Spring planting, always a season of hope, has taken on a heightened sense of expectation this year in California’s bountiful valleys as some of the nation’s largest farms begin experiments in growing fruits and vegetables without synthetic chemicals.
In the Salinas Valley, one of the nation’s premier vegetable-growing regions, the Nunes Company will begin planting 42 acres of iceberg lettuce next week that it plans to raise solely with manure, naturally derived insect killers and other organic substances.
In Delano, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, Pandol Brothers Inc., a farming company and produce importer and exporter with $125 million in annual sales, and Marko Zaninovich Inc., one of the largest farms in the region, are converting from conventional chemical techniques to organic farming for their vineyards of table grapes. Consumers Pay More
And along Route 99 here, the Superior Farming Company, one of the world’s biggest grape and fruit growers, is preparing to harvest its first crop of table grapes cultivated only with organic techniques.
Organic fruits and vegetables cost consumers 10 to 50 percent more than other produce, but Thomas C. Morrison, president and chief operating officer of Superior Farming, says the company believes that a public increasingly fearful of tainted food will be willing to pay the premium.
”We’re filling a consumer demand,” he said. ”Our research shows there is a niche in the market for organic produce. The only risk is if we get an infestation of bugs that wipe us out.”
The adoption of organic practices by these and several other farm companies across California’s sun-washed interior has added legitimacy and authority to a movement that had been almost solely the province of small farms. If the experiments in California prove profitable, experts said, growers are likely to discover more than new markets. for their crops. Farming without synthetic chemicals is less polluting, according to researchers.
In hot and dry climates, organic techniques based on improving the soil and conserving water can be less expensive and more productive than conventional techniques. The techniques have proved far more difficult in the warm and moist climates like Texas and Florida’s, where pests and plant diseases are more prevalent.
The movement into the market by California’s industrial farms, most of them owned and operated by wealthy conservatives, is almost certain to put more pressure on Congress and the Federal Department of Agriculture to recognize the explosive growth of organic agriculture and to provide more money for research on alternative farm practices and for regulating organic commodities.
”It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this development,” said Richard Wiles, a researcher at the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture who is directing a study of alternative farming techniques. ”If the major growers in California show you can produce an adequate and profitable supply of food grown organically, then we’ve made the leap to a less chemically dependent agriculture and an agriculture more tuned to the biology of the farm.”
Some of the new techniques are being put to the test in 135 acres of green grape vineyards at the Superior Farming Company here. Instead of chemical fertilizers, Superior Farming planted strips of vetch, a legume, ion every other alternate rows to provide nitrogen to the growing vines. Battling Weeds With Hoes
Weeds are battled with hoes and mechanical cultivators instead of herbicides.
Superior’s crop specialists have planted French prune trees on the west and east sides of the vineyard to provide a home for a tiny wasp that feeds on grape leaf hoppers, a destructive pest. The company applies natural bacteria and new insecticidal soap compounds to battle other insect pests. To battle other insects the company applies natural bacteria and new insecticidal soap compounds that use biodegradeable fatty acids as a base rather than instead of a toxic petrochemical base. The bunches of grapes number the same as in vineyards where chemicals are dominant, and Superior Farming expects yields to be the same, about 15,000 pounds an acre.
Superior Farming also built a prototype vacuum cleaner mounted aboard a grape harvesting machine to test the practicality of sucking insects off the vines. The machine, which proved slow but effective, was modeled after more advanced vacuum devices already in use on Salinas Valley strawberry and lettuce fields, which are cutting their use of pesticides but use chemical fertilizers.
”As you can see, switching to organic farming is not a light switch to turn on or off,” said Art Foster, the company’s crop protection specialist.
Not everybody in California’s $16-billion-a-year farm industry welcomes the commercial organic experiments. Some of the state’s 1,000 to 2,000 organic farmers, most of them tilling 60 to 70 acres of fruits and vegetables, view Pandol Brothers, Marko Zaninovich and Superior Farming as wolves in a rabbit clutch. The fear is that industrial farms covering 10,000 acres and more could swamp the market, causing prices to drop and driving little growers out of business.
Other growers worry about cheaters. The demand for food raised without chemicals has led supermarkets to increase shelf space for organically grown produce with its premium prices. The economic incentive to sell conventionally grown food as organic is powerful, growers said. Last year, Pacific Organics, a food distributor based in San Diego, went out of business after an investigation by California’s Department of Health Services showed that the company was importing carrots grown in Mexico with chemicals and distributing them in the United States as ”organically grown.” Stronger Law Proposed
California Certified Organic Farmers, perhaps the most influential alternative agriculture organization in the country, has proposed legislation to strengthen the state’s 10-year-old organic food law. The current statute defines organically grown food as any raw agricultural commodity ”produced, harvested, distributed, stored, processed and packaged without the application of synthetically compounded fertilizers, pesticides or growth regulators.”
The proposed amendments would make the state regulation of organic products similar to a program now administered by California Certified Organic Farmers. Farmers would be required to stop using synthetic chemicals three years before marketing their first organically grown crop so as to clear chemicals from their fields. Growers would be required to document their practices for review by inspectors and the public.
The legislation also calls for a new marketing category of ”transitional organic” so that growers converting to organic practices could be recognized in the market and eligible to receive a premium prices for their products. Last year Texas became the first state to establish such a category. National Standards Urged
Organic farmers in California and in other states are calling for uniform national standards. Fourteen states now have official definitions of organic food, and the definitions differ. Earlier this month Senator Wyche Fowler Jr., a Georgia Democrat, proposed legislation that would establish a commission at the Department of Agriculture to study whether a national program for certifying organically grown food is a good idea.
”The Federal Government is going to be forced to make rules on organics uniform, and the sooner the better,” said Timothy K. McCorkle, a manager for Marko Zaninovich. ”Every state has a different set of rules. The longer it goes on the more uncertainty there will be among growers and consumers.”
This summer, his company, which farms more than 5,000 acres, plans for the first time to harvest about 100 acres of organic table grapes and persimmons. Across town, Pandol Brothers, which raises 3,400 acres of table grapes, apples, kiwi fruit and other crops also plans its first harvest of 120 acres of organic table grapes.
One conclusion Pandol’s managers have already drawn from the experiment is that the system of planting a cover crop of cowpeas to add nitrogen to the soil, along with weeding the vineyard by hand, is less expensive than using chemical herbicides. Jack V. Pandol, an owner, said the company planned to convert 700 more acres to organic practices next year.
”It’s an evolutionary step from what we were doing here for years to reduce pesticides,” said Mr. Pandol. ”My neighbors don’t like it much, I know that. You put a sticker on your fruit that says it was grown without all these chemicals; what does that say about theirs?”
By KEITH SCHNEIDER, Special to The New York Times
Published: May 28, 1989