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Organic Marin - Marin farmers find success with organic food

Liz Cunninghame, owner of Clark Summit Farms in Tomales, feeds organic scratch to her organic, free-range turkeys. (IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)

Rob Rogers 
Marin IJ

LIZ CUNNINGHAME is a busy woman. As she has for the past two Novembers, Cunninghame spends a lot of time answering questions from people who have seen the organically grown turkeys waddling about her Tomales farm.

"There are probably about 40 people on our waiting list, and 30 of them are left over from last Thanksgiving," said Cunninghame, who operates Clark Summit Farm with her husband, Dan Bagley. "We sold out 25 in our first year, and 40 or 50 last year. There's a huge demand."

The call for fresh, locally grown organic food is one reason why the number of Marin's pesticide-free growers has doubled in the past nine years. At least 24,176 of the county's 167,000 agricultural acres are now certified as organic, an increase of more than 6,000 percent since 1999. And the value of the products they grow has increased by $2.1 million.

Warren Weber of Star Route Farms in Bolinas is considered a pioneer of organic farming in Marin. (IJ archive)

Yet organic farming in Marin remains less a big business than a way for the county's small farmers to compete with industrialized agriculture.  

"In the Central Valley, the big guys with 2,000 to 10,000 cows can produce milk a lot cheaper," said Steve Quirt, organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Novato. "On a small farm - the average herd size in Marin and Sonoma is 350 (cows) - it makes sense to look at organic options."

Quirt credits Warren Weber of Bolinas' Star Route Farms and Alan Chadwick of Sausalito's Green Gulch Farm Zen Center with establishing Marin's first modern organic farms in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the movement had grown to include almost all of Marin's vegetable growers and even a dairy - the Straus Creamery, which went organic in 1994.

Until the late 1990s, however, organic farming was like the old adage about pornography: people knew it when they saw it, but no one could agree on how to define it. The creation of the National Organic Program in 2002 changed that, providing a national standard for "organic" produce.

"People have certain assumptions about what 'organic' means," said Anita Sauber, who certifies the county's organic producers as an inspector for the Marin Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. "They feel it's produced without pesticides, which for the most part is true, although some organic pesticide can be used. If you use the word 'organic' on a principal display or product, then 95 percent or more of it has to be organic. But you can say something is 'made with organic products,' and then the requirement is that only 70 percent has to be organic."

Interest in organic farming rose dramatically among Marin's dairies in 2005, when the price of conventional milk plummeted while organic milk prices remained stable.

"Dairies were being paid $11 to $12 per hundredweight for milk that would cost them $16 to produce," Quirt said. "The price for organic milk was around $26 a hundredweight, and it stayed up there. A lot of dairies made the switch first on economic grounds, and came on board philosophically after that."

Customer acceptance of organic products has grown steadily over the past decade, and organic produce is now available at national retail chains.

"Several years back, whenever there was a spike of interest in organic products, it was because there was a scare on apples and consumers were freaking out," Sauber said. "Now it's really changed. When Wal-Mart starts to carry organic products, it's definitely become mainstream."

Yet that growth has led some to worry that buying organic food from a large retailer may not have the positive environmental impact that Marin's first organic growers intended - and that many customers have come to expect.

"It's better if your food is coming locally than if you're getting organic products from South America or China," said Brigitte Moran, executive director of the Marin Farmers Markets, where the number of organic vendors has doubled in the past five years.

The higher price of organic food helps sustain farmers, especially in a relatively small market like Marin. But that price has also placed it out of the range of many consumers, Quirt noted.

"Local, responsible organic food production is expensive, and what it's causing nationally is a dual food system," Quirt said. "Those of us who can afford to be careful about what we buy and eat will pay more. I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but it's creating an elitist food system."

Winemaker Jonathan Pey agrees that organic farming may be more expensive now. But by helping to preserve the earth's resources, he believes he's keeping future generations from paying the price.

"Instead of spraying nasty chemicals, we're out there with hoes and tractors," said Pey, whose wines retail under the Pey-Marin and Mt. Tamalpais labels. "There are considerable tradeoffs, but in the end, it's by far the right thing to do."