In January 2020, California Organic CEO Kelly Damewood outlined her organization’s plans to push for more organic acres in California and offered her take on Gov. Gavin Newsom. A pandemic and two legislative sessions later, organic demand is high and more farmers are looking into making the transition. We caught up with her again.
During the pandemic, demand for organic produce increased pretty dramatically. What does that look like for California and what has that meant for you as a certifier and an organic advocacy organization?
Last year, consumers tried new products for the first time and may have picked up an organic product that they wouldn't have picked up before. We definitely saw the increase in demand for foods across all categories. We've been seeing record new applicants (for organic certification) this year. We're definitely seeing people who may have been holding off, or busy with other projects, coming back into the organic certification (process) or coming (to California Organic) from a different certifier. Or it could be a first-time organic producer. In 2014, 2015, 2016 we saw a lot of increased acreage in organic from existing members, but what we tend to see now is really new companies coming into organic or new producers coming into organic altogether, rather than just existing clients expanding production.
We've seen a lot of growth in Mexico over the last few years. There's been an increased demand from retailers for year-round organic supply to meet consumer demand. You see Mexico-based producers transitioning to organic, which is exciting — seeing them focusing on soil health and biodiversity and bringing their skill sets to the organic community.
State data shows that 10% of California farmland is farmed organically now. Our goal is 30% by 2030. We have a comprehensive Roadmap to an Organic California.
You last sat down with Agri-Pulse in January 2020 and talked about that Roadmap. Could you give an update on how those priorities are doing?
I feel like we're doing really well. At last count we had about 16 of the recommendations in play in some way. One of the really amazing outcomes is a really strong coalition focus. We've been working with agricultural groups, environmental groups, social justice groups and (we’ve been) able to come together around common goals. It's been exciting to see the word “organic” actually starting to show up in draft legislation. I heard at the Organic Trade Association’s annual meeting, Secretary Vilsack actually announced efforts to build out funding for organic transition at the U.S. federal level.
At the state level, there's been a coalition working to bring more fresh produce to schools in general but also organically grown produce. At the restaurant level, there seems to be more interest from restauranteurs in organic and using their platforms to educate the public about organic and what's valuable about it.
Our members are most excited about regional livestock infrastructure. Small, regional organic livestock producers, even though they're raising their livestock as organic, (often) can't sell their product as organic because there's not enough organic processing. That is holding us back from seeing growth in organic and, of course, rangeland — we want to see that go organic too, and I think that can really make a dent in our percentage goals. We have a bill moving right now that would take a small bite at trying to improve some of that infrastructure. A reason I think there is interest at the state level for this is increasingly understanding the climate benefits of grazing and the wildfire mitigation benefits. It all intertwines.
Have increased regulations for conventional agriculture been a driver for some of the interest in transitioning to organic?
What I have heard from mixed operations folks who do organic and conventional, or folks who may be newer to the organic space, is that transitioning to organic really challenged them as farmers and taught them to be better farmers. Now they're using organic soil building practices on their conventional land, too. I don't know if increased regulation is motivating them to transition.
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In that scenario, it sounds like they wouldn't have to do very much more in order to begin the transition process.
It’s specific case by case, but the learning curve’s not so steep, probably. One thing that's interesting is California is launching OCal, a certification for cannabis that is comparable to the national organic program. Pesticides are so heavily regulated in cannabis in California, you might think, is there a motivation for growers to distinguish themselves when they're already so regulated? But it seems like there is a lot of interest. Cannabis producers also want to distinguish themselves in the marketplace for how they're doing things differently because it's not just about inputs, it's biodiversity and soil health and all those good things.
When I talk to growers, a common theme is that labor is hard to find and expensive. Is that harder on organic growers?
In 2015, 2016, it's all I heard about. That's when the overtime law was passed and really sent people into a panic. Then, 2017 was a tough year for us. We saw a lot of folks leave organic, either retiring or going out of business. That rate of attrition hasn't been as aggressive over the last three years. It's definitely still a challenge and still an issue.
I know there's been a lot of national conversation about trying to reform some of the guest worker programs. I do think we've seen an increase across California, conventional and organic, of folks using guest worker programs. People have been challenging themselves to think about housing for farm labor. How do your employees afford to live in the Central Coast? My employees struggle to live in the Central Coast. People have been thinking about housing and competitive pay and benefits and really focusing on retaining talent maybe in a way that they haven't had a focus on before. Housing and transportation are two topics that there can be a lot of broad coalition support for, that people can get behind, so I hope we can see movement there.
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