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Stanford study unlikely to slow momentum of Marin's organic food movement

Marin Independent Journal
Marin IJ

Members of Marin County's thriving organic food movement say they aren't overly concerned about fallout from a Stanford University study this month that challenged the health benefits of organic foods.

They say it's unlikely the study will cause consumers of Marin's organic dairy products, meats and produce to question whether the higher prices they pay for organic are worth it. Marin County's farmers and ranchers, many of whom depend on those higher prices to remain profitable, are hoping that is the case.

The Stanford report, a meta-analysis of 237 previous studies by other parties, found virtually no nutritional advantage to eating organic foods. For the most part, the writers of the report concluded that organic and nonorganic foods contain the same amount of vitamins and minerals. The researchers reported that organic produce had a 30 percent lower risk of pesticide contamination than conventional fruits and vegetables; but they said the pesticide levels of all foods generally fall within allowable safety limits.

"I'm not too worried," said Stacey Smith, executive director of Marin Organic, a cooperative association of Marin County organic producers focused on marketing. "There are a myriad of reasons why people buy organic, not just one. What the Stanford study focused on, nutrition, is just one dimension."

Brigitte Moran, CEO of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, which operates farmers'

markets at the Marin Civic Center and in Novato and Fairfax, said, "I don't think the priority for most people who are buying organic is whether or not the produce is nutritious, because that goes without saying. It's whether it has pesticides on it or not."

Al Baylacq, co-owner of Good Earth Natural Foods, questioned the Stanford study's assumption that certain levels of pesticides in foods are safe.

"We still believe firmly that eating organically grown foods is much better for your health — and what an omission not to also factor in the environmental effects of commercial agriculture," Baylacq said.

Marin County Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Stefan Parnay said there are a number of pesticides that can be legally used for organic crops. But, Parnay added, "The pesticides that are allowed for organic production are naturally occurring. Anything that is synthetic wouldn't be allowed."

The amount of food produced organically in Marin has increased dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years. In 1997, just 312 acres were being farmed organically in Marin, valued at $3.1 million. In 2011, there were 73 registered organic producers in Marin County farming 21,960 acres, producing a total gross value of $22 million. Organic foods accounted for about 31 percent of the county's total agricultural production of $70 million in 2011, according to the county's annual Livestock and Agricultural Crop Report.

Parnay said those numbers underestimate the total size of Marin's organic production because they fail to include value-added organic dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and cream.

David Lewis, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension in Marin County, said Marin County has taken several important steps to make it easier for farmers and ranchers to switch to organic production. In 2001, Marin became one of the first counties in California to offer an organic certification program to qualified agricultural producers.

Kevin Lunny, a third-generation Marin rancher who made the switch to organic in 2003, said having a county agricultural commissioner who is a national organic certifier has made a big difference.

"It just makes it much more user-friendly for organic producers in Marin," said Lunny, the first rancher in the county to have his 1,400 acres of pasture lands certified as organic and the first to sell certified organic beef. He has about 125 head of cattle.

The county of Marin also supported the creation of Marin Organic in 2001.

Lewis said, "Marin Organic was really central in terms of providing organic producers marketing support."

And in 2002, Marin's Cooperative Extension created a new position: organic and sustainable agriculture coordinator, to help educate conventional farmers about the benefits of organic agriculture.

Lewis said the higher prices that organic products command provide a crucial profit margin for some producers, particularly those in the dairy business.

He notes that if it weren't for organic milk's more stable price, many Marin County dairies might be forced out of businesses.

Jarrod Mendoza, who produces 1,300 gallons of organic milk a day at his Double M Dairy farm on the Point Reyes Peninsula, said he receives an extra $4 to $5 per hundred weight for his milk because it is organic. Could he make it today as a conventional dairy?

"There is no way," Mendoza said. "Those days are over."

Mendoza said Marin's more modest-sized dairies can't compete with much larger dairies in Southern California that are closer to the food supplies for their cows. Marin dairy owners must pay to truck much of their alfalfa and corn to their herds, he said.

Lewis said producers of organic meat and produce would also feel the pinch if the organic market dwindled, although not as much.

Lunny said one of the reasons he decided to go organic was "we were trying to add value so our family could continue farming in this county."

He estimated that his organic beef sells for about a 20 percent premium over conventionally-raised beef.

"That's a very significant piece that is really making a difference for our family," he said.

Lewis said local farmers and ranchers have also benefited financially by having their pastures certified as organic and then leasing the land to others. For example, Lunny leases 500 acres in Nicasio from Peggy Rathmann and John Wick. He transports his cattle there for four to six weeks each year. Both dairy cows and livestock that are certified organic must be grazed on organic pastures. Most of the acres devoted to organic agriculture in Marin, some 21,650 acres, are pastureland.

Marty Jacobson, who together with Janet Brown has operated Allstar Organics in Nicasio for 25 years, said, "Our business wouldn't be worth anything if we weren't organic; I believe that."

Allstar Organics started out growing tomatoes. Today, however, the 12-acre farm produces a variety of produce and distills some of the organic plants into a line of flower waters and essential oils. Allstar Organics sells its products at several Marin retail stores, such as Woodlands Market in Kentfield and Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, as well as at local farmers' markets.

By Richard Halstead