Pictured here: beautiful squash blossoms, held by Lori Fiorovich of Crystal Bay Farm.
On Monday morning this week, I got a phone call from a farmer friend, Jeff Fiorovich, who runs Crystal Bay Farm with his wife, Lori. He asked for my help, and he's getting it.
Jeff is about as down to earth as anyone alive: his trade is building, but he farms out of love for the land. Originally, Jeff's mother leased the small farm to conventional growers (if, by "convention," you mean "the tradition of poisoning the earth and its inhabitants with toxins unnecessary for the health of the produce or the consumers"). Jeff began to reconsider this arrangement, and eventually, took over the land to grow organically. Specialities include culinary squashes and pumpkins (which turn into a wonderful pumpkin patch at Halloween), as well as giant strawberries, some of which are dipped in organic chocolate and sold at their roadside farm stand.
Jeff explained the situation to me: he'd been interviewed by reporter Steve Johnson for an article in the San Jose Mercury News on March 25. Johnson had sought Jeff's opinion, as an organic farmer, about GMOs (genetically modified organisms, also known as GEs, for genetic engineering). At the heart of the issue is a farm bill, AB 541: The Food and Farm Protection Act, that seeks more transparency in the process of growing GMOs. Johnson writes:
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, has introduced a bill, AB 541, that would require farmers to notify local county agricultural commissioners within 30 days of planting or testing genetically altered crops. It also would declare gene-manipulated plant contaminations that cause more than $3,500 in losses to be a nuisance, making it easier for organic farmers and others to sue.
The article sought to peel back the layers of misinformation circulating by the federal government and to find out the truth about Jeff's biggest fear: that accidental contamination of his small farm by a neighboring farm's GMOs will lead to CCOF stripping him of his Certified Organic certification. It's not as simple as it OUGHT to be, and frankly, I'll come right out and say that somebody ain't telling the truth. That somebody ain't Jeff: he's as clear as can be on the subject.
"It states in the CCOF manual that any farm with GMOs on the land will lose their certification," he told me on the phone. I could hear his wife, Lori, in the background hollering, "IN THREE DIFFERENT PLACES!" But when the reporter from the Mercury News tried to get answers that were in alignment with what is public policy, it wasn't so simple. He wrote Jeff: “Decertification appears to be a very confused topic. I spoke with folks at CCOF and the state, and looked at the USDA's regs. I sounds as if they generally won't decertify an organic farmer if his or her crops are contaminated. But they also ssid decertification could happen under some circumstances. It's all very hazy.”
I spoke briefly on the phone with Steve Johnson, and he thinks that, although this is a relatively new issue, "it could heat up." The "heating up" has to do with the fact that few such cases have presented themselves, wherein GMO contamination resulted in a loss of certification. And the instance he'd heard of involved deliberate contamination. (Deliberate? Who could be so stupid? Wait, look at the people who voted for the current Occupant of the Very Very White House.)
Jeff asks, "Do we want the organic standards hazy and confused?!"
He had written Steve Johnson and the Mercury-News:
The USDA Says that GMO contamination 'does not necessarily' lead to decertification? The CCOF manual that I follow explicitly forbids GMOs.
As per the CCOF Certification Handbook Pages 48, 55, 58: "The use of genetically engineered organisms and their products are prohibited in any form or at any stage in organic production, processing or handling including those made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes. Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro- and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions genes. It shall not include breeding, conjugation, fermentation, hybridization, in-vitro fertilization or tissue culture. "
Hey, we are just trying to follow the rules, I assumed that the certifying agency and the USDA would to back up the standard and enforce it. I don't want to advocate for small farmers being decertified because accidental contamination, but how will we preserve the integrity of the organic label?
The single most compelling thing Jeff had to say in our short conversation were these words: "The only leverage we have." Meaning: holding to the organic standards, and supporting the people who value them, is big business, especially in California. It's GOOD business. And either we use this issue as leverage against the unpopular and often frightening GMO business, or we betray our organic farmers completely.
I found the last section of Johnson's article to make the most common sense (a trait often missing in bureacracies):
Santa Clara County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Van Wassenhove hasn't taken a position on AB 541's provision requiring him to know the locations of genetically engineered plantings. But San Luis Obispo County Agriculture Commissioner Robert Lilley favors the idea.
"It's easy to have contamination if you're not paying attention," Lilley said.
Greg Beccio of Happy Boy Farms in Freedom in Santa Cruz County agreed, given the increasing use of genetically engineered crops and the potential threat he believes they pose to organic farmers like him.
"It's not so much of an issue here yet, but it's going to be," Beccio predicted. "I see it coming. We are the heart of the food source for the country. There is going to be a big battle fought."
Emphasis mine. CONTACTS and ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
CONTACTS and ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
CCOF Main Office Location:
California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)
2155 Delaware Avenue, Suite 150, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Phone: (831) 423-2263 Fax: (831) 423-4528
AB 541 fact sheets, and supplemental information (PDF files are between 108k and 152k):
That information was forwarded by Jeff from Rebecca Darling and the office of Assemblymember Jared Huffman. (That is her e-mail address, linked in her name.)
One more thing. Jeff Fiorovich told me this: “I forgot to mention, after the article ran on Sunday I received an anonymous hostile phone call calling me a hypocrite and a phony.”
Too bad he doesn't have Caller ID. The anonymous and hostile anything is the worst kind of hypocrisy, and manifest evidence of cowardice.
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Stay tuned: one of my favorite entities on earth, Claravale (raw, organic) Dairy is going to need our help.
THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive.” —Thomas Jefferson
Thanks for visiting. I'm busier than I've been in months, and work is going great.