Farmer Conference. As a farmer, crop advisor and organizer, Cantisano has had enormous impact for over 30 years on U.S. organic agriculture. He founded or co-founded California Certified Organic Farmers, The Ecological Farming Association (organizer of the Eco-Farm Conference), Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, We The People Natural Foods Cooperative, and Farms not Arms – an activist group working to turn swords into plowshares and trying to stop the war. He co-wrote California’s organic farming law in 1979, and the enabling legislation for the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Program. The first technical organic advisor in the country, he now operates Organic Ag Advisors, a consulting firm in the central and north coastareas of California.

A ninth-generation Californian, Cantisano’s family was among the original Spanish conquistadores who settled California, and his direct ancestors founded San Francisco, where Cantisano grew up. His Spanish-Italian “hotshot gardener” Grandma Dorothy infused Cantisano with a love and knowledge of growing food. “My first strong recollections of her are picking pickling cucumbers and fava beans.”

Grandma Dorothy’s influence was invaluable when Cantisano started growing food during the “hippie-commune movement – out of the alternative of starvation or eating USDA government crap.” Eventually he and many fellow home gardeners became market gardeners.

“I have a lot of pride in California, and I’ve watched it slide down a morass in my lifetime,” said Cantisano. “Simultaneously, I’ve seen this whole upswelling of organics.” 

Filling Needs, Creating Successes

In 1972, he and other members of his commune started a buying club, which grew into a storefront. The buzz phrase of the day was, ‘Food for people, not for profit.’ “After all these years, I’m still learning what profit means. It’s an elusive thing,” said Cantisano.

That storefront got a truck, which started picking up food for the co-op. “Then we started dealing directly with farmers,” and Cantisano sometimes went on the truck route and learned how people farmed organically. That seed started his career as a farming advisor. “I’ve worked with a lot of very conventional people. I look totally unlike anybody I work with. Most of the folks I work with are pretty hardcore Republican farmers, but we have a bridge, we have a bond, because we are in agriculture, and we are looking for alternatives.”

The co-op grew into a store, the store got bigger, the truck got bigger and started trucking for other markets, and “low and behold, we started a distribution business” called We the People.

That little trucking business is now part of the biggest wholesale organic and natural foods distribution business in the country, United Natural Foods – “which I’m not proud of, but I’m very proud of the [We the People] business we helped to start. You try to fill a need, and it grows and gets its own momentum, and all of a sudden it becomes the real deal.”

In 1972, Cantisano had a chance to farm with some beekeeper friends on their grandfather’s land. “He had farmed before the era of chemicals and knew all about it. C. O. Rouse is one of my all-time heroes, because not only did he know all about it, but he was willing to teach us. He had given up organics, had bought into chemicals, hook, line and sinker, thought we were crazy to take a step back 50 years, but at the same time, these were his grandsons, and he was excited about the fact that they wanted to come back to farm. So he taught us about cover cropping, crop rotations, rudimentary compost making.

“We started farming about 6 acres of vegetables and 15 acres of walnuts” in a wonderful climate with deep, lush soil, abundant water, year-round growing possibilities, and a market – the food co-op – and distribution company.

Cantisano soon heard about a meeting of organic farmers, which became the first organizational meeting of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), with Cantisano a founding member “because I raised my hand and said, ‘Sure, I’ll participate.’” Now 35 years old, CCOF is a leading advocate for farmers, “because it’s a farmer-based organization, as opposed to a bunch of these pseudo-certifiers out there that are businesses” and are not as thorough as CCOF.

In 1972, only two large California farms were involved in organic agriculture. One was Pavich Family Farms. The other was the Lundberg brothers, and Cantisano’s food co-op was one of their first customers. “Their only product in 1972 was a 100-pound sack of short grain, organic brown rice. They actually delivered us two 100-pound bags” from the farm two hours away. “I was enthralled by these older brothers, four of them, who had made a commitment as a family to find an alternative when no one else was, in a crop – I can’t think of any more generic crop than rice – for them to blaze their own trail and farm it differently, and process it, and market it, and then develop all these products. Here’s a good news story: That little farm with a hundred-pound sack now has almost 150 products; they are the second biggest employer in the county,” employing nearly 300 people, “and they have now, with their own impetus and my help with their growers, converted nearly 50 rice farmers in their region to organic farming, to supply rice into their business. And the success of the Lundberg brothers has stimulated four competing rice businesses to get into the organic business.

“It’s an interesting phenomenon how one little group of people have such a big, spreading effect,” Cantisano observed. “Just think what you do. Even if you’re only working on your own little farm, you have an impact on a lot of people outside of yourself. I know that from selling at farmers’ markets.”

Cantisano himself farmed on leased land from 1972 until 2000, when his wife inherited some money and they put a down payment on 11 acres. They grow about 2 1/2 acres of vegetables and 4 acres of fruits and berries, marketed through a 55-member CSA, farmers’ markets and restaurants.

Working with Growers

Cantisano became a farm adviser “a little bit by default.” His friend Gene Talbot – “a genius small farmer from Oregon” – and Talbot’s son were among the first farmers in the area to use vegetable transplants in the mid-‘70s and were frustrated with the time that transplanting took, so Talbot developed an implement that drilled holes for transplants. Cantisano helped Talbot build a couple of the machines and demonstrated them to organic farming friends – most of whom were still direct seeding and couldn’t afford the $2,500 machine.

However, the experience of cooperating with other growers inspired Cantisano’s next project: He needed rock phosphate, and “the only way you could buy it was as a boxcar, and I needed maybe 2 tons. What was I going to do with the other 38 tons?” He got friends to buy about 20 tons cooperatively; the other 18 tons started Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, with Cantisano and friends unloading every bag by hand. He now advises: “Be sure you wear a mask. I had two large patches of hair fall out of my head, because rock phosphate contains radioactivity.”

Peaceful Valley is now one of the biggest organic farming suppliers in the country. Cantisano ran it from 1975 until he sold it in 1989, answering customers’ questions about organic materials all the time.

One day he brought Peaceful Valley supplies and the transplanting machine to an agricultural show. “I was the only organic guy at the local ag show. I got zero interest the first day. Day number two, this guy named Wayne Ferrari walks up and says to me, ‘You are into organic farming! My dad and I are farming…and we sell at a farmers’ market.’” In 1976, explains Cantisano, California’s only farmers’ market, in San Francisco, was dominated by people who bought and sold products, not by farmers. Ferrari said, “I get all these hippies…coming to the farmers’ market, going, ‘I want this organic stuff.’ ‘What the hell is this organic thing?’” Cantisano ended up advising Ferrari as he converted to organic. (At that time, only one year was required to transition to organic. Cantisano thinks that even today’s three years is “a little bit on the short side.”)

Cantisano learned about growing all kinds of produce organically in order to help Ferrari with his 200 acres. The farm has been a leading organic stone fruit producer for some 30 years, and Ferrari is the most successful farmer in his area, where conventional farmers sell to packinghouses or canneries. Even today, the area has only two other organic farmers – despite Ferrari’s obvious monetary success.

Cantisano was so sure of organic agriculture that in 1981 he predicted that by 1990, 75% of U.S. agriculture would be organic. “Boy, was I naïve. We’re still struggling. We’re at 2 or 3%; some people say 4; some say one. We’re still a very small proportion, but we are the best thing going… When I go to [conventional] ag meetings to talk, it’s like a funeral parlor in there! …conventional agriculture has been hitting the wall for a long time, but we have the survivors in there still. We’ve got the last 5 or 10% of the original farming population still farming.”

Cantisano works with some of these survivors, helping them convert to organic, “to detoxify their farms” (simultaneously working to detoxify his own body, which has accumulated heavy metals and pesticide residues as a result of working in conventional fields).

Big Organic Feet

“The good news is that we have made huge changes. The bad news is that big farms step on things without even knowing it. They don’t recognize the impact of converting a farm of 200, 500 or 1,000 acres, or 25,000 acres [his biggest client], because they’re coming from a situation of just trying to survive.” Most conventional farmers in California are going broke. “Most of the people I work with didn’t get into organic for the reasons I got into it. I wanted to feed people, I wanted to be an environmentalist, I wanted to do good things socially. They got into it because they saw there was an opportunity to save themselves from going bankrupt.”

Cal-Organic, then owned by Cantisano’s friend Danny Duncan, was broke when it went organic. The bank was about to foreclose on Duncan’s land when Celestial Seasonings gave him a contract to grow lemongrass. No pesticides were registered for lemongrass, so Duncan had to raise it organically, and lemongrass doesn’t have many pest problems other than weeds, “so Danny said, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can farm something and get a market and get a premium for the fact that it’s organic.’” Cantisano provided the technical information. Now Cal-Organic, one of the biggest organic shippers in the world, is owned by Grimway, the largest carrot grower in the United States. “By the way,” Cantisano noted, “almost 40% of the carrots grown in the United States are grown organically.”

Cal-Organic, which now farms about 4,000 acres of organic vegetables, initially “absolutely ruined the organic marketplace, because they had no idea what the marketplace would bear,” says Cantisano. After dealing with small amounts of organic goods, it soon had pallets and truckloads shipped at “ridiculously low prices” that crashed the market, until the company recognized the problem.

Perennial Promise

Cantisano noted that perennial crops such as grapes are of increasing interest because they work well with organics – once growers understand the process. “Typically people in perennial agriculture look at everything except the crop as a pest, whether it’s a bug, a disease or a weed. So, getting them to think, ‘Oh, I should have something growing in here that might have a benefit’ is a major revelation for them. Then they get it, then they want to do it and they understand why.

“I literally spend hours walking and crawling through fields with people, looking for signs of life returning to the site. We do earthworm sampling. You would be shocked at how few earthworms are on conventional farms. Yet, in a couple of years of soil management, we see them start to appear, and farmers get it.

“So this is something that gets a person into polyculture” – a term Cantisano doesn’t use with his clients, because it may “push them off their comfort zone.” Instead he suggests, “Let’s get something to get some nitrogen in. And let’s plant something to get some beneficial insects.” Crimson clover, for example, does both, and looks beautiful – for which one grower, located along a highway, “got tons of strokes” for beautifying the neighborhood.

No Real Olive Oil

Cantisano had been pressing olive oil for his family since the ‘70s, and when interest in the crop exploded in the ‘90s, he bought an abandoned olive orchard. Olives do well in his area – north of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas – causing a big planting boom in the ’20 and ‘30s.

“So I got in the olive business, and I did not take my own advise” to stay small. He eventually cultivated 60 acres of olives, but “the olive oil business is absolutely a disaster,” said Cantisano. “Probably 99% of the people in this room have never actually had real olive oil, because the United States does not have standards for olive oil, so [sellers] mix and match anything they want to put in a bottle of olive oil. And that’s why everyone went out of the olive oil business – because 99% of olive oil sold here is imported, and the imported oil is all adulterated.”

Cantisano still grows table olives, on less acreage, and likes the very sustainable, ecological, permaculture crop. “I can graze animals underneath them, I’ve got clovers growing underneath them. Until recently we had no significant pests to deal with. Short of pruning and cover crop rotation and rotating the animals, that’s pretty much all we have to do to grow a successful crop – and we have orchards that don’t need any irrigation at all. They’ll grow dry farm. That’s where they have the best quality.”

Young Farmers

“We’re getting a lot of younger people getting into agriculture,” said Cantisano. “I’m glad you’re in it. You gotta just get prepared to get discouraged… It is difficult to make it in agriculture today, and what you’re doing with diversification, direct sales, doing most of your own work is the best way to do it. That’s what I encourage. Start small and kind of stay under the radar.”

Cantisano was shocked that prices at Wild Oats in Portland, Maine, were double those at his local stores. “You have an opportunity to sneak in there,” he said, “because the pricing is so much higher, and as fuel costs go up, and all of the other changes that are going to happen with the end of the oil era… Costs here are high enough in retail stores that that gives you an opportunity to get fair value for your crop.”

Still, “you may not be thinking you’re getting enough, because none of us is getting enough. I support myself through my farm advising, and I support my addiction to farming by my farm advising.”

California Scenes

Cantisano showed a slide of a 130-acre field growing Pinnacle Organic produce. “People are now planting 3-, 5- or 7-acre blocks of lettuce at a time, which is smaller than they did when they grew conventional lettuce, because then it took 10- or 20-acre blocks to stay in the business.”

Few buyers remain in the business – organic or conventional. “The consolidation phenomenon is ridiculous” with “only about 10 major buyers in the conventional produce business in the country. If you don’t meet the needs of those 10 buyers, you’re out of business. So you grow acres and acres on the hope that you will sell it, whether it’s profitable or not.” His friends who plant 25,000 acres will plant more than they need every day, and will leave giant fields unharvested, because they don’t have a market for them – or they will sell the crop at a loss. “Two years ago they lost over $10 million. Some years they make that much…”

Cantisano related that he and his friend Mike Thorpe were in a 6-acre organic celery field one morning when Thorpe got a call from a salesperson – who gets paid by the number of boxes he sells, not by what’s in the boxes. “So they want to sell more boxes, regardless of the bottom-line price of the produce and regardless of whether it’s profitable for the farmer. The price that morning was $15.50 a box.” Thorpe called in a crew to cut two semi-trailer loads of celery. About 20 minutes later, Thorpe got a call: the price had dropped to $14. “The phone keeps ringing. By the time the crew’s in the field picking and packing and starting to put them on pallets…the price has dropped to $6. Mike’s cost of production was about $8 a box. The conventional price that day was $7.50.

“There’s only about half a dozen organic celery producers of any scale in California,” Cantisano explained, “and the buyers know that. So the way it works …they call around [to each grower] in the morning…dropping the price. They don’t give away that $6 celery” at the retailers.So Thorpe filled half the order, and sold the rest of the celery on the conventional market, where he lost only about 50 cents a box instead of $2. “This happens every single day in the organic business. Last year was a banner year…the first good year for wholesale organic produce in California in this decade. Wal-Mart getting into the organic business all of a sudden pushed the market up…so that these guys who’ve been overproducing all of a sudden had a market. And that crashed, because Wal-Mart changed their marketing strategy to only the places where [organic] turned out to be profitable. Well, everybody from last year said, ‘Let’s plant,’ and it’s been a bloodbath this entire year. I don’t think any of my clients have made any money. The ones who are making money are the smaller growers, people doing the CSAs and direct markets.”

Most organic growers in California are family farmers, said Cantisano. One of his clients farms about 1,000 acres of vegetables organically on leased land and drives old pickups. “They don’t have any money. It’s a hard life. The rent on the ground around there is between $2,000 and $3,000 an acre. You have to make a lot of production to make that pay.”

Good Soil: Key to Transitioning

Advising growers is not always easy. “Conventional farmers have grown accustomed to using pesticides. Their biggest fear is that they’re going to crash and burn if they go organic, because the organic pesticides aren’t as strong as the conventional pesticides. Inversely, every single case of people I’ve worked with… they find out they don’t have as many pest problems as they had conventionally. When they actually get plants healthy, they don’t see the diseases and the pests, so that the tools that they have organically are enough.

“You guys know that… if you grow a healthy plant it has resistance and has few pest or disease problems. [Conventional growers] have been sold a bill of goods. They have been told that the only way to survive is to use these agrichemicals. Well, when you take them off of the fertilizer – which seems to be the biggest culprit; they pump these things up with a lot of nitrogen, because nitrogen gives you a lot of yield, which also sucks up a lot of water, which gives you these watery, lousy tasting, low-nutrition and pest-stimulating crops – when you change that to compost-based, biologically-released nutrients, the whole thing changes. When you get into crop rotations, you still deal with weeds – probably the biggest issue these farmers would complain about – but pests aren’t as big a deal in organic.”

The challenge is to get farmers to think not about substituting organic for chemical materials, but to think about biology, diversity, rotation, polyculture. “Once they break that paradigm of looking for the alternative, organic chemical… then they’re off and running. So I don’t tell most of them what’s available. I say, ‘Oh, there’s not much we can do about that. We’ll figure it out when we get there.’”

Cantisano said that in the ‘90s, transitioning growers started their organic plots on land nobody was farming. “There was a reason nobody was farming it. It was sh – t ground. The yields were low. The input costs were higher. The weeds were phenomenal. It took a lot of fertilizer and water to grow the stuff.” Now they’re transitioning good land to organic instead. “They lose money pretty consistently those first three years, but by the end of that third or fourth year, they kind of get it; they go, ‘Oh yeah. The system’s stabilized. We don’t have the bugs.’”

Very few large California organic growers raise their own transplants, because of the expense. Now, “there’s so much competition in the organic transplant business in California that growers can buy tomato transplants for $8 per 1,000. So farming has become specialized. Many of them don’t apply their own fertilizers; many don’t make their own compost or prepare their own beds. Almost everybody hires out harvesting, and a pest control advisor gives them advice. If they need to apply something, they hire someone to spray. They take crops to a cooler that’s not theirs. So they’ve pretty much given up their control.

“Don’t do that!” Cantisano implored Farmer-to-Farmer growers. “Hang on to the control that you have – but team up with someone.” Some of the successful California farmers are cooperating as a group. “I have friends who grow all the transplants for four farms. The farms pay the people to grow the transplants, and then they share the transplanting machinery. That’s how I think smaller farmers can capitalize on the economics of scale without having to completely lose control over their farms.”

Californicating Production

Salad mix is now being grown intensively and mechanically in 80-inch-wide beds in California. “I was thrilled to find that you can get $10 a pound for salad mix. I can buy salad mix at my local natural foods store for $3.99 a pound. I went out of the salad mix business. We grow it for ourselves, but I don’t sell it.”

When California’s “big guys” saw a small, Italian bandsaw harvester that cut and moved salad mix along a conveyer belt into totes, they “Californicated” the machine to harvest 40 to 50 totes a minute with two people. “So the price of harvesting salad mix dropped from $1.25 to 28 cents a pound in two years. That’s why salad mix dropped off the charts economically. And these guys plant way too much of the stuff constantly. Earthbound’s the most notorious for it.”

Cantisano helped Earthbound convert to organic when it had only 2 acres. “Now they’re they biggest player. I’m not proud of it, because they’re one of the worst at marketing; they give it away. But they’re really good farmers. They hired conventional farmers who were really good at farming, and we taught them how to do it. They farm 6,000 or 7,000 acres in California – but they have crashed the market… They over-plant and then they give it away.”

Showing a slide of truckloads of California tomatoes, hard enough to withstand being in an 8-foot-deep pile, Cantisano said, “You have a chance, because consumers do have taste buds. They do remember what Grandma’s tomatoes tasted like, and they want to have that again.” He gets $2 per pound for heirloom tomatoes on the wholesale market; some in the audience said they were getting $4.

One ton of organic canning tomatoes is now worth about $60 in California – down from about $90 in the early ‘90s. Processors and middlemen are making most of the money from this and other crops.

Good Technologies

Cantisano showed a huge compost turner that mixes and aerates compost much better than a bucket loader or manure spreader does. “So what we need now is a piece of machinery to bring this down to our scale. And there is an electrically powered one that is being used. Somebody needs to become the importer, and then we need to share it so that we make much better compost in less time.”

He also showed a vacuum (essentially a leaf blower in reverse) that he uses to sample for pests. “But it’s also used by small growers [to vacuum] flea beetles, cucumber beetles…” A larger version was used to vacuum lygus bugs from strawberry plants, until “we found we could trap the bugs off to the side, because they like other things that are full of seeds more than they like strawberries. They just go to strawberries because nothing else is around; these fields are too barren.”

One lettuce grower solved a Sclerotinia problem by incorporating enough organic matter in the soil and rotating with a brassica crop, which releases compounds that are toxic to Sclerotinia.

Regarding artichokes, Cantisano said the conventional crop is sprayed weekly, almost year-round, with three to four pesticides in the tank. He helped one grower transition to organic – partly by growing Sudangrass as a trap and cover crop between artichokes. “Artichokes need a lot of organic matter, and conventional growers overfertilize to compensate for the lack of organic matter, which attracts pests.”

Go for Efficiency

Cantisano’s take-home message to Farmer-to-Farmer participants was to keep creating more efficiency. He praised Eliot Coleman’s work in this area. “It’s not a function of getting bigger, it’s not a function of getting more dollars per square foot – although that’s helpful – it’s a function of cutting down on your labor inputs.”

He also thinks small farmers need more help with postharvest management. “It’s critical to quality of products, and I see way too much sloppiness in postharvest management.”

Large-scale organic has helped small growers by developing seeds for organic farms, pelleted fertilizers, beneficial insectaries and more. Driscoll’s, for example, is the biggest strawberry shipper in the country and the biggest organic strawberry grower. It has developed hardier, more productive, better tasting fruits that ship better. “Since the ‘90s, organic strawberry production in California went from about 4,000 12-basket flats per acre to over 7,000 – through breeding and better farming.” Organic farmers “have spin-off benefits” in improved varieties.

Large-scale farmers, organic and conventional, are going down a slippery slope, said Cantisano. “The true hope for the future lies in the group that’s in this room. It’s the small-scale growers, the diversified growers, the direct marketers, the organic growers. It’s the person meeting and getting to know the customer. If we get more efficient, become better skilled at what we do, share equipment, do co-ops and those types of things, market our ideas together, then we have a chance for small farmers to do an even better job and to make a true living at this.”

Larger farms incur more risk. Cantisano talked about Jeff Larkey, whose Route 1 Farms in Santa Cruz grows on 200 acres of rented ground. Larkey doesn’t own his house; does own his equipment and is a “real good farmer.” When Cantisano asked him about his 2005 profitability, Larkey answered, “I had a good year. I used to be a contractor for Earthbound, and I changed that and became a direct market grower to Whole Foods, and they bought 18 crops for my contract for the season, and I had my highest gross year ever” at $1.2 million.” Larkey continued: “I netted $17,000.”

“So,” said Cantisano, “that’s a 1.2 million roll of the dice for a $17,000 net – and it was a good year… So when you get discouraged and say, ‘Gee, I’m working for peanuts,’ so is everyone else out there. You gotta do it because you love it, because you believe in the future, for your kids and grandkids or whoever you think’s important to you; you gotta do it for the planet. You gotta do it because nobody else is gonna do it. It’s up to you, it’s up to us. Let’s get out and do it!”

 – J E
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