Five years ago, Washington State seriously considered forming an organic food commission. The State Department of Agriculture noted that organic producers have distinct research, regulatory, and promotional needs but in the end suggested that organic growers work more closely with the existing commodity commissions.
During the 2007 legislative session, Washington State Representative Ken Jacobsen introduced an organic food bill that would have created a commission to promote organic foods, but later dropped it, saying he felt it was no longer necessary because consumers are demanding organic foods.
Washington’s organic apple production could soon reach 10 million boxes, or 10 percent of the Washington crop, and the state’s certified organic cherry acreage is set to double within a couple of years.
We asked organic producers in Washington State if they see a need for an organic commission.
Organic producers are concerned about the potential increases in production in the next year or two, Knutson said. "I think the concern that everybody has is we’re going to get into an oversupply situation at least temporarily, which we have done occasionally the last 20 years. There have been at least three down cycles that have discouraged people who’ve got into the program, and they’ve dropped out because the premium hasn’t been there."
As well as being concerned about whether the premiums will last, producers are worried about the increasing costs of inputs, such as compost, he said.
A drop in prices and premiums was the impetus behind the first effort to persuade the Department of Agriculture to create an organic commission, Knutson noted, and there might be some value in reconsidering the idea.
"It’s kind of an intriguing possibility now that the industry’s growing and becoming a more significant part of the production," he said. "We may hit 10 percent within a few years, so I guess it may be a valuable concept."
Although organic production is growing, it makes up a small proportion of the retail produce section, he said. "It definitely could be expanded with promotion."
However, Knutson said he sees value in promoting the entire apple industry as a whole as well. "I feel a little bit uncomfortable about differentiating ourselves from the conventional growers too much. That’s the disadvantage of doing it."
Knutson said when the idea was discussed before, organic growers wanted to pay an assessment only to the organic commission for organic promotion and research programs, but did not want to pay dues to the existing commissions, such as the Washington Apple Commission, as well. "I don’t think they want to pay a double assessment."
Ostenson, who is organic program manager at Stemilt Growers, figures that organic production is so significant now that if an organic apple commission were established, it would be among the largest of Washington State’s 25 commodity commissions.
When the organic commission was proposed five years ago, a number of arguments were made against it, some of which are no longer valid today, he said. For example, it was argued that it would be difficult to track the volume of organic products in order to assess them, but Ostenson said this would be easier nowadays because warehouses report all their shipments electronically to the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
If a commission were formed now, the organic industry is large enough that it would have enough funding to be effective, he said.
Some organic growers would like to see the assessments they pay to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission dedicated to more organic research, he said, rather than to genomics, genetics, and robotics, where the Research Commission is placing a lot of emphasis.
Ostenson believes research should be geared towards addressing the impacts of high fuel prices and consumers’ concerns about food miles and the carbon footprint, since Washington is comparatively far from its markets. Instead of focusing on how to produce more fruit at a lower cost, it should be focused on helping the Washington industry hone its competitive advantages and produce heirloom varieties or organic fruit that other regions can’t produce as well, he suggested.
Some sort of link needed
Spencer has been farming organically since the early 1980s and became certified with the Washington State Organic Food Program when it began in 1988. He has a six-acre organic farm at Malaga, which includes five acres of cherries.
When Spencer began to farm organically, there were so few organic fruit growers that they all knew each other and discussed organic issues. What the organic fruit industry needs now is an organization that would have its pulse on the market and make sure that the supply of organic fruit does not get out of balance with demand, he said.
"I don’t have a whole lot of interest in whether or not there’s a commission, but there definitely needs to be some sort of a link between the consumer and the grower. It’s the same with all fruits—historically, they tend to get overproduced, and the warehouses are encouraging growers to keep planting because they make their money off of packing, and the nurseries like it. I think more important than promotion is coordination on the supply end. Farmers are rich or broke. It’s just out of whack right now."
Spencer thinks the food industry as it is now is not sustainable with its large corporate farms that work on the basis of big volumes and small margins and are very dependent on petroleum.
"It’s worked, and it’s still working while there are enough resources to support it, but when we get back to a more realistic sort of economy, it’s just not going to work," he said.
Spencer sells his organic cherries through Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, but said his dream is to sell all his fruit locally. He would like to have an orchard in Washington’s Methow Valley where there is a large enough local economy for him to make a comfortable living.
He’s pleased with the growth in the local food movement and said the country would be better off if people could buy their food within a ten-mile radius and more people were connected to the land and learned how to grow their own food.
Fuller said he likes the idea of packers or marketers being responsible for advertising and promotion of organic produce because growers can hold them accountable. If they don’t do a good job, the grower can take their fruit to a different company. "We’re a free-marketing society, and I don’t like quasi-government intervention in the free market," he said.
He believes there is demand for all the organic fruit Washington can produce, even if acreage doubles. "But I think there’s a big step between an orderly transition into that and a panicked transition."
Fuller said that’s why it’s important that marketers work together through the Organic Washington Apple Growers Marketing Association. The original WAGMA was set up in 2001 as a grower cooperative to allow producers and marketers to discuss supplies and pricing. The Organic WAGMA was formed in 2005. There are fewer organic marketers than conventional marketers, so it’s easier for them to work together, he said.
The cooperative holds conference calls every two weeks to discuss volumes and pricing, and Fuller feels it’s absolutely imperative that it continue to do so. He believes that the Organic WAGMA has helped maintain pricing and orderly marketing for organic fruit.
Royal City, Washington
Craver, a grower and consultant, said the industry has changed a lot in the five years since the idea of forming an organic commission was raised. Since the Washington Apple Commission stopped promoting apples on the domestic market, the marketers have gone out and done their own promotions based on how they want to secure their share of the market.
"What I thought would be a negative thing has turned out to be positive," Craver said.
Now, with the Organic Trade Association and other groups promoting organic products, he does not think there’s a need for an organic commission.
"I think the marketers who are serious about staying in this business for the next 50 years are aligning themselves with organic and finding a way to handle organics," he said.
In the early days of organic tree fruit production, most of the fruit was sold through small organic food stores on the East and West Coasts, he said, and when organic acreage increased, prices plummeted. Now, marketers are selling to major retailers throughout the country.
Craver said he’s done samplings at stores in places like Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, and observed that consumers want safe products for their families. Consumers perceive that organic is safer, whether or not that is the case.
Pricing will continue to be based on supply and demand, and Craver said there might be a glitch with certain apple varieties and sizes, but as long as the price difference between conventional and organic is not too great, consumers will buy organic.
Organic growers need at least a $100-per-bin premium over conventional returns because production in organic orchards is lower, he said. What’s helped keep organic apple returns high is a strong demand for small Pink Lady and Gala apples for the fresh-sliced market.
Concerning research, Craver said sustainability has been a big focus of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in recent years and it’s taken a more holistic approach, which is key for organic agriculture. Much of the chemical thinning research it has done has been with organic materials, such as lime sulfur and oils. Craver said he’d like to see research done on other organic products, such as compost tea.
Craver, who recently resigned from the Research Commission board to spend more time with his family, said another big focus of the commission has been genomics and development of superior fruit varieties. Scientists are using genetic markers to more easily and quickly identify desirable traits in potential new cultivars.
Craver said he supports such research as long as it doesn’t involve genetically modified organisms.