Quick Take:

Born at a kitchen table in Live Oak, California Certified Organic Farmers is the standard-bearer for the movement in California and beyond. As it celebrates its 50th year, the organization is focused on what’s next. Among the key questions facing CEO Kelly Damewood: “What is the best way to convey the value of organic certification and how do we remove some of the barriers” to becoming certified organic.

This story was originally featured in this week’s Lily Belli on Food newsletter. Be first the first to hear about food and drink news in Santa Cruz County — sign up for Lily’s email newsletter here and text alerts here.

The origin story of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) is one of local lore: Barney Bricmont and five other local farmers came together around his kitchen table, with a goal of creating organic standards for farming in California. They started with 54 grower members, with operations run out of Bricmont’s Live Oak home. That was 50 years ago.

“It was very grassroots,” said CCOF CEO Kelly Damewood of those early days. “They developed the standards and held each other accountable. As the movement grew, they realized they needed to standardize it.”

From those early kitchen conversations was born the organization that has largely set the standards for organic certification not just in California but beyond. Today, CCOF, which just marked its 50th anniversary, works with over 4,000 operations throughout North America. Since CCOF was founded, organic has become far more mainstream. You can buy organic versions of everything from produce, meats and dairy to processed items like cookies and Kraft macaroni and cheese. With all that change, the organization has had to evolve and grow, but leaders have tried to keep it true to its roots.

CCOF remains very much member-driven, said Damewood, who joined the organization in 2014 and became the top executive in 2019.

“Certified organic” is the most rigorous standard for organic foods. It verifies that the farm or handling facility complies with U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations and allows products to be sold with the organic label. It means the facility can’t use “synthetic chemical inputs” like synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and must be free of such substances for at least three years before becoming certified. For livestock, animals must be fed 100% organic feed. These standards are focused on building soil health, protecting natural resources and not using cancer-causing pesticides, with the goal to protect both human and environmental health. It’s been a long road, but progress is being made slowly both statewide and nationally. In fact, California lawmakers recently introduced a roadmap for eliminating high-risk pesticides by 2050, and the USDA is working on one of the most significant updates to organic standards since they were implemented in 2002.

One of the biggest changes Damewood has seen for the movement is the increase in funding for research and development of new and innovative organic methods — and to help support farming operations transitioning from conventional to organic.

But organic farming is still very much the exception. In California, just 8.8% of farmland is organic, according to statistics from the California Department of Food & Agriculture. Nationally, that number is less than 1%, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture findings.

At the same time, consumer demand for organic is rising — organic sales hit $68 billion for the first time in 2021, according to the Organic Trade Association. Sales of organic fruits and vegetables comprised 15% of the total product market in 2021, an increase of over 4% from the previous year. However, accessibility remains a major challenge even as diversity in terms of who is buying organic is expanding. There are still significant barriers to accessing organic foods, especially in areas where accessing any fresh foods is already difficult. Food costs overall are rising nationally, too. While incremental changes are being made, such as expanding healthy foods in hospitals and schools, there is significantly more work to be done.

Core to all of this is not just consumers but the people who grow our food and live in areas with heavy agriculture production.

“The use of cancer-causing pesticides and toxic inputs has the largest impact on socially disadvantaged communities,” said Damewood. “It’s important to us to not just think about fresh, healthy foods but the process of growing them.”

Both nationally and locally, there’s growing pressure by community organizations to restrict the use of harmful pesticides at agriculture sites near schools. Already-struggling farmers and farmworkers have been hit hard by the impacts of COVID-19, climate change and this year’s devastating floods. These are significant problems rooted in inequity, and they are top of mind as CCOF marks 50 years and looks to the next 50, said Damewood.

One effort is expanding the Regenerative Organic Certified program, which is focused on soil health, animal welfare and social fairness.

Education is a major focus for CCOF as the organization moves forward. The proliferation of different terms can make it challenging for both farmers and consumers to navigate the differences between labels like certified organic, 100% organic, made with organic ingredients, and natural, for which there is no standard definition. There’s a lot of greenwashing, as corporations try to capitalize on consumer interest in sustainability and the environment, said Damewood. That can make it difficult to understand what labels really mean, what the science is, and why (or if) these matter.

“What is the best way to convey the value of organic certification and how do we remove some of the barriers [to becoming certified organic]?” are some of the big questions CCOF is grappling with today, Damewood said. To help, CCOF is building up mentorship programs, particularly in states where there might not be a well-established organic farm network for other farms to look to. In Hawaii, for instance, there are few organic inspectors, which means the ones who do work there have to travel among islands. In Nevada, there are only a handful of organic farms, leaving those interested in transitioning to organic farming with few people to look to in the state for guidance.

“We’re looking at different regional needs and building out mentorship, including working with regional partners,” Damewood said. “We’re asking, ‘What does support look like to you? How can we help?’”

Want to hear about the experiences of today’s modern organic farmer? Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics in Royal Oaks, will share his experiences at an event titled “Helping farmworkers succeed in California” on Thursday at the UC Santa Cruz Hay Barn. Details here.

Jessica M. Pasko has been writing professionally for almost two decades.She cut her teeth in journalism as a reporter for the Associated Press in her native Albany, NY, where she covered everything from...