Berries — including blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries — present a unique challenge to growers of organic crops. They all go through at least one rotation as non-fruiting nursery plants, and during that stage are fumigated with chemicals including methyl bromide, a soil sterilizer and pesticide known to be depleting the ozone layer.
The state pumps out crates of the berries by the millions, shipping them across the country and internationally. It also produces the majority of the world’s strawberry nursery plants.
What it lacks is a single organic nursery.
National regulations require that organic produce be grown for three years without synthetic pesticides. Strawberries in California are grown over a five-year cycle, often starting as nursery plants in the fields of Southern California before being transplanted to the sandy soils of Northern California.
Before they begin bearing fruit, virtually all plants — whether they will go on to produce conventional berries or organic ones — are treated with fumigants and other synthetic pesticides.
The National Organic Program is in the process of reviewing its standards for seeds and planting stock. The standards have not been updated since they were created in 2002, and they allow conventional stock to be used wherever organic stock is not “commercially available.”
The loophole has been a personal source of bitterness for Rickert. From 2005 to 2009, he was the state’s first and only commercial grower of organic nursery plants, before being driven out of the business in 2010 because too few fruit growers were willing to buy from him.
Rickert, 31, said that he was “extremely frustrated” by the experience — and that consumers should be, too.
“The reality is that a lot of the organic growers want nothing to do with organic plants” because it scares them, said Rickert, who has since gone back to herding organically fed cattle at his ranch in Butte Valley.
Rickert and his supporters, Cochran and Larry Jacobs of Del Cabo Farms, argue in their letter to the Department of Agriculture that the National Organic Program should institute new regulations that offer an incentive for growers like Vasquez to buy organic stock — or, better yet, create a federal mandate that would require them to do so.
“Organic Strawberries? Not So Much” by Rachel Gross, The Bay Citizen, Sept. 22, 2011.