Organic’s big South County moment: Might school-zone pesticide switch provide momentum for change?

Field workers weed kale at Lakeside Organic fields off Holohan Road in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Longtime UC Santa Cruz researcher Joji Muramoto is the first organic soil specialist employed by the University of California system. The rich history of the area’s organic movement was largely spawned in the northern half of Santa Cruz County and inspires people like him. But the market-driven realities that prevent more South County farmers from growing organic present an ongoing challenge to sustainability and a reduction in carcinogenic pesticide use.


There are many challenges to the growth of organic farming in the Pajaro Valley — something that the leadership of the area’s biggest agricultural company recently promised the community it would explore.

Soil is not one of them.

“To do organic you’ve got to have good soil,” Driscoll’s CEO Miles Reiter told Lookout recently. “And the soil the town is planted on is some of the very best.”

It’s a fact not lost on Watsonville resident and UC Santa Cruz researcher Dr. Joji Muramoto, Santa Cruz County’s prophet of organic farming and soil science.

As the first organic farming specialist hired by the University of California system, Muramoto is uniquely positioned to help growers expand their organic capabilities.

Yet he is also acutely aware of the practical challenges facing growers who might otherwise choose organic, such as the three-year window needed to convert a field and the uncertainty of a potentially more volatile marketplace for their goods.

Not to be forgotten is the industry’s two-ton elephant in the room: Multinational chemical corporations and their considerable political lobbies still influence the trends and science that drive the $238 billion U.S. agriculture business.

The Pajaro Valley is a microcosm for the push and pull of organic agriculture — particularly in small rural areas where the fields that produce the food come face to face with neighboring communities.

Working the rich Pajaro Valley soil at Lakeside Organic in Watsonville.
Working the rich Pajaro Valley soil at Lakeside Organic in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On one side, you find social and environmental justice advocates, concerned citizens and farmers market zealots, pushing hard for sustainable, regenerative practices that emphasize the healthy intersection of land and humans.

On the other, there are multibillion-dollar business interests and those who grow product for them, tilling the majority of the county’s soil based on the practicalities of profit margins and global market dynamics.

* * *

Muramoto knows the industry struggle. Before coming to UC Santa Cruz as a researcher in the mid-1990s, he had become disillusioned working as a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture in his native Japan because department leadership was uninterested in organic due to big agribusiness ties.

Joji Muramoto is the UC system's first organic soil specialist.
(Via Carolyn Lagattuta / UC Santa Cruz)

It was hard not to take personally, he said. Muramoto had been led to organics after watching his 6-year-old sister die from leukemia when he was 10. Feeling helpless, his mother had thrown herself into the early organics movement of 1970s Tokyo, and her son felt the same tug.

The stress of watching all his life’s work in the field of organics hit a wall ultimately contributed to a stomach ulcer that left him very ill.

It’s been 26 years since Muramoto received a magic ticket to come to Santa Cruz, an early bastion of the organic movement. It’s been three years since the UC system anointed the longtime soil scientist and agroecologist its guru for organic expansion.

As someone who works with scientists, farmers, growers and the titans of agribusiness such as Driscoll’s, Muramoto understands why the path to organic has been slower than he and others might’ve anticipated or hoped.

During a presentation to the Watsonville group CORA (Campaign for Organic & Regenerative Agriculture) in November, Muramoto laid out the numbers.

California is the top nationwide producer of certified organic produce but that percentage remains small: just a 4.7% market share. He reported that, based off 2018 data, Santa Cruz County had the highest percentage in the state at 18%, with Monterey County close behind at 16%.

Muramoto said he believes that number is much higher for the county’s crown jewel — strawberries — and says he’s heartened by what he sees ahead thanks to public policy changes and growing financial support. Including for his position as the first fully funded organic specialist in the UC system.

“It was way overdue, but it happened,” Muramoto said. “There’s momentum for organic.”

A stroll through any of the county’s popular farmers markets — or through a New Leaf or Staff of Life market — shows the heart of the organic movement beating stronger than ever.

A typical farmers market bounty in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But in the world in which Reiter operates, organic remains a niche segment with a volatile marketplace. And he doesn’t sound bullish about how quickly a major market shift could happen.

He does, however, say it makes sense to meet people, and their perceptions about the safety of conventional farming practices, where they are.

Recent pressure from CORA has led Driscoll’s and its primary grower in the Pajaro Valley, Reiter Affiliated, to consider how to give the community better peace of mind by growing only organic crops around school zones.

Driscoll's CEO Miles Reiter.
(Via Driscoll’s)

“People like the idea of organic. I like organic — I prefer it myself most of the time,” Reiter said. “And it’s not like we’re not going to grow organically. It’s something we do. So we should prioritize doing it where it makes the most difference.”

In a separate interview with Lookout, his nephew Eric Reiter of Reiter Affiliated Companies, the world’s largest berry grower, put it more succinctly: “We don’t want the community to feel like we’re putting them in danger.”

* * *

It was the early 1970s when a Live Oak-based farmer named Barney Bricmont, who was growing salad greens for actress Carol Channing, was sitting around his kitchen table with five other organic farmers.

They had a wild idea: Why not turn the underground organic movement into a legitimate classification that might allow farmers to sell directly to consumers?

Alan Chadwick brought the organic farming movement to UC Santa Cruz in the 1960s.

So they did, and thus the California Certified Organic Farmers — better known as CCOF, certified organic or California certified — was born. And so was the modern farmers market.

Bricmont, who had launched Santa Cruz County’s first market at Live Oak Elementary School in 1975, worked with state Assemblymember Sam Farr on the California Organic Food Act of 1979 — and state-certified farmers markets were suddenly a thing.

At that time “no one had a definition for organic,” former CCOF leader Cathy Calfo told the Good Times in 2019. Bricmont recalled in UCSC’s Regional History Project oral history that farmers in those days “couldn’t go off their land and sell their products directly to the consumer. They had to go to wholesalers through the big markets.”

CCOF’s influence and reach grew from there. From sponsorship of a bill establishing the California Organic Foods Act of 1990, which led to greater Food and Drug Administration oversight, to a more recent industry study called the Roadmap to an Organic California that lays out the future of organic via a benefits report and policy solutions.

Before all that, in 1968, only three years into the university’s existence, English master gardener Alan Chadwick had been hired to create a student garden project on the UCSC campus. Some would call the result “the Harvard of organic farming.”

Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport.
(Via Swanton Berry Farm)

That early organic example would eventually lead to the earliest iterations of the university’s Center for Agroecology, the program that hosts Muramoto and others dedicated to sustainability.

Those doings would help inspire other key local industry dabblings on both ends of the county: Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport becoming part of the first organic conversion study in 1990; longtime South County farmer Dick Peixoto planting the seeds for what remains the county’s largest all-organic operation, Lakeside Organic Gardens, in 1996.

As Nesh Dhillon, executive director of Santa Cruz County Community Farmers’ Markets, put it to Good Times: “California is the heartbeat of organic farming, and Santa Cruz County is the center of that heart.”

California is the heartbeat of organic farming, and Santa Cruz County is the center of that heart.

— Nesh Dhillon

Nesh Dhillon, director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers' Markets.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

* * *

While they appreciate the small-town vibes of the farmers markets and Watsonville’s annual strawberry festival, most people in the Pajaro Valley understand the big agribusiness bucks at stake with berries, which make up a nearly $400 million chunk of the local economy.

And they know that the pest-prone nature of berries makes them more difficult crops for growers to move away from the carcinogenic fumigants that help maintain high yields and maximize profits. That is a major reason why strawberries annually top one environmental consumer group’s “Dirty Dozen” list.

Eric Reiter oversees West Coast operations for Reiter Affiliated.
(Via Driscoll’s)

Eric Reiter, the nephew of Driscoll’s Miles Reiter and head of operations of Reiter’s Affiliated in the Pajaro Valley, says economics are an undeniable part of the organic equation for the bigger guys of the business. Reiter’s Affiliated is the biggest of many independent growers for Driscoll’s, which is estimated to sell a third of the $6 billion global strawberry market annually.

Eric Reiter calls it an “economic investment to transition the land,” and then there’s the fact that organic produces smaller yields. So the next question for a grower who wants to go organic becomes: Can a high enough price point offset the higher cost and lower yield of organic farming?

During COVID, people were really focusing on what they ate and spending more on food. Now ... people don’t have the same kind of purchasing power they did.

— Eric Reiter

“During COVID, people were really focusing on what they ate and spending more on food, so the organic market was strong,” he said. “Now coming out of it there’s more talk of a recession and inflation and people don’t have the same kind of purchasing power they did.”

With that reluctance to spend has come a softer market for organic, Reiter said. Which makes it a hard decision for the many growers who take their marketplace lead from the company that is sizing it up on a global level: Driscoll’s.

“That’s why it’s not just an overnight decision,” he said.

The fields of the Pajaro Valley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Muramoto points out that many of the growers in the Pajaro Valley lease the land at a high cost, typically on a short-term basis, making an organic conversion process nearly impossible.

Eric Reiter said he believes there are strong efforts being made to combat soil pathogens and pests biologically rather than chemically — including the one at Reiter Affiliated where it’s testing to find “the right good guys that can take out the bad guys.”

“This is the direction the entire industry will go, because of its benefit to everyone and the environment,” he said. “But if we don’t have tools that allow us to, and if there’s not a market that supports the higher price, then it’s hard.

Total county crop breakdown for 2020

Via Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau

“It’s really difficult to go that direction if it’s not economically viable.”

Despite those larger challenges to expand the organic marketplace as a whole, Eric Reiter said he doesn’t see any obstacles to making it happen around schools. That includes the Reiter Nugent Ranch plot in question, near MacQuiddy Elementary School, that raised the ire of CORA.

“We’re in the process of taking over another plot near a school and transitioning it to organic — it’s the only way we would do it,” he said. “That’s the direction things are going. And I personally am for transitioning (the Nugent Ranch site next to MacQuiddy) to organic. We just need to work with Driscoll’s to make sure it makes sense from a market standpoint.”

* * *

Joji Muramoto is confident he can help push the growth of organic farming.
(Via Carolyn Lagattuta / UC Santa Cruz)

Muramoto’s job for the next two years, starting in December, will be as the state’s organic traveling salesman of sorts, visiting the southern desert to the Oregon border. His goal is to visit the top 20 organic-producing counties in the state..

“I will be trying to network and figure out what their needs are and let them know about the resources available,” he said.

Most of his outreach to this point has been with organic growers, but Muramoto suspects he’ll find more interest these days with conventional growers. He feels strongly that the market for organic will only grow, and that it could come at a much faster pace.

“I don’t think there will be resistance,” he said. “The fact that organic market sales are increasing and then with more public support, I think more transition will happen faster.”

Perhaps nothing can come fast enough for those like Muramoto, people who have dedicated their lives to sustainability, to a healthier day for how we grow our food, only to watch progress creep along at a sometimes painfully slow pace.

When he thinks back to how and why he took to farming as a middle schooler in Tokyo, Muramoto knows why he’s still on this path, why he’s still fully committed to the finer points of healthy, sustainable, regenerative soil.

The thought also can’t help but dawn on him when he returns home to Watsonville, the place his family has now lived for 14 years.

How much better will life be for his community when the beautiful agricultural surroundings aren’t accompanied by anxiety? When that rich soil the town of Watsonville is planted on is utilized to the fullest?

“It’s why I’ve been working on an alternative to fumigants for 20 years now,” he said.

Read Muramoto’s most recent research via a paper he co-authored here. It provides a framework and vision for future soil-borne disease management without using fumigants. “Although science and tools are not there yet, extremely active research is ongoing in this area worldwide since fumigant alternatives are urgently needed across the world,” he said.


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