(Photo Illustration by TJ Mullinax, Jared Johnson/Good Fruit Grower)
(Photo Illustration by TJ Mullinax, Jared Johnson/Good Fruit Grower)

Consumer demand for organic produce continues to drive increases in certified acreage, but the success of the growing organic tree fruit sector rests upon a complex and political regulatory process that growers ignore at their peril.

That was the message by industry leaders urging more growers to get involved with the National Organic Standards Board.

The board first caught the attention of many growers in 2010, when it proposed removing antibiotics that control fire blight from use in organic production.

Luckily, alternative control methods using yeast were developed just in time for the ban to take effect in 2015, but with other key products, growers might not get so lucky.

“We just happened to luck out that things got registered and it wasn’t the disaster it could have been,” said David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist for Washington State University.

The antibiotics decision stemmed less from specific concerns about tree fruit and more from a national push to declare the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic program completely antibiotic-free due to concerns that antibiotic use in livestock is increasing drug resistance.

And if tree fruit growers don’t advocate for themselves, there’s risk that broad decisions like this one could have unintended impacts on tree fruit — such as proposed rules against treated lumber fences that could kick trellised orchards out of certification.

There is also concern that special interest groups may use the process to push back against the growth of large scale growers into the organic sector and to protect what they see as pure organic practices.

In the midst of that tension, the board is tasked with reviewing every synthetic product — from fungicides to food additives — in organic food production. The process, conducted every five years in what’s known as a Sunset Review, is open and public-comment driven, but can end up “hugely political,” Granatstein said.

That’s why he’s urging growers to speak out about the importance of currently approved products, including coppers, micronutrients, sticky traps, pheromones and chlorine sanitizers needed to comply with food safety standards.

“The special interest groups are the loudest voice in the room every single meeting,” said Harold Austin, the orchard operations manager for Selah, Washington-based Zirkle Fruit Co., who served on the board from 2012 until this past winter. It’s on the tree fruit industry to speak up for itself, he said. “One of the biggest problems we have as a stakeholder group is letting our voices be heard and educating (the board) so they can understand why these materials that are up for Sunset Review are so critical for our industry.”

That’s also why the Northwest Horticultural Council is taking a more active role on the organics front — Austin now serves as chair of the council’s organics advisory committee — sending staff members to NOSB meetings and coordinating with other industry groups under the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance to push for legislation that supports commercial organic growers, said President Mark Powers.

“Organics isn’t going away. You may disagree with the premise or you may love it, but it is driving growth for our industry, and growth is a good thing,” Powers said. “We want to ensure that organics can be done on a commercial scale.”

Who is organic?

For many consumers, the phrase “organic farm” evokes images of small, diverse, direct-to-consumer operations, but most organic fruit at grocery stores in the U.S. today is produced by large-scale growers.

Data on organic farm size is not available nationally, but in Washington, where about 90 percent of the country’s fresh organic apples are produced, the growth in organic production over the past decade has been driven by large growers, Granatstein said. Farms with sales over $1 million annually now constitute 85 percent of the sales — up from 50 percent in 2006, according to Washington State Department of Agriculture data. And farms with sales under $100,000 make up just 1 percent of the market, even though there are more of them.

“That’s a lot of people who will vote, who will call the NOSB, but if you are talking about land impact and economic impact, that’s a different question,” Granatstein said. The result is of less voice in decision making, relatively speaking, for the large growers who represent most of the land and production.

At the same time, pushback from some organic advocates or special interests against “industrial organic” has also grown. That tension sometimes ends up on display at meetings of the National Organic Standards Board, Austin said, and he thinks structural changes to the board could alleviate some of the problems.

“That 15-member board was configured to match up with organics 30 years ago. It truly does not represent what organics are today,” Austin said. He’s hoping that the next Farm Bill will add more producer seats to better represent the diversity of organic growers today. “We must strive to work together, no matter what the size the producer is, to ensure the collective future of organics and especially organic crop producers.”

Currently, the 15-member board has four seats for growers, three for environmentalists, three for consumer or public interest groups, two for handlers or processors, and one each for a retailer, scientist and accreditor. The challenge, said Austin, is that serving on this volunteer board required 30 hours a week of his time. That’s a huge commitment to ask of growers with farms to run. Austin represented Zirkle Fruit in a handler position.

This year, a tree fruit grower did join the board: Steve Ela of Hotchkiss, Colorado. He’s a fourth-generation farmer who grows peaches, pears, apples, sweet cherries and plums on an 80-acre farm that’s been entirely organic since 2003.

Like Austin, Ela said the antibiotics debate really put the importance of the NOSB on his radar. He said he joined the board both to give back to the industry and to learn — and there is a lot to learn.

“This was my first meeting and we had 2,500 comments and I read them all,” Ela said. “My sense of the first meeting is that board members take comments very seriously.”

Recent changes, such as appearing at annual meetings through a virtual webinar, should make it easier for growers to make comments “in person,” which tend to be more impactful than written comments because the board can hear growers’ voices and passion, Austin said.

Up for debate

The highest profile issue in front of the board this year is whether hydroponic crops should be eligible for organic certification, but fortunately that decision has little impact on tree fruit growers. What does matter are upcoming Sunset Reviews for disease and pest controls such as coppers, pheromones and sticky traps and sanitizers used for food safety.

Losing access to key materials could decimate the organic fruit industry — large and small growers alike.

“Washington growers produce 93 percent of the fresh organic apples, and if pheromones go, then adios fresh organic apple production in Washington,” Granatstein said. “We’re not going to squeeze codling moth to get the codlemone; it’s going to be made synthetically.”

Copper sulfate and fixed coppers are also critically important because they are the primary fungicide for organic growers, who already face greater resistance risks since they have fewer control options, Granatstein added.

Also on the disease control front, the sanitizing products growers use to clean tools to prevent the spread of disease are slated for review this year, along with sanitizers needed to meet food safety requirements on farms and in packing houses. For instance, there are special interests pushing to see calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide and sodium hypochlorite banned, but these sanitizers are a vital part of complying with the Food Safety Modernization Act, both in the field and at the warehouse, Austin said.

“They say we can find different techniques and we can use hot water, but you can’t use hot water on a cherry without causing significant damage to the fruit,” Austin said. “From a consumer protection perspective, we need the chlorines and other sanitizers.”

Despite being a time-consuming and sometimes contentious process, Granatstein, Austin and Ela all said that the NOSB is integral to making sure the USDA organics program evolves with innovations in agriculture to best serve both producers and consumers.

“Organics, by definition, are not static,” Ela said. “The standards were written because we wanted continuous improvement. Some things were put on the list because there weren’t organic alternatives, and now there are. We need comment from growers to say, no we don’t need this anymore, or yes this is still really critical.” •

—by Kate Prengaman