Sustainable Agriculture in the Walla Walla River Valley Basin

by Laura Nussbaum (’01) and Amity Priore (’01)

 

Trends

The production, sale, and consumption of organic foods has become an increasingly popular trend within the United States.  This report investigates the production and sales of organic foods within the Walla Walla Valley.  Specifically, it seeks to examine the certification programs within Washington and Oregon (local certification), the California program (considered the standard for organic certification) and the developing National Certification program (which will potentially affect all organic farmers and producers).  This report aims to evaluate the use, benefits and hindrances of the certification programs.  Organic farms in the valley were assessed to see what crops farmers produce, methods they use, whether or not they are certified, and if so, by which programs, the markets in which their food is sold, and their views on the production of organic crops.  Finally, the report will review markets themselves-the farmer’s markets, local supermarkets, CSA programs, restaurants and other areas that may support organic agriculture programs.

 

            The National Center for Public Policy reported in a June 2000 survey that 68-69% of Americans believe that organic labels mean that products are “safer and better for the environment” and a poll conducted by Norvatis, a genetic engineering company, found that 54% of consumers would like to see organic become the main form of food production.

 

The organic market is growing for a number of reasons:

·          Environmental benefits:  organic programs are often intended to minimize impact on immediate and surrounding lands.  They may increase soil fertility, pose less threat to nearby water resources, and may reduce the presence of chemical residues in land, water and air resources.

·          Organic markets also tend to be more localized, contributing to decreased energy use, decreased transport needs, less packaging.  In addition, organic markets bolster local economies and increase food security.

·          Consumers have also been concerned over the consumption of toxic residues, antibiotic drug residues (found in animal products), genetically engineered foods, and products which may carry the E-coli bacteria.

 

 

Certification Agencies

 

Washington Certification

            While forty-four organic certification agencies exist in the United States, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) Organic Food Program is one of 10 state government certification programs.  The other thirty-four certification programs are run by private agencies, as is the case in both California and Oregon.  When the WSDA Organic Food Program was founded in 1988, 63 certified organic farms existed.  As of 1999, the number of certified farms has increased to 446, along with 94 processors and 98 handlers.  Washington State statistics show that the organic food industry is growing at a rate of 20-30% per year.

            In general, organic refers to food that is both grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals.  All farmers who sell organic crops must be certified if they sell more than $5000 worth of organic product per year.  WSDA statutes demand that for land to be certified for growing organic crops, it must first maintain a 3-year period without the use of synthetic chemicals.  In the case of transitional organic certification, this requirement is at least one year.  Furthermore, under the WSDA standards a buffer zone of at least twenty-five feet must be maintained from the nearest source of prohibited materials.  A complete list of both approved and prohibited materials for organic crop production can be found on the WSDA Organic Food Program home page (http://agr.wa.gov/FoodAnimal/Organic/default.htm).  All certified growers must use untreated seeds unless they can prove that they are not commercially available.  However, all transplants must be grown organically from seed through harvest.

            In Washington, organic certification is required annually in which growers submit information that pertains to the following:

            - history of the production site

            - production practices

            - records of all sales of organic and transition to organic food products

- records of all materials applied to the plants and/or soil where the crop is being

produced

            - receipts of all materials used on the farm

            - proof of surrounding land use

            - the application of a cover crop or green manure

            - a map identifying the location of the site

            - crops and acreage in production

Once all the information is received, the farm is inspected by an Organic Field Inspector who reviews the production methods and sends a report to the Olympia office.  The certification process is long and can take up to 90-120 days for the application to be processed.  The certification process is not free.  Fees are based on organic sales and can range anywhere from $165 to $2000 per year.

 

*Information obtained from the Washington State Department of  Agriculture Organic Homepage (http://agr.wa.gov/FoodAnimal/Organic/default.htm)

 

 

California Certification

            Unlike Washington, California relies on private agencies for the organic certification process.  The main certification agency in California is called California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).  CCOF was founded in 1973 and became a pioneer in the organic certification business, helping to establish the guidelines and requirements followed by certification agencies nationwide.  CCOF was instrumental in the development of the 1990 California Organic Foods Act, which was modeled after their standards.

            The Certification process in California is very similar to Washington’s requiring a 3 year period without the use of synthetic chemicals as well as a large amount of paperwork and record keeping to be submitted in order to be approved for certification.  One of the notable differences in the organic policy between Washington and California is the lack of a required buffer zone.  According to CCOF standards, a buffer zone only needs to be implemented as it is “appropriate and practical in each situation.”  The fee for organic certification under CCOF is $200.

 

*Information obtained from the CCOF Website (http://www.ccof.org/)

 

 

Oregon Certification

            Oregon Tilth Certified Organic is a private certifying agency in Oregon (there is no state certifying agency).  This agency provides services for Oregon and out of state Growers and Livestock Producers, although fees and some procedures will vary between state and out of state certification and between first time certification and re-certifications.  Fees vary with projected gross sales.  The certification process appears to require similar standards of certification as compared with programs in California and Washington.

 

*For information on Oregon Tilth Certification: http://tilth.org/certification.html

 

 

 

National Certifying Standards

 

Currently, the USDA is developing a National Organic Program.  A set of guidelines was proposed in 1997 by the agency, and was subjected to public criticism for improvement.  A final set of standards will be issued later this year after public commentary is considered.  The National Standard will require that all producers of organic products be certified through the National Organic Program if they wish to market their products as organic.  This will provide more consistency in the standards of organic farming nationwide.  This program does not require farmers to be certified and attempts to resolve potential inconsistencies within the range of requirements currently set forth by different state agencies.

            State and private agencies will be accredited to certify producers according to the National Standards, and fees will be appropriated by the certifying agency, and will not go to the USDA.  Producers must submit applications including descriptions of practices, monitoring systems, record keeping systems, list of substances in production, and other information deemed by the certifying agency to evaluate compliance.  Requirements regulate: land use, soil fertility and management, seed planting and selection, crop rotation, crop pest weed management practices, wild crop harvesting, livestock origin, livestock feed, livestock health care practices and living conditions, organic handling requirements, facility pest management, contact/commingling with prohibited substances.  Farms must have a 3-year period without the use of prohibited substances before they can be considered organic.

 

 

*For information on the National Organic Program:  http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/index.htm

 

 

 

Information on Aspects of Organic Farms

 

Compost

            Compost is an integral part of Organic farming and is essential to maintaining maximum plant health.  Compost is important because it provides diversity, structure, nutrients, and helps maintain proper soil chemistry.  Three main composting methods exist:  thermal, worm and static composting

 

Thermal Composting:  “involves heat produced by bacteria and fungi that kills weed seeds and kills, or reduces as far as reasonably possible, human and plant disease-causing organisms.  The metabolic products produced are food for disease-suppressive and plant-growth-promoting organisms”  (http://Soilfoodweb.com/).

 

Worm Composting:  (vermin-composting) “involves the use of earthworms, usually red worms or litter worms, which consume the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods growing on the organic matter.  The worms mix the organic matter (i.e. turn the material as if they were little plows) and enhance the growth of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods.  The same disease-suppressive, nutrient-retaining and nutrient cycling benefits result in the end product, just as in thermal compost”  (http://Soilfoodweb.com/).

 

Static Composting:  “is used when the material to be recycled requires anaerobic decomposition to be broken down (such as steel belted radials) or contains materials that are such excellent bacterial food resources that they will become anaerobic without constant turning.  The same thermal requirements must be met as with thermal composting, but the pile is not turned until the last two weeks of the process.  Thus, static compost will be anaerobic during much of the early months of the composting process and except for the last two weeks, the pile must be much larger to prevent anaerobic odors from escaping”  (http://Soilfoodweb.com/).

 

For more information on compost, the uses, benefits, and methods, explore the SoilFood website  -- http://Soilfoodweb.com/

 

Seeds

 

            Currently, a debate exists over the manipulation and use of seeds by farmers.  To meet organic certification standards seeds must be untreated unless no untreated seeds of that type are available (documentation must be shown that a proper search was given towards obtaining seeds of that type).  To learn more about available organic seeds, check out these seed providers’ web sites:

 

            http://www.johnnyseeds.com/

            http://www.irish-eyes.com/

 

 

Organic Farms in the Walla Walla Valley

 

Ideal Organics Farm

Greg Schnorr

 

            Greg owns a six-acre farm off Wallula Road which he runs with the help of Sarah Grant.  He purchased the farm in 1998 from Bob Biles who had been farming it organically since the 1970’s.  The farm is certified through Washington State Certification Process.  Greg’s crops are grown from organic seeds bought from companies in Maine, Port Townsend (WA), and Ellensburg (WA), specifically Johnny’s seed company, Abundant Life Foundation, and Irish Eyes.  He does not save seeds from crops, but only uses seeds which fit the organic standard.

            To fertilize crops, as well as to suppress weeds, he uses varying combinations of fish, fertilizer, compost and mulches.  Greg is working on producing his own fertilizer, but has not yet created one.  He uses compost to keep crop areas “clean” as in the suppression of weeds.  For this purpose, the farm has received the leaves provided by the city of Walla Walla.  Steve Martin, from Dayton provided the compost machine to break the leaves down into usable material.  Sarah also brings some compost left over from the vineyards at which she works.

            To water crops, Greg uses drip tape.  Drip tape is made of plastic, which farmers typically rip up and throw away with each new season, creating a lot of waste.  Therefore, some sustainable farmers are attempting to devise an alternative way of watering crops with the benefit of efficient water conservation.

            Currently, the farm produces potatoes (Yukon Gold, Red, and Purple), pumpkins, eserol (salad green), curly endive, redeeshio (culinary item), beets, carrots, Indian popping corn, gourds, tomatoes, and lovage.  The items produced are sold to a number of different markets.  On the local scale, some produce is sold at the local farmer’s market and through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) service which Sarah has set up.  Also, Greg works at the Whitehouse Crawford Restaurant in Walla Walla to which he sells much of his produce.  On non-local markets, they have sold to markets in Spokane and to the Pike Place organic market in Seattle.  They also produce some flowers to sell cut.  These flowers can be sold locally, at the same marked-up price of non-locally produced pesticide crops, producing close to a one hundred percent profit.

            Greg envisions converting most of the farm into a vineyard to create a low maintenance mono-crop, instead of the high maintenance multi-crop system he now maintains.

 

 

Bob Biles

Wallula Road

 

            Bob Biles started his organic farm in the early 1970’s.  Inspired by the energy crisis during the Carter era, Bob, like many others, was looking for a different way of living.  He found the change he was looking for in organic, or “alternative farming” as he likes to call it, and became a pioneer in the organic movement in Eastern Washington.  Bob was the first certified organic farmer east of the Cascades and was very influential in the development of the Washington State Certification program.  Initially his farm consisted of 10 acres, but in 1998 he sold off six acres to Greg Schnorr.  Bob engaged in commercial farming for a number of years selling various products such as onions and apples.  Six years ago, he gave up commercial farming, along with his certification largely due to frustration with the bureaucracy of the certification process and the lack of demand for organic produce in Walla Walla.  Bob still grows food and flowers organically but on a much smaller scale selling at such places as the local farmers market, floral shops, Bon Appetit, Catering Services and to friends and co-workers.  He also plans to set up a road side stand in front of his home some time in the next few years.  For sale, Bob grows 25 different varieties of flowers from Asters to Zinnias, potatoes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and apples.  For home use he also produces broccoli, cauliflower, mint, carrots, basil, pepper, shallots, raspberries, and kale.  In addition, he also makes potting soil and transplant mediums.  In his farming techniques, Bob relies heavily on the use of compost and mulch to improve the health and quality of the soil.  He uses both large worm and rotating bin compost systems and he gets composting material from a variety of local sources, For instance, he uses leaves from Whitman College, food scraps from Bon Appetit, and grass clippings.  The only synthetic chemical used by Bob is Round-up to keep the weeds down along the garden paths.

 

 

Dab ‘O Gold Farm

John & Delores Beyersdorf

115 Detour Road

 

            For the Beyersdorfs, growing sustainably has long been a part of their lifestyle.  Delores was raised in Alaska where she claims, “you couldn’t get anything to grow,” so when she moved to Washington that is all she wanted to do.  The first experiments with organic gardening began with the home garden in West Seattle.  When the Beyersdorfs relocated to the countryside, their operation expanded into a full-scale farm.  They moved to various locations within the Moses Lake Basin and eventually to Walla Walla.  The size of their farms significantly increased in size with every move, all the while employing very sustainable farming techniques, being some of the first farmers to be certified organically in Washington.  The Beyersdorfs have lived in Walla Walla for the past four years and currently own about 110 acres which they use to grow both asparagus and Walla Walla Sweet Onions commercially.  About 10 acres of their land, mostly along the Walla Walla River is set aside for wildlife such as quail, wild turkeys, Blue Herons, and other animals.  The Beyersdorf land is currently certified under the Food Alliance Program based out of Portland, but they plan to have at least twenty-five acres of their onion crop certified under the Washington State certification program in 2001.  It is difficult to organically certify asparagus because herbicides are needed to suppress the weeds, but Delores thinks affordable alternatives will soon be available.  The Asparagus crop mostly goes into canned products of Jolly Green Giant, but particularly good harvests may also reach the frozen food section.  Of the Walla Walla Sweet Onions, a large amount is sold to stores and markets such as Albertson’s in Walla Walla, Charles Produce in Seattle, Pupos in Spokane, and Food Front in Portland.  The Beyersdorfs also sell a good deal of onions in a roadside stand located on their property.  In addition, to grocery stores, local restaurants such as White House Crawford and the Homestead also buy from the Beyersdorfs.  Overall, during the last growing season the Beyersdorfs produced 315,000 lbs of onions and 18,000 lbs of asparagus.

            In maintaining the integrity and the richness of their soil the Beyersdorfs use nutrient foliar to support their plants.  As Delores says, “We have never used a pesticide or a fungicide on our farm.  When the plant is healthy, those things are not needed.”  The process of monitoring soil requires the testing of nutrient levels within the plants, checking for imbalances which can then be corrected by adding the needed nutrient.  Furthermore, the Beyersdorfs have taken a very technological stance to sustainable farming.  For instance, they use a biological soil enhancement application called Micro 5000 distributed by Tainio Technology & Technique.  These microbes help to resist diseases, frost, and mildew while enhancing soil and plant quality and are approved under both Washington and Idaho certification acts.  Furthermore, like all organic farmers, the Beyersdorfs recognize the importance of composting, using a combination of straw, manure from their animals, grass clippings, leaves collected from the city of College Place, and wood chips gathered by the Walla Walla city tree trimmers as the basis of their compost composition.  In addition to growing commercially, the Beyersdorfs grow a variety of other crops such as potatoes, carrots, and beans for their own consumption and raise goats from which to produce their own dairy products.

 

For more information on the Food Alliance, look at:

            http://www.thefoodalliance.org

For more information on microbes contact

            http://www.tainio.com

 

 

Gratitude Farm

Mark Jones

 

            Mark Jones runs a large-scale farm operation in the Walla Walla Valley.  Mark moved here from the San Francisco Bay area in 1997, and has been working on his land ever since.  Having always been interested in farming, he took a Sustainable Agriculture class at UC Davis, but most of his farming knowledge is self-learned through books.  He runs his farm on the belief that organic foods produce a better product, are safer for workers, and are healthier for consumers.  He has twenty acres of certified organic land, 45 acres of transitional land, and 50 acres which he farms conventionally.  This is his first year being fully certified under Washington State standards.  Eventually, he would like to make the farm completely organic.  Previously, the land was farmed conventionally, producing sweet onions and wheat.

            Mark employs three full-time employees, though he also hires temporary labor during harvest periods.  His techniques for farming include the use of compost from Columbia Valley cow excrement, a fish emulsion, and biological farming (re-introducing essential microbes into the soil to allow soil chemistry to work).  For irrigation he uses wheel lines, hard lines and drip lines.  The wheel and drip lines have impact heads.  Drip lines have been the most expensive, must be torn up every year, and impede cultivation.  However, he feels that they are the most efficient and most effective.  He has thought about cultivating over plastic, which will keep weeds out of crops and ease cultivation.  However, it is not a particularly cheap option.  He buys his seeds from Johnny’s Seeds in Maine and from local growers, except for his onion seeds which he produces himself. 

            All his crops are produced for sale.  He has 20 acres of conventional Walla Walla Sweet Onions, and 6 acres of Certified Onions.  He produces winter squash which is also certified organic.  He produces spinach and cucumbers which are conventionally farmed.  Finally, he also has a market garden which is certified organic and produce is sold to the White House Crawford Restaurant in Walla Walla and Weinhard’s Café in Dayton.  Little of the other produce stays in the local market; his products are primarily shipped to Seattle and Portland where more lucrative markets for organic products exist.

            Jones believes that there is no easy crop and notes that profitability really varies.  He did not feel that the certifications process is particularly difficult, and that the state agency is fairly easy to work with.  He feels that large-scale organic production could be variably successful, but that the marketing end is the difficult area.  There are few local markets in the valley, and the distance between consumer and producer is a negative factor.

 

Markets in which local organic producers sell in the Walla Walla Valley

 

Farmer’s Market:  The farmer’s market provides a local venue where farmers can sell their products without a middleperson taking the majority of the profit.  To participate in the Walla Walla market, produce must be grown or collected by the vendor and he/she must pay a fee to sell at the market.  The market runs Saturdays and Thursdays between May 20 and October 21.  It is located at 4th and West Main in Walla Walla.

 

CSA Program:  Sarah Grant has begun a community supported agriculture program, whereby people put down money ($40/month) up front to support the farmer.  Each week of the month subscribers receive $10 of food products from the farmer.  This reduces the stakes for the farmer in producing crops and spreads the burden of possible problems to the consumer, as well.  In the valley, Grant’s program currently has 20 subscribers and the number of people interested is growing.

 

Supermarkets:

 

Albertson’s

450 N. Wilbur

 

            The selection of organic produce varies according to demand and the decisions the produce manager makes at each individual store.  In reality, Albertson’s can get any type of organic produce into their store but they are only going to market what they can sell.  Right now, demand in Walla Walla is not very high.  In fact, according to the produce manager, demand is barely high enough to bring in any organic produce at all.  However, on a national level, Albertson’s does require each store to retain a certain amount of organic products.  Currently, the Walla Walla Albertson’s carries organically grown Green and Red Leaf Romaine lettuce, green onions, yellow onions, acorn and butternut squash (grown locally), potatoes, oranges, grapes, bananas, Asian pears, and Bartlett apples (grown locally).  The price for organic produce is typically 2 to 3 times more expensive than traditionally grown foods.

 

  Restaurants:  Much of the produce of Ideal Organics goes to a local restaurant, The Whitehouse Crawford.  At present, they take whatever produce Greg Schnorr can supply.  However, in the future, he will plant according to their needs.  Restaurants constitute a steady demand for seasonal organic products.

 

Flowers:  Flower sales are highly beneficial to the organic market.  They are easy and cheap to produce, and can bring almost 100% profit.  Because shipped, flowers treated with large quantities of pesticides command higher prices.  Organic flower producers can utilize the high markup by charging the same price, without the added costs to the farmer, and receive larger economic benefits.

 

Issues confronting Sustainable Farmers in the Walla Walla Valley

 

The following options about sustainable agriculture are derived from a combination of interviews conducted with the farmers and producers mentioned within this website.

 

Local Markets

 

In producing with the philosophy of reducing impact, some farmers have preferred to produce for local markets to reduce energy use, in transport and packaging of products.  However, within the Walla Walla Valley, demand for organic products is not as high as in cities, according to Bob Biles.  He feels that many students from the colleges, specifically the Whitman community, are concerned with the availability of organic foods, but that other local residents are not as interested.  Hence, the farmer faces the problem of whether or not to transport crops to distant locations where a greater demand for organic products exists.  Another factor that affects consumer demand for organic products is the high cost of living in Walla Walla.  Because housing is so expensive, most people cannot afford to pay the price differential for organic products.  The availability of cheap local produce is simply too hard to compete with.  In addition, local grocery stores are a difficult market, as they tend to want a good value (low prices) to meet consumer demand.  This often includes providing specific products year round, which local producers are unable to accommodate.  Andy’s Market in College Place, WA does obtain most of its produce from local farmers, although many of the farmers are certified organic. 

 

 

Bureaucracy

 

Many of the farmers we talked with spoke of how difficult and time consuming the process of organic certification is.  To become certified, a producer must submit an incredible amount of information and records detailing every action undertaken on the farm.  By simply using one prohibited chemical in any stage of production, certification can be jeopardized for that year.  The strictness of and the amount of paperwork required by Washington’s Organic Food Program makes it difficult to comply with, especially for small farmer’s who often have other jobs and limited time.  Furthermore, the approval process takes a long time, anywhere from 90-120 days for the WSDA to issue Organic Food Producer Certificates.  Organic certification is a very timely process and in some cases the bureaucracy has discouraged farmers from obtaining certification, but this is not true for all farmers.

 

Lack of Government Incentives

 

            Although more and more people are calling for a shift in agricultural practices from the traditional chemical laden agriculture to more natural and organic agriculture, the government does not seem to be backing these demands.  While government certification agencies have been established in some states, as in Washington, the bulk of these certification programs are private.  The fact that a farmer must pay to become certified organic while a farmer who uses dangerous and polluting chemical pesticides pays nothing is problematic.  Why is the process of organic certification so costly when organic farming is actually healthier for both humans and the environment?  Why isn’t the government promoting organic farming and providing tax incentives to both help current organic farmers and entice other traditional farmers to make the transition?

 

Local Agricultural Production

 

            Why aren’t the majority of farmers growing sustainably in the Walla Walla area?  Some feel that farmers are too rooted in tradition.  The majority of the current farmers are university educated and large-scale chemical agriculture is what is taught at the university level.  Until university curriculum changes, farmers will continue to use chemicals and not think about the side affects.  Many feel that for farmers in Walla Walla to alter their habits, they will have to be forced to change, and it is doubtful that government agencies are going to initiate this change.

 

For information on sustainable agriculture technology:

            http://www.attra.org