It’s high noon on a sunny summer day, and I am leisurely wandering through row after row of heirloom tomatoes, trailed by greyhounds Ladybug and Poppy. Farmer Fred Hempel leads us through the plants, gesturing as he walks. The USDA-certified organic plot, called Baia Nicchia, is part of the Sunol Ag- Park in southern Alameda County, land owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and leased by SAGE, a nonprofit project that, in turn, rents land to farmers who introduce city dwellers to agriculture. Hempel, for instance, contributes to the program by giving educational tours of his farm to schoolchildren.
About half of the 7.5 acres are planted with gourmet tomatoes, while the rest contains summer and winter squash, peppers, and herbs. Hempel, who has farmed here for four years, employs two interns and a part-time professional crew of four that takes on nitty gritty work from trellising to harvesting. As we make our way through the vines, he pauses occasionally to pluck tomatoes and show them off, describing the varieties and their history.
“Here is our first ripened tomato in the field,” Hempel says, proudly displaying an heirloom from Italy. “It’s a Costoluto Genovese, named for its deep ribs. These are popular and they come on early.”
We amble on, checking out Pink Mortgage Lifters, Speckled Romans, and new this season: Green Days and Duros. Some are shaped like hearts, some like strawberries, and others are striped, ribbed, or streaked with color. Hempel takes a moment to recount the origin of flavorful but oddly named Pink Mortgage Lifters, telling the story of Radiator Charlie, an auto mechanic. He had no formal education or plant breeding experience but created this legendary tomato back in the 1940s by cross-breeding some of the largest tomatoes he could find, and selling the resulting plants for one dollar each. He was able to pay off the $6,000 mortgage on his house in a few years.
Hempel has a PhD in plant developmental biology and has bred many of the forty varieties on his farm. “Half are gourmet heirloom—the best seeds I could find—and half are varieties I bred,” he explains. “We have a lot of diversity, every color and shape. Lots with stripes because those are the ones that I’ve developed, and that’s what I breed for.” Hempel tells me the average average production for tomatoes grown organically in California is 25,000 pounds per acre. Last year he yielded
over 40,000 pounds. “This is really good soil,” he says with a smile.
Earlier today, Hempel toured these rows with a USDA organic certification agent, who visited the farm to renew his certification for another year. Hempel’s farm has been USDA-certified organic since July 2008, and he is required to undergo yearly inspections to assure he is adhering to the standards set in 2002 by the National Organic Program (NOP), when legislation required the USDA to develop national standards for organic products.
Hempel chatted with the certifying agent about his choice of fertilizer (rabbit manure); weed abatement (he plants his rows far enough apart to run the tractor through, which keeps most of the weeds in check); and his farming practices. “It involves looking around, chatting about the farm, looking at weeds, and talking about how you farm,” Hempel explains. “They can
spot red flags. They want to see the crew and get a sense of the work that goes on.” Hempel also must provide records. “If you begin using something new, you must document to show you’re not buying non-organic seeds,” he offers as an example.
If the agent discovers problems such as suspected soil contamination—samples can be taken for testing— gaps in record-keeping, or improper pest management, the farm could have its certification revoked until the issues are corrected.
It’s still a little early in the season; I haven’t hit peak harvest time, from mid-August until mid-September. “Peak flavor occurs when there is just a hint of green stripes,” Hempel explains as he examines one of his varieties. “We pick them early because they ripen just as well off vine as on. The whole Chez Panisse thing about eating only what you pick that day—it doesn’t work
with tomatoes. In fact, some tomatoes require that you let them sit for two to three days. If you eat them the same day, you’re actually eating an inferior product.”
We come across several tomatoes that have been half-noshed by gophers, and I inquire about Hempel’s chemical-free pest control. He gestures toward Poppy and Ladybug, and also adds, “Tomatoes don’t have many pests. The biggest risk is fungus, so you want them off the ground, and don’t over-water.” Over-watering also reduces taste. Hempel also explains that he rotates the squash and tomatoes yearly for good soil health. He spends the winter developing new varieties.
The USDA organic stamp is intended to show that foods adhere to strict quality standards and are grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Prior to national standards, organic certification was conducted by several organizations such as Oregon Tilth or California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), each with its own set of standards. As the organics
movement gained popularity, the USDA created a standardized certification process to eliminate confusion, prevent fraud, and ensure a level of adherence.
But NOP attracts critics galore, starting with the charge that while large producers of inorganic produce needn’t prove anything, organic farmers must pay to be certified and constantly prove their methods. Moreover, the regulatory certification is a potential barrier for small producers due to increased costs, paperwork, and bureaucracy.
I ask Hempel for more detail about the certification process. “It’s not without effort, but not overwhelmingly difficult or unreasonable,” Hempel replies. “Farming’s just hard in general,” he says. “My point of view is that it protects the term ‘organic’ from large enterprises that would throw the term around loosely if they weren’t required to certify.” Hempel thinks the process forces small farmers to plan ahead. “I don’t think the certification process is energy wasted, and as a consumer, I think it is a valuable protection.”
On his first application for certification, he filled out about a day’s worth of paperwork, and now he renews yearly, which involves time spent organizing his receipts and records and the couple hours touring his farm with the organic certifying agent. He’s been growing organically the entire time he’s had his plot, because one must practice organic methods for at least three years before the farm can be certified.
What are the benefits to being certified organic? “It’s different from what I originally thought,” he explains. “All the high-end chefs don’t give a damn. Consumers at the market don’t care about certification, as long as we said we were growing organic. But the larger stores care. My relationship with them changed immensely and immediately once I became certified. It’s more important to the commercial, traditional stores because it’s what they sell when they put up signs in the stores. Being organic matters if you want to sell through large markets.” Hempel sells to local restaurants, farmers’ markets, and grocery stores.
Some regard the USDA-certified organic stamp as a seal of diluted standards—and are determined to use their own set of standards. For instance, a group called the Mendocino Renegades wants to keep the government out of organics, so they created their own standards that are tougher than those developed by the USDA.
“The USDA was threatening to include sewage sludge and genetically modified organisms into organics at one point,” says Mendocino Renegades founder and committee member Els Cooperider. Sewage sludge is the thick slurry left behind in the sewage plant after wastewater has been treated, and it contains highly toxic materials such as industrial solvents and heavy metals that would be released in soil when used as fertilizer. “That didn’t pass, but it will constantly be a threat, so I decided it was time to turn away from this and do our own thing.” Cooperider owns the Ukiah Brew Pub, the country’s first certified organic restaurant, and she is heavily involved in food policy in Mendocino County. “We were really into local organics, and I suggested a project where we privately certify people who want to be organic,” she says. The program spread by word-of-mouth and now includes eighteen farms.
Founded in 2000, the Renegades are committed to promoting local organic and biodynamic farms, so they don’t certify outside the county—and their farmers can’t sell outside county lines. Their aim is to create an inexpensive, credible organics program for Mendocino County restaurants, stores, and consumers, and the founders structured the program to stay small and local. “We all work on a volunteer basis—no one is being paid,” says Cooperider. “We charge one to three hundred dollars to become certified instead of the four to five thousand [the government charges], so it’s very reasonable.”
The process works in a similar manner to the NOP, except that the initial application process is simpler. “It’s way easier to apply, even though our standards are much tougher than the USDA,” Cooperider explains. “The application is very short and user-friendly. Then our committee will do inspections, and these are done in pairs; that way, someone on the committee is always learning something. The USDA certifiers can’t give farmers advice or references. They’re supposed to go out and take notes for the certification and not be a resource. It’s the opposite with the Renegades––we go around looking at different farms and certifying and renewing,and we’ll give farmers ideas on how to improve soil and get a better crop.”
But is it legal? “We can’t say we’re organic,” says Cooperider. “We don’t care about that because we’re only trying to sell in the county, so those who know Mendocino Renegades know it’s organic, even though the USDA has decided to hijack that word.” There is a section in the produce department at the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-op specifically for Mendocino Renegade
produce, and it is labeled as such. “None of our products says they’re organic,” Cooperider says. “Our products say ‘certified Mendocino Renegades.’”
The Renegades’ model is working so well that farms from other counties have approached them for certification. “We told them we’re happy to help them set up their own Renegade group and get them forms and whatever they need,” she says. “Obviously our program is working, and it’s a rewarding thing to work on. We always have new applicants—it’s growing.”
I wonder aloud if our nationalized organics program can de-federalize and follow the Renegades’ model county by county. “It can, and I think it will, because the USDA organic certification is moving more and more towards big industrial farms,” Cooperider says. “One of the sad things you would see in inspecting big farms was going into the house to look at the paperwork and noticing that the farmer didn’t eat organic, or they don’t have a personal vegetable garden. They’re only into growing organic for the money. You don’t find that with the Renegades. They walk the talk and do everything organic.”
Back at Hempel’s farm, my tour is coming to an end as I stop at the picnic table by the chicken coop to check out the day’s multi-colored harvest. A huge crate is filled with yellow zucchini and a large, fluted, cream-colored summer squash with ten finger-like ribs that come to points at the end—a Yugoslavian Finger fruit. There’s a crate of Armenian cucumbers. The chickens are happily pecking at those gopher-noshed tomatoes.
Although he uses the more cumbersome USDA certification system, Hempel is certainly walking the organic talk—this is the first year out of the last four that he’ll make a profit, though he’s lowered the prices on his tomatoes this season due to the economic downturn. As I leave, Hempel runs after me, calling “Look at this!” He is beaming as he displays his first ripe Pink Mortgage Lifter, fresh from the vine.