Dick Peixoto starts his mornings at 4 a.m. with a stroll around his Watsonville farm Lakeside Organic Gardens, mingling with the harvesters, talking about daily tasks and keeping an eye out for any yellow-tinted leaves that can be signs of plant disease. One look at Peixoto’s 1,500 acres may suggest large-scale conventional farming, but the farm is family owned and 100 percent organic.
Santa Cruz’s lush green landscapes and moderate coastal weather make it an ideal place for farming, and it’s hard to set foot into a grocery store or restaurant without hearing the o-word.
Organic agriculture sales in the United States have increased by 72 percent since 2008, according to a 2014 survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Santa Cruz is among the country’s leaders in organic farming. The congressional district encompassing the upper Central Coast region, including Monterey, Salinas and Santa Cruz, has the fifth-highest amount of organic farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors and retailers in the country, according to the Organic Trade Association.
“Santa Cruz has been a leader in [organic agriculture], but it’s also a national trend,” said Brise Tencer, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “The consumer demand is growing faster than the farmers can keep up.”
It all began in 1973, when former Santa Cruz resident Barney Bricmont founded the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organization with 54 grower members to standardize the term “organic.” Now a nationally-recognized organic certifier, CCOF was 24 years ahead of the federal government in defining what constituted organic produce. Since then, Santa Cruz has continued to be a hub for organic, sustainable farming.
Peixoto said his business’s demand really began to take off in 2007.
“A lot of that comes from people’s philosophies changing,” he said. “There’s a whole generation now that wants to know where their food comes from. They’re fearful of Monsanto and GMOs [genetically modified organisms].”
Peixoto said his entirely organic farming business, which supplies both local and chain grocery stores like Staff of Life, Shopper’s Corner, Whole Foods and Safeway, is currently growing at a rate of 21 percent, while conventional farms are having little if any growth.
While Peixoto’s farm Lakeside Organic Gardens covers 1,500 acres, the average Santa Cruz County farm only covers 70 acres.
Smaller farms, like many that sell their produce at the Santa Cruz farmers markets, have a great deal of support from the community, said Nesh Dhillon, director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets. However, as more grocery stores sell organic products, farmers market vendors are having a more difficult time selling theirs.
“There [are] a lot of grocery stores out there and a lot of other options,” Dhillon said. “People are convenience-oriented.”
Although organic products found in farmers’ markets are often more expensive than those found in grocery stores, Dhillon
said the quality of production on a small-scale farm is much higher — thus more expensive — because farmers are paying
more attention to detail, like perfecting the compost recipe that yields better crops for their specific plot of land.
Some critics claim organic agriculture has much lower yields than those of conventional farming and that organic products are not significantly healthier than regular products.
However, Brise Tencer from the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) believes the yield gap is “a misleading message.” There’s a long history of research that has optimized conventional agriculture’s high yields, and she said the organic sector simply hasn’t had a chance to catch up yet.
“We’re still under-investing in organic systems,” Tencer said. “I am totally confident that we can keep bringing that gap closer.”
A 2014 study by UC Berkeley researchers found that the yield gap, currently at 19.2 percent, is smaller than it has ever been. With the proper investment in research, organic farmers can “greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap for some crops or regions,” according to the report.
This summer, the OFRF will release the National Organic Research Agenda, which will give policymakers a better idea on how to prioritize investments, time and energy to help improve the organic sector.
Whether organic produce is healthier than conventional produce is up for debate, but Tencer and Dick Peixoto agree that since organic agriculture abstains from using synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals, there’s no question it’s better for environmental health in the long run.
“The best part of [farming organically] is working with Mother Nature instead of fighting against her,” Peixoto said.