Phil Unterschuetz, who recently retired from his organic supply business, hopes that organic agriculture will maintain its integrity as it goes mainstream.
As Phil Unterschuetz closed the doors of his organic supply business for the last time at the end of August, he was feeling gratified by the increasing acceptance and expansion of organic agriculture in recent years.
When he launched his business in Wenatchee, Washington, 24 years ago, there were few organic growers.
"I pioneered something at that time," he said. "It was not popular to be an organic grower because organic growers were the ones growing bugs for everyone else. That’s changed a lot. I’m amazed by the shift in attitude and the credibility that organic growers have today with their neighbors and in the marketplace."
But as organic goes mainstream, Unterschuetz offers a word of caution. "It’s a different world, and it will be a different challenge from here on. I think the task today is keeping it true to its intention."
Major fruit companies have been increasing their organic production in response to greater demand at retail, but Unterschuetz is not among those who believe that it’s over for the small organic grower. He does believe, however, that organic producers need to guard against efforts to water down the rules to the point where organic doesn’t mean anything any more.
Unterschuetz, 66, taught forestry at Wenatchee Valley College for 12 years before launching his organic supplies business in 1983 in partnership with organic cherry grower Dan Dittrich. He was motivated by a belief that agriculture was on the wrong path, and that it was not sustainable because of the reliance on chemical inputs for both pest control and nutrition.
"What we were creating, and had created in the last 40 years or so, was an extremely fragile system that was essentially based on petrochemical inputs of various kinds," he said.
But he did not want to be a grower.
"I’m not a gambler," he explained. "I don’t feel comfortable gambling—and people would laugh at that because there’s been a lot of risk in this business—but I think that growers have a great deal on their plate that they can’t control. They’re at the mercy of the weather, diseases, insect problems, and to some degree the marketplace, and they’re the ones that get paid last. I think the organic growers that I’ve served over these 24 years are heroic."
When he and Dittrich launched their business under the name Integrated Fertility Management, they started selling organic fertilizers out of his garage. They quickly recognized a need for organic pesticides, also. The first year, they did $6,000 in sales without any advertising or promotional materials. Unterschuetz bought out his partner and, as the business grew, moved to larger and larger premises. Six years ago, he bought a 5,500-square-foot warehouse at North Miller Street, Wenatchee, and built an adjoining office.
When he started in business, there were no organic rules or regulations, or definitions of what organic was, to guide him. Washington’s organic food program began five years later, in 1988, and national organic standards would not go into effect until 2002.
Unterschuetz felt his role was to provide as many options as he could find and identify products that met some kind of standard for organic use. He looked for products that were benign in terms of the environment, and that encouraged diversity in the orchard, instead of discouraging all forms of life other than the fruit. He organized educational workshops and seminars for growers for a number of years.
After the Alar scare in 1989, there was an influx of apple growers into organic production. Trout, one of the major fruit cooperatives in Chelan, expressed an interest in marketing organic fruit and offered to provide field help for growers who wanted to try it. Even though some dropped out after a couple of years and went back to conventional, Unterschuetz said it was a significant event because it gave organic growers credibility.
At the time, the University of California was developing the granulosis virus to control the key apple pest codling moth, and IFM was its out-of-California distributor. Though the virus wasn’t the total answer to codling moth, it allowed growers to ease off a little on their weekly applications of Ryania, a botanical pesticide made from a South American tropical plant. Nowadays, Unterschuetz recommends the virus as the mainstay spray program for small acreages.
But the real breakthrough came in the early 1990s with pheromone dispensers for mating disruption.
"That was an absolutely wonderful product—and still is—particularly for organic growers," he said. "We could begin, for the first time, to get off the tractor and pay attention to things that really seem to matter instead of just trying to kill codling moth. I saw a much greater interest in soil improvement. They had always wanted to do it, but they just didn’t have time. If they were not driving the tractor, they were fixing the tractor and sprayer."
Instead of spraying all the time, they started monitoring so that they could just hit the hot spots.
A more recent breakthrough has been GF120 for cherry fruit fly, a pest for which there is no tolerance in the marketplace. The product contains a bait combined with an organic insecticide to kill the pest.
There will be more breakthroughs, he believes, though he won’t be there to sell them. In his retirement, he plans to travel with his wife, who runs a consulting business that has an international reputation.
He’d like to see organic pest controls move increasingly towards biological methods.
One of the greatest challenges for organic agriculture in the future will be to avoid being seduced by new products that offer an easy answer but reduce biodiversity, he warned. For example, the pesticide Entrust (spinosad), though organic, is a broad-spectrum pesticide that can kill beneficial insects.
"I’m a strong believer that biodiversity is the answer," he said. "Do what you can to improve it; we don’t necessarily need to know why."