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Farm Futures 

Local growers debate the new National Organic Program and hope there's a place for them at the table.

Lester L'Hoste tromps through the tall, fallen grasses of his Braithwaite citrus grove with rubber boots on his feet, a knife in one hand and his eyes on the fruit. He passes up a tree of pale Louisiana sweets and then reaches deep into the heavy branches of another tree to yank on a navel orange that looks just ripe enough to eat. It's one of the season's first and, as big as a grapefruit, it weighs 3/4 lb. "You'd never think that was organic," he says as he cuts out a wedge, hands it to his friend Javier Guerrero, and wonders aloud, "Is it good enough to sell?"

This is a regular routine for L'Hoste and Guerrero, two of three certified organic citrus farmers in the state -- and two of the 25 certified organic growers in all of Louisiana. While Guerrero maintains 300 trees on his nearby farm, L'Hoste has a brood of 2,000 -- stimulating endless conversations about rootstocks, grafting, hurricane damage and wild boar tracks. They taste the fruit together constantly during harvesting season. "You gotta taste it," L'Hoste says. "One from every tree."

The two men took different paths to farming. Guerrero grew up in a family of south Texas migrant workers; L'Hoste started gardening as a boy, digging up the dirt of his family's south Louisiana backyard. The two met in the late 1980s. "We both pretty well have the same ideals, the same morals. We try different things and share all our little doings," L'Hoste says.

The ideals of organic farming became a major topic of conversation this year, when the federal government's National Organic Program (NOP) went into effect on Oct. 21, mandating that no product may be sold under the name "organic" if it hasn't been federally certified. Yet the practice of organic farming dates back to ancient times, long before non-organic farming. Widespread pesticide use has only been the norm since the 1940s.

In 1962, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist fighting terminal cancer, helped launch the modern American organic movement when she published Silent Spring, a book about the misuse of pesticides in industrial agriculture. Later that decade, activist Cesar Chavez fought against hazardous pesticide application practices. By the early 1970s, coalitions of organic farmers were forming throughout the country, and California approved the first state organic standards certification program in 1979.

In the 1970s, organic farming was seen by advocates as just one of several practices necessary for sustainable farming, which also included conserving resources, using environmentally friendly techniques, and using only natural materials when possible. Sustainable farmers integrated themselves into communities by selling locally. Chemicals were taboo; nurturing the soil was everything. Maintaining economic viability for the long haul would insure the survival of the movement.

Today, sustainable farming remains far from the norm in American agriculture. But organic farming is the weed of the food industry, growing at a rate of about 20 percent while every other sector barely creeps along. Pillsbury makes organic flour, Tyson Foods has organic chickens, Dole Food Co. grows organic bananas in Ecuador and Honduras. Around New Orleans, major supermarket chains have bolstered stocks of organic products over the past month and a half, some carrying certified organic products for the first time ever. "Lots of customers call and request organic products," says Michael Johnson, produce manager at the newly opened Albertson's on Tulane Avenue.

Yet as more and more consumers discover organic foods, some in the movement fear that the ideals of sustainable farming will be abandoned, leaving behind small farmers like L'Hoste.

The recently adopted NOP standards represent the federal government's attempt to apply a standard definition to the word "organic" -- a definition that was sorely needed, say consumers and farmers. By the 1990s, unrelated state certifying agencies and private certifying companies across the country were slapping seals of organic certification on foods and products without answering to anyone but themselves. The average shopper buying an organic apple could only assume that the fruit had been grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. But how could anyone be sure?

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, part of the 1990 Farm Bill, established the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) -- a rotating group of farmers, handlers, scientists, producers, retailers, certifiers and consumers -- that now guides the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and helps maintain the National List, which catalogues approved and prohibited substances for organic farming. This system of checks and balances seems to be working. In 1997, against the NOSB's recommendations, the USDA issued a proposal that allowed the use of genetic engineering, sewage sludge and irradiation in organic practices. When the NOSB and more than 275,000 farmers and consumers complained, the USDA recanted and reworked the standards. It was the strongest public response to a food issue in the nation's history.

But not all organic farmers are thrilled with NOP. Skeptics say that the program requires so much paperwork that a certified organic farmer no longer has time to farm. In some states, the certification expenses are prohibitive for small farmers who might already struggle with extra labor costs and lesser yields.

Under the new organic rule, Javier Guerrero says, he had to give up the chickens that formerly roamed his orchards, eating bugs and producing farm-fresh eggs before being butchered and marketed as free-range poultry. Under NOP composting requirements, fresh manure is not allowed in the orchards within 120 days of harvest, and Guerrero couldn't bear to fence the chickens in for half the year. "They kept my grass down, they kept my bugs down, so it was a labor-saving device for me," he says. With L'Hoste, he is now looking for another animal with a shorter maturation period that could serve the same purpose.

"We like the program, though we think that it's not a perfect program," says Kyle Moppert, who has coordinated the state's Organic Certification Program at the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF) since the state adopted a set of organic standards in 1994. "There's a lot of room for improvement and NOP understands that."

Under the new rule, the federal government actually certifies smaller certifiers, like Moppert's department, which in turn award organic certification status to farmers and producers. Moppert notes that Louisiana's soon-to-be obsolete state rules are actually stricter in certain aspects than the NOP. For example, the NOP doesn't require soil samples, which test for pesticides and other unapproved residues in the soil, before organic certification is granted. Under the NOP, farms are inspected and vegetative samples (like an apple or a head of lettuce) are tested for organic compliance, but soil samples are only taken and tested if a farmer's organic practices become suspect later on. This doesn't sit well with some organics advocates like Moppert. "We have found highly contaminated soils [during initial sampling] that the landowners usually knew nothing about," he says. Endemic arsenic and chlordane, left over from termite extermination, were among the contaminants.

"As a farmer I know what's out there, but I don't think the general public has been educated on the severity of some of the chemicals," L'Hoste says. "When we (farmers) see a chemical being pulled off of the market, most people don't see that. They were pulled off for a reason, because they were either carcinogens or produced some type of ill effect in people."

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates the use of pesticides and is in the process of upgrading pesticide safety standards to comply with the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. Several highly toxic pesticides have been banned or restricted under the law, but skeptics point out that substances like DDT, chlordane and dursban were safe according to the EPA right up to the day that the agency banned them. An additional concern: even the most rigorous application of the 1996 law doesn't offer protection from the combined effect of multiple pesticides.

Moppert guesses that the federal government's reluctance to require soil testing is due to the costs, billed to farmers, which run up to $500 when conducted through private companies. Soil tests cost just $80 when conducted through the Louisiana state agrichemist, and if Moppert and his department manage to continue as the only certifying agent in Louisiana, the entire certification process will remain affordable: $155 to certify a 15-acre farm, including a soil test, and a $50 annual renewal fee.

But if Louisiana-certified organic farmers are relieved of financial pressures, they still have to manage the paperwork -- and they still have to live with the additional economic risks of organic farming. Pesticides were developed for a reason: to curb crop damage caused by bugs and other pests. It's a task that farmers agree is particularly difficult in the Deep South -- and virtually impossible with some crops. Louisiana organic farmers need to be particularly rigorous in using predator insects, planting repellent and trap crops, and using approved pesticides.

Owusu Bandele is out to show local farmers that it's possible to go organic and turn a profit. Bandele is a professor of agriculture at Louisiana Southern University and is in his third year of a five-year term on the NOSB. He says he started his own organic farm to demonstrate, primarily to African-American, limited-resource farmers in the area that it can be done.

"There are a lot of folks who probably still believe that you really can't do it because of the increased insect and disease pressures, but I think one of the main reasons is that you don't really see a lot of models around here of successful operations," he says.

Tom and Sue Ann Dana own one of those models. The Danas live on the agricultural fringe by most standards: they are veganic farmers in Mississippi who farm organically without using the animal products -- such as blood meal, bone meal, manure and fish emulsion -- permissible under certified organic standards. The Danas also belong to a minute group of Southern organic growers for whom farm profits provide the sole source of income; the couple has stayed solvent for 26 years and put their daughter through college on farm profits.

"I manage the thing very carefully," Sue Ann says. "My husband complains about my prices, but if we're going to make this thing go, we've got to pay our bills."

"In the long run, if you count the labor you put into it, it comes out cheaper to be a chemical farmer," admits Lester L'Hoste. Both L'Hoste and Guerrero have full-time jobs away from the orchards, with Chevron and ExxonMobil, respectively. "Otherwise we wouldn't do it," L'Hoste says. "It's too risky because there's a chance you might not produce. Insects or something might get the best of you."

L'Hoste and Guerrero both say they converted from conventional to organic farming in part because they were tired of spending money on chemicals. And both men say they're discouraged by the lack of resources available to organic farmers in Louisiana, complaining that state-run farm shows offer spray schedules rather than composting tips.

Moppert confirms that the state-run research stations are "doing very little work with organics per se. ... The problem is that a lot of the funds come through research grants, and those come largely from pesticide companies."

Last year, following the collapse of his telecommunications engineering company, Doug Thorburn turned to organic farming as his primary source of income. "Nobody in their right minds would invest money [in a farm]," he says. "We're blessed; we inherited the farm. But somebody had to pay to build the barns, build the houses, the equipment, and I barely break even just maintaining and buying new equipment when it wears out."

Thorburn worked on his berry crop for a decade until he began experimenting with organic methods. Now, Thorburn abides by every rule of organic farming and calls his aggressive techniques going "beyond organic." He uses "proactive" farming techniques, nurturing the leaves and the fruit itself as well as the soil, in order to get his plants the nutrients they need. The result is a blueberry with the sugar content of fresh sugarcane: pure gold in June.

He admits he hasn't had such success with other experimental crops -- and if conditions aren't conducive to producing the best possible flavor in a certain plant he won't grow it, organic or not.

"I don't want to get into all the hype about organics and then not have something taste very good. That's where we're missing the point: just because it's organic doesn't mean it's going to taste good." And if it doesn't taste good, he says, it doesn't pay the bills.

Critics point out that the federal organic certification doesn't guarantee that an apple hasn't traveled across the country in an 18-wheeler that spews exhaust, drips oil and throws swathes of tire tread all along the way. Which is to say nothing about the extra pollutants involved in importing organic bananas from Ecuador or organic lamb from New Zealand -- realities that cause some organic proponents to worry that the new organic movement might actually be harmful to the environment.

In his new book, Coming Home To Eat, Gary Paul Nabhan chronicles the year he spent trying to eat only what he could procure within 200 miles of his home. He writes that most modern Americans obtain nine-tenths of their food from non-local sources, leaving shippers, processors, packagers, retailers and advertisers with more food income than farmers, fishermen and ranchers. Eating seasonally and buying locally may have been part of the original organic/sustainable farming philosophy, but the separation between consumer and food source is not addressed through the NOP.

Whole Foods Market and the business of organics have grown side-by-side since the first Whole Foods store opened in 1980 in Austin, Texas. Today, Whole Foods is the leading retailer of organic products in the world. This week, New Orleans' second Whole Foods Market is opening, following a controversial $15 million renovation of Uptown's century-old Arabella bus barn on Magazine Street. At 21,000 square feet, the new location is significantly smaller than the company's original proposal, but it's still five times the size of the store's Esplanade Avenue location, which will remain open.

Spokesperson Nona Evans emphasizes that the company supports NOP, which comes as no surprise: Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods' vice president for governmental and public relations, sat on the NOSB for one term and helped shape the new organic rules. And walking through a Whole Foods Market, it's evident that the company is serious about following the NOP. Every employee ("team member") has undergone at least two hours of training on the new standards. Organic and conventionally grown produce must not co-mingle, for example, so employees are trained in storing and displaying produce to avoid cross-contamination. The company refers to such measures as "maintaining organic integrity."

"What [NOP] means to us and to our consumer is that there is a new level of confidence in what organic means," says Evans.

At Whole Foods, products are labelled according to the new standards. Those made with 100 percent organic ingredients get a "100 percent Organic" label; products made with 95 percent organic ingredients are labeled "Organic"; and products containing between 70 and 95 percent organic ingredients are labeled "Made With Organic ..." and may list up to three organic ingredients or food groups. Produce labels disclose where, and by which method, each product was grown.

Currently, 54 percent of Whole Foods' produce sold is certified organic. The company considers organic certification a top priority -- but not more important than freshness and taste. Cost also factors in. The market for organics is growing, but it's still not a cheap way to shop.

As for locally grown produce, a scan through the Esplanade Avenue Whole Foods two weeks ago turned up two locally grown products: a selection of Farmer Fred's organic herbs and organic satsumas, both from Braithwaite farmer Fred Schwartz, who has been selling to the local Whole Foods since it opened under private ownership in 1974 (the company purchased it in 1988).

"Right now Fred's pretty much it," says produce manager Eric Morrow, who has bought Creole tomatoes, strawberries and yams from Louisiana growers in the past but says that the new organic rule requires produce to be processed through the regional distributor in Texas. "The organic stuff ... they definitely have to go through the distributor so we can have all that paperwork on file."

Evans says that each Whole Foods store tries to buy directly from area farmers and manufacturers, and expects that the Magazine Street store will offer more local products in its larger inventory.

According to the Agricultural Statistic office in Baton Rouge, there are 29,000 farms in Louisiana; 18,000 of them are small farms that generate less than $10,000 in economic sales per year. Where are these farmers selling? "Whatever is available locally I'll buy," says Eddie Vicknair, produce manager for the locally owned Dorignac's in Metairie, which is the area's leading retailer of Louisiana-grown produce. During peak growing seasons, local produce comprises 25 percent of Dorignac's stock; at the moment it's at about 15 percent. Vicknair estimates that the average Dorignac's shopper is 65 years old -- "and older people want the local stuff."

They don't, however, want organics, which he tried without success to sell in the 1990s when he was the buyer for 65 stores that fell under the Schwegmann's-National Tea Co. merger.

Richard McCarthy, co-founder and executive director of the Crescent City Farmers Market, calls himself "a deep-green individual." He says that the newfound popularity of organics creates a healthy buzz about the benefits of eating fresh, safely grown and healthy foods, but he fears that small local farmers are being forgotten along the way.

"'Organic' used to tell me it came from a mom-and-pop farmer; now it could be from any McFarm anywhere that happens to be organic but isn't necessarily sustainable," he says. "What's missing is the social component."

The Crescent City Farmers Markets are not hotbeds for certified organic produce -- L'Hoste and Thorburn are the only organic-compliant growers currently selling at the New Orleans markets. The marketplace does, however, bring consumers closer to the source of their dinners. Like L'Hoste's satsumas, most everything sold at the markets is harvested either that morning or the day before.

Jim Core and his wife live as much as possible off the Folsom land his father and grandfather farmed before him. He spends one weekend every year splitting fallen branches and tree limbs collected from his neighborhood to stoke the wood-burning stove that heats his greenhouse through the winter. He owns a tractor, but he's much more relaxed using the horse and plow. He grows 10 to 12 crops at a time year-round, keeping a mental log of what he planted where in order to keep his crops in constant rotation, and his chickens roam free all day long, producing farm-fresh eggs.

Core professes the ideals of sustainable, organic farming, but he's not certified organic and never will be. He says the extra labor entailed would mean that he could no longer do everything himself (he only has help on harvest days and at the markets). At 62, he says he's too old to change. Plus, he uses synthetic fertilizers and would rather spray a crop than lose it to army worms.

Core finds his niche at the farmers' markets, where he says he makes a decent living. "You can make some serious money doing it on a small scale and having a variety," he says, standing over rows of heirloom kohlrabi, romaine and French lettuce, and pulling a can of Skoal from his back pocket.

Through the markets, Core has forged relationships with local chefs such as Anne Kearney, John Besh and the late Jamie Shannon. Yet he refuses the opportunity to sell his entire produce supply to restaurants. "I've generated some relationships and friendships down there [at the market], I'd say, for the last seven years, and I'd miss seeing those people," he says. "I chit-chat with them, holler at them, and I enjoy that."

Core realized the value of these relationships last year, after a tractor injury severely damaged his foot. Core incurred $72,000 in medical bills and, typical of small farmers, had no health insurance. Within a few weeks, the farmers' market communities in New Orleans and Covington raised $18,000 in aid. Some shoppers volunteered to harvest crops, and a state representative helped Core, a Vietnam veteran, cash in on veteran benefits.

The chit-chatting Core enjoys is known in the trade as "direct marketing." Local farmers at the markets say they enjoy standing behind their products -- literally -- and they enjoy selling without a middleman. An economic impact study revealed that 29 percent of Crescent City Farmers Market vendors didn't have businesses at all before the marketplace existed. And farmers who sell directly to the consumer seem to value nothing as much as hawking a product they pulled from the soil or off the tree yesterday.

"Look, that stuff (in supermarkets) is seven to 10 days old when they get it. It's lost its cake, the goodies are gone," Core proclaims. "Like I tell my people on Saturday, they ask 'How fresh is this?' and I say it was still in the dirt yesterday."

Through direct marketing, Core also can assure shoppers of his farming methods. "I put it to the people like this: 'I'm not going to poison you because I'm eating out of the same field, and surely I'm not going to poison myself,'" he says.

It costs more to buy from farmers' markets and the organic sections of local supermarkets. If consumers shop by price alone, conventionally grown produce is still the cheapest deal in town.

But as awareness of organics increases among consumers and farmers, what's next? Jim Core's analysis of the current agricultural situation reflects all the hope of a man who scouts three weather channels every day of the year, and a farmer whose livelihood hangs in the balance.

"There's a food chain that's got to be maintained," Core says. "If we're going to be dependent on California and the Midwest to feed us, we're in a sad way, and we're going to miss out on a lot because we can grow a lot of things that they can't. If they got a coalition of organic farmers within the area where what you bought today was harvested yesterday, that would be a win-win."

Until that day, local organic farmers say they'll stay their course. In Lester L'Hoste's garage in Braithwaite, a noisy machine of spinning metal rollers spins and bounces sun-ripened satsumas like orange rubber balls until, clean and glossy, they roll to the sorting counter. There was a day when organic produce was not known for its eye appeal, but with modern advances and competition, only the best will sell. L'Hoste picks through his harvest, discarding the fruit damaged by rust mites. The best-looking satsumas get packed into orange mesh bags to be sold within 24 hours at the farmers' market.

Over the course of conversation on this brilliant Friday afternoon, a family of home-schooled children L'Hoste has hired to help with harvesting enters the garage. They return their rubber boots and say goodbye. A neighbor's dog wanders in and Guerrero's broad-shouldered son arrives in Army fatigues to receive the day's list of chores. He knew he would find his father here, chatting with L'Hoste.

L'Hoste currently produces around 10 citrus varieties: satsumas, navels, two types of grapefruit, mandarins, tangerines, tangelos, sweet and sour kumquats, lemons and limes. Both he and Guerrero are looking to experiment with mangos, figs and avocados, and L'Hoste has his eye on future fish farming.

The reason for the continued good health of his farm? "Because of the way that we farm the soil," L'Hoste says simply, "we produce a better product."

click to enlarge In Lester L'Hoste's garage in Braithwaite, freshly cleaned satsumas roll to the sorting counter. Organic produce once was not known for its eye appeal, but today only the best will sell.
  • In Lester L'Hoste's garage in Braithwaite, freshly cleaned satsumas roll to the sorting counter. Organic produce once was not known for its eye appeal, but today only the best will sell.
click to enlarge cover_story-5199.jpeg
click to enlarge Jim Core isn't certified organic and says he never will be. 'I put it to the people like this: "I'm not going to poison you because I'm eating out of the same field, and surely I'm not going to poison myself,"' he says.
  • Jim Core isn't certified organic and says he never will be. 'I put it to the people like this: "I'm not going to poison you because I'm eating out of the same field, and surely I'm not going to poison myself,"' he says.
click to enlarge As more and more consumers discover organic foods, some in the movement fear that small farmers like Lester L'Hoste will be left behind.
  • As more and more consumers discover organic foods, some in the movement fear that small farmers like Lester L'Hoste will be left behind.
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