Kelly Damewood rose to the position of CEO of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) just as the nonprofit organization released a report calling for the state to more than double its organic acreage over the next decade. A year later, CCOF is set to release its policy recommendations for meeting that goal.
Before taking the reins, Damewood served as CCOF policy director for two years, her first career move after completing law school.
She spoke with Agri-Pulse recently about how organic is influencing conventional farming practices as well as the governor’s policy priorities.
1. What is your perspective on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration?
His recent proposed budget had some exciting funding opportunities that could serve the organic community. It seems like his administration is committed to continuing to invest in climate-smart agriculture programs and that would include the Healthy Soils and water efficiency programs.
Through the Healthy Soils Program, we are looking to find funding to help farmers develop organic systems plans, which is the first step to transitioning to organic production.
It’s also exciting to see proposals moving forward on bringing organic food into school lunches in California. We’ve been working with coalition partners and allies to find the means for schools to source more organic foods.
There's this exciting notion where people are moving beyond the traditional term of a healthy diet and not just defining healthy diet by nutritional quality and quantity of food, but also looking at how the food made it to the plate. This includes making sure a healthy diet is a diet that results in a food system that conserves natural resources, advances social justice, protects animal welfare, builds community wealth and sustains food well into the feature.
This more holistic concept of a healthy diet seems to be in play with healthcare institutions, which are making commitments to purchase more organic food. They recognize they have a big role to play in making sure their communities have access to healthy food and the food is grown in a way that protects their community’s health.
2. Is there a middle ground in working with farmers on organic practices without the certification?
I'm seeing an exciting trend where long-established organic practices, like cover crops and crop rotations, are more widely adopted by a wide variety of farmers. Practices that build soil health are good practices.
The more resources and discussions we have, as well as training, technical assistance and funding we can provide to help farmers build soil health and bring biodiversity back to their farms, the better off our food system is.
It's a three-year transition period to go from land that’s been farmed conventionally to organic. We do have a program to work with farmers through those years to make sure they’re in compliance and at the end they’re ready to go. Sometimes we see people in that period who think they're in compliance and there may be one thing that's off and it's a no-go. The program has been helpful for that.
3. What are you eyeing this year for the Legislature?
We're about to wrap up the second installment of a two-part project called A Roadmap to an Organic California. We set a goal to double the amount of land farmed organically by 2030. We hope to far surpass that goal.
We have pulled together the resources to make the case of the benefits of organic agriculture to California. In February at our annual meeting and conference, we will be releasing our policy report, which has almost 40 different policy recommendations to advance organic agriculture in the state of California. We will be taking that to the capital on February 19 with our farmer members, food manufacturers, retailers – all our partners. That's our agenda for the next 10 years.
We're ready to put organic front and center and think about what the organics agenda is and what we need to accomplish moving forward.
If I had to pinpoint two key themes that we’d like to see policymakers think about with organic, it would be climate resilience and health equity.
We want to make sure that when our policymakers are talking about climate change and solutions, we want organic to be a part of that conversation and one of the first things that comes to mind.
4. How did that project coalesce?
We started this effort a few years ago, when we felt like we were constantly responding to other initiatives or other agendas. Organic has come a long way from its modest, humble, grassroots origins here in California to now being a prominent sector of our California economy. It felt like it was time to figure out what the next era of organic looks like.
Organic is still stuck at less than 4% of California agricultural lands, and we’re less than 1% of ag in the United States. Yet (California is) the largest producer of organic products.
How do we move the needle in getting more farmland into organic, because it has so many social, economic and environmental benefits?
We broke it into two pieces. First, we really needed to get clear on the science and make the clear case for going organic. That was our Benefits Report.
Then we launched the policy planning section. We did a lot of outreach to put together those policy recommendations. We hosted stakeholder meetings with representatives from the California Farm Bureau, from CDFA, social justice – a whole diversity of people.
The final result is comprehensive. CCOF won't be able to do it alone and some policies we may not be able to spearhead. But we wanted an organic agenda for any of our partners or policymakers to be able to pick up and feel confident in running behind.
Part of our policy recommendation is to recognize you can't just increase the supply of organic agriculture. We have to continue to maintain demand and grow demand so that there is a market and we keep organic farmers whole. That's an important piece of the puzzle.
5. What other details can you share about the upcoming report?
The health equity piece is such an important piece. Too often we're focused on fresh produce, while the most vulnerable populations need the best food possible – that statement I've heard a lot among our partners, and that resonates with me.
Right now, certain organic products aren’t eligible for WIC (food stamps for women and children), and that seems like a real disconnect. The state could change that.
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