Monterey County is the first California county to be registered as part of the new National Organic Program (NOP) establishing standards for certification of products from the ascending organic foods industry.

Although only a fraction of its $2.8 billion output in all farm products during 2001, Monterey County's organic production by 81 growers on more than 12,000 acres was valued at $108 million, up 18 million, or 20 percent, from 2000.

Meanwhile, on the national scene, USDA estimates national retail sales of organic foods amounted to $6 billion in 1999. Later figures from the National Marketing Institute and the Organic Trade Association say national sales are growing at 22 percent annually, while national sales exceeded $9 billion in 2001 and are projected to reach $20 billion by 2005.

Under the NOP process, all agricultural products labeled organic must originate from farms or handling operations certified by a state or private agency accredited by USDA. Monterey County is accredited to certify complying organic growers, handlers, processors, livestock, and wild crops.

According to the county's agricultural commissioner, Eric Lauritzen, at Salinas, certification goes into effect Oct. 21, concurrently with the national program. “It means growers who receive a certificate are growing the commodity they say they're growing and selling, since they are exempt from certain labeling requirements.”

Mostly voluntary

Heretofore, he explained, the organic program has largely been voluntary, and although California's Organic Foods Act of 1990 required certain practices and established certain laws, enforcement was only on a spot inspection basis or based on complaints. Certification was done by private organizations, such as the California Certified Organic Farmers.

Monterey County, along with Marin County, are the only two counties in the nation thus far granted the accreditation by USDA, although some state governments have taken up the function.

Agricultural Marketing Service administrator A.J. Yates said in June that USDA would work diligently to ensure responsible implementation of the NOP “later this year.”

Compliance will be under both the NOP and California's Organic Foods Act of 1990, which divides responsibilities between the California Department of Food and Agriculture for raw products and the Department of Health Services for processed products.

Lauritzen's chief deputy commissioner, Katherine Smith-Borchard, said, “This new certification process will help consumers to identify products that truly meet the high standards for organic products. In turn, that consumer confidence will benefit the local growers we serve who want to see their dedication to organic methods as viable.”

Ready to certify

Lauritzen said his staff is prepared to perform certification even before the program becomes effective. Procedures include an application process, and an evaluation by the staff, with records inspection and a site visit. Penalties for infractions are being developed through harmonization of federal and state legislation.

“Although it is relatively small, the organic segment of the marketplace is growing rather rapidly,” Lauritzen said. “A significant indicator of its importance is that large, conventional growers have added organics to their crop portfolio or are developing relationships with organic growers.”

And, he added, conventional producers, incrementally, are discovering organic cultural practices they can successfully apply to conventional routines.

Nevertheless, sensitivities remain, he added, particularly with the intense, multiple cropping patterns of Monterey County.

“Where you have a conventional growing operation immediately adjacent to an organic one, we see two potential conflicts. One is for conventionally used materials to move off site and contaminate the organic operation.

“The other, and one we hear more and more often, is pests — anything from insects to weeds and diseases — moving from organic farms to adjacent conventional farms.”

Place for both

Even so, Lauritzen said he is convinced there will always be places for both conventionally grown products and organically grown products in the marketplace.

He also sees another duality: that between agriculture and a $1.7 billion tourism industry in the county, where citizens are in debate moving toward a master plan for resources coveted by both industries.

Lauritzen, who took the ag commissioner's post in late July 1998 after serving seven years in the same position in Sonoma County, said he's been pleased to be a part of “leading edge” agriculture.

“Monterey County is a beautiful place to live and work and it is built around agriculture. Agriculture is geared to the geography and the climate. At the same time, this area has always been a popular tourism destination. As we see a smaller segment of our population directly involved in agriculture, the link between the two becomes even more important. But, looking ahead, I would have to say we will have both 25 years from now.

“We will continue to have urbanization pressure, but the economic engine of the ag industry will drive good land-use decisions. If there's any trend in our agriculture, it is change and adaptation, whether increasing yields or responding to consumer demand for ready-to-eat salad ingredients and other processed vegetable products.”

The capital investment anticipating many years of operation of processing plants has far greater impact than a change of cropping patterns, he said. Another strength is farming's persistence in spite of farmland values of $35,000 to $40,000 an acre or annual leases of $2,500 an acre.

“To me, those speak to the commitment and security of the industry.”