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Organic farmers hope green label means cash, too

Crops produced without pesticides get a boost with a new U.S. certification label.

By MARK ALBRIGHT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 23, 2002


Bay Breeze Farm in Ruskin isn't growing just any Florida oranges. Its 20-acre citrus grove is certified by the Florida Organic Growers.

That means no pesticides or herbicides. Only natural materials such as chicken manure or mined potassium can be used for nutrients. Weeds around the trees must be mowed rather than killed with herbicide.

"We used to have conventional oranges, but we couldn't get a good price, so we went organic," said Bob Rehberg, president of Vig-Iron Inc., which operates the spread as part of a sod farm. "It's expensive, and you don't get the crop yield. But there's a market for organic citrus, and you can get good prices."

Bay Breeze is one of about 120 organic growers of fruit, vegetables, sugarcane and rice in the state counting on new U.S. Department of Agriculture organic standards to boost their business. The new rules took effect Monday.

Under the new standards, foods that are 95 percent to 100 percent organic can be labeled as such and are permitted to carry a USDA organic seal. It's not just produce. There are also federal organic standards for wine, meats such as free-range chicken and eggs.

Farmers and food processors must be inspected by USDA-approved agents in order for their products to carry the new green label.

The standards were a long time coming. Congressional authority to write the rules was part of a 1990 farm bill. Competing interests argued since then over what should and should not be included. Some small growers have groused about all the paperwork required to prove they stuck to the organic rules.

"We wanted high standards and high standards we got," said Marty Mesh, director of the Florida Certified Organic Growers in Gainesville. "We're celebrating what the new standards mean in giving consumers confidence in our products, but we still have long-term concerns that lobbyists will attempt to erode them. This is an administration that seems more interested in advancing biotechnology than organics."

Organic growers have grown far bigger and more sophisticated since the days when their produce didn't look as healthy as the mainstream competition. With their improved shelf appeal, sales of organics have been increasing at an annual clip of 15 to 20 percent through the 1990s. But they remain less than 1 percent of the nation's agricultural acreage. In Florida 120 organic producers work 12,000 acres of the 10-million in agricultural use.

Supermarket chains have had an on-again, off-again love affair with organics over the past 30 years because of spoilage. Now they are promoting organic foods again because of the new federal standards. Once found only in health food or "natural" food markets, most organics today are sold in mainstream supermarket chains. Kash n' Karry and Albertsons stores even keep their organics separate from the rest of the produce in a featured spot. Meanwhile conglomerates such as H.J. Heinz and General Mills are developing organic product lines.

While the organic food movement is associated with 1970s environmentalism, that's not the main reason people buy them anymore. The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash., market research group, found that 66 percent of organic shoppers are motivated by the safety of pesticide-free foods and 38 percent are drawn by the taste. About 26 percent buy organic for philosophical reasons.

Florida Crystals of West Palm Beach began growing a small portion of its crop organically seven years ago.

It produces the nation's only organic sugar, which also is exported to Europe, and is one of a handful of organic rice growers in the United States.

The company's Sem-Chi Rice Products Corp. produces about 3,500 tons of organic rice a year.

Mitch Blumenthal, president of Global Organics Specialty Source Inc. in Sarasota, which distributes organic produce throughout the southeast, said the new regulations will give organic growers "credibility."

"A lot of people buy it not just because it's organic, but because of the quality of the product," Blumenthal said.

"It looks good and tastes good."

Many stuck with the business because they care about the environment.

Rose Edwards and her husband, Fremont, who once worked on conventional farms, started Three Bird Organics in Hendry County in 2000. They produced 1,500 20-pound boxes of squash last year.

"Organic growing is expensive, but if you don't, who will?" Rose Edwards said.

"Somebody has to take a stand."

-- Information from the Palm Beach Post was used in this report. Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

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