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Expanding markets are possible for farmers 'going organic'

Issue Date: March 18, 2009
Bob Johnson

Farmers looking for profitable opportunities can still find expanding markets for a wide range of organic crops, meat and dairy products.

But one common denominator is that regardless of the crop, good organic production starts with good dirt.

Lee Altier, agriculture professor at CSU Chico, checks on organic tomatoes that are among the vegetable crops grown by students at the university's organic farm.

"Test your soil first; then add the nitrogen and organic matter that you need," urged Cindy Daley, California State University, Chico, professor of agriculture.

Daley oversees the organic dairy on the Chico campus, and she said the quality of the ground is the key to the success of the dairy.

"In the business of organic dairy production it's all about soil quality," she said. "Healthy soils make for healthy grass, which makes for healthy cows. And healthy cows produce nutritious milk."

Daley was among the producers who offered a few tips to the Sacramento Valley farmers who came to the all-day "Going Organic" program at the Chico campus.

Carl Rosato, owner of Woodleaf Farms near Oroville, discussed growing and direct marketing premium organic peaches and other tree fruit. Richvale rice farmer Bryce Lundberg of Lundberg Farms and Chico almond grower Ben Bertagna of Bertagna Orchards discussed the organic operations that grew out of family traditions of sustainable farming practices dating back to the Depression of the 1930s.

Chico State professor of agriculture Lee Altier gave a tour of the heirloom tomatoes and sweet peppers on the fledgling organic vegetable farm, started in 2008 on a few acres of certified organic ground on the campus farm.

While the vegetable farm is largely a teaching and research facility, Altier hopes to persuade the campus food service program to pay a modest premium for the harvest.

California Certified Organic Farmers started the "Going Organic" project in 2003 to provide some hands-on advice for farmers who are thinking of converting some or all of their land to organic production. The project has held numerous educational workshops like the event held on the Chico campus. The project has also sponsored reports identifying the market opportunities in organics.

University of California, Davis, staff research associate Sonja Brot and UC Cooperative Extension specialist Karen Klonsky presented marketing reports showing that demand remains very strong for organic almonds, hay and winegrapes. The researchers interviewed eight organic almond operations, ranging from a small grower with 12 organic acres to a grower-packer who handles nearly 3 million pounds of organic nuts a year.

All of them found that demand for organic almonds is still strong, from the local farmers markets to the international markets, Brot said.

"The overall consensus within the sample was that the organic almond market is currently characterized by strong consumer demand and a small supply base relative to demand," Brot said.

The study also concluded that the demand for organic winegrapes continues to grow, and the demand for organic hay outpaces supply in many areas of the state.

The heart of "Going Organic" is establishing mentor relationships between farmers trying to go organic and experienced organic farmers in their area.

"You have to have the time and desire to market your product or it's not worth it," advised Wayne Langston, a partner in Panorama Grass Fed Beef. Panorama Grass Fed Beef markets 2,500 organic grass-fed cattle a year, and an additional 2,500 all natural grass-fed cattle.

Panorama was formed by a group of ranchers who said they weren't getting enough economic return for their livestock going through the usual marketing and distribution channels. But he cautioned farmers at the conference that direct marketing is a lot of work, and it may not be the kind of work farmers want.

Panorama, for example, asks the producers to participate in tastings with buyers and to help educate the customers. It is essential, for example, that customers be taught that grass-fed beef cooks 30 percent faster because it is much lower in saturated fat, he said.

But before there is an organic product to market, the soil must be conditioned and reconditioned, said Lau Ackerman, Chico State farm manager. He said he was surprised to find how far cover crops could go in improving soil quality.

"The biggest issue we ran into was soil fertility," he said. "Cover crops did a lot of good, and they did it pretty quickly. The cover crops increased fertility and they also visibly improved the water-holding capacity of the soil."

Ackerman suggested that during the process of building healthier soil it might be wise to invest in more than the standard number of lab tests of the soil.

"Even though we put down on our plans to do one soil test a year, two a year would help until one gets to know the soil," Ackerman said.

Chico State has converted 45 acres of pasture and an additional 40 acres of feed and other cropland to organic production.

The dairy grows a combination of rye and other cool season grasses, and Bermuda grass and other warm season grasses.

"The cow was designed for eating grass," Daley said. "The more forages I can get into my cows the better my bottom line. And by growing a diversity of forages we can extend the season. Balance your grasses and figure out how many paddocks of each you need."

Studies have shown that milk from grass-fed cows is high in nutrients like Omega 3, vitamin A and vitamin E.

Daley said grass fed cows also have fewer health problems.

"We have cut our veterinary bill by 75 percent," Daley said.

The University of New Hampshire has the only other university-based organic dairy in the country and it, too, has herd health numbers that are much better than the national average.

(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Magalia. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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