California Certified Organic Farmers

A grassroots partner in the organic movement
Written by: 
Molly Shaw

In the last decade, the organic movement has exploded and the sector is one of the fastest growing in agriculture. Increased consumer awareness means more shoppers are searching for foods grown without GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, or harsh synthetic pesticides and chemicals. As a result, more farmers are seeking organic certification to meet this pressing demand.

California has been a leader in this movement, pushing for higher growing standards and starting one of the first certified organic programs. The state continues to lead the nation in organic production.

California Certified Organic Farmers

Behind California’s organic producers is California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), a nonprofit organization that works to advance organic agriculture for a healthier world through education, advocacy, and the certification of organic products. CCOF’s envisions a world where organic is the norm.   

“We work every day to support existing organic producers and to bring more into the fold,” says Cathy Calfo, executive director/CEO of CCOF.

California sets the organic standard

CCOF is a grassroots organization, founded by 54 grower members in 1973 for the purpose of defining organic standards, certifying early growers and creating a market for products. In infancy, all CCOF operations were run out of founder Barney Bricmont’s Santa Cruz, California, home. His dining room served as the office and members would meet around the kitchen table.

“In the early ‘70s, after Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’ came out there was a lot of talk among the public and farmers about the use and potential impacts of pesticides; this is one of the factors that spawned some farmers to think about farming in a different way,” shares Calfo.

In its formative years, CCOF worked with major organizations such as the Rodale Institute to establish a certification process, determine how to define organic production and push for state and national programs. “It started as a peer-to-peer process,” recounts Calfo. “In the beginning farmers went about certifying each other and the movement began to grow slowly. Up until 1979, California farmers could not direct market produce and there wasn’t a strong market for anything labeled organic, other than what was then a string of emerging natural food stores.”

In 1979, CCOF farmers managed to pass a state organic program law, which helped to spur a national organic program. “The goal was to create consumer confidence in what you’re buying and knowing that it is in fact organic,” says Calfo.

With a standard for organic production and greater social awareness, CCOF’s membership began to rapidly grow. Today the organization has more than 3,100 members and numerous chapters throughout North America. A lot of CCOF’s impact happens on this local level with members organizing consumer educational events, advocating for organic research and programs, and collaborating with higher-ed institutions. Chapters also host networking opportunities so members can connect with potential buyers and find farming resources.

Pressure to meet consumer demand

CCOF is the largest certifier of organic operations in North America, but its role extends well beyond certification; the organization serves as a partner educating farmers through the process of becoming certified and marketing their products.

Although there is now a huge demand for organics, Calfo says there are many barriers still in place preventing farmers from making the transition. “Since 2003 we’ve seen a surge in organics, with more than $40 billion in organic sales last year, but there’s a disconnect, because less than 2 percent of land is farmed in the U.S. is organic production,” she explains.

Calfo says the U.S. not only lacks the agricultural infrastructure to support increased production of organic crops to keep pace with consumer demand, but also there are many hurdles farmers face trying switch over. “We’re seeing a rise in organic imports, which are certified to USDA standards but this means a loss of economic opportunity and environmental benefits domestically,” she says. “The three-year transition period is a long time for farmers to produce organically without realizing the organic price premium.”

To start an organic operation, farmers need to build the soil and it takes time. During this period you can’t charge the organic rate for your products, even though it costs more and yields can initially be lower.”

Another factor that’s putting a pinch on small organic and other startups is industrywide consolidation. “There’s been mass consolidation in this industry,” says Calfo. “Not to mention land shortages, droughts, and labor issues farmers face on top of everything.”

Farmers are also competing for shelf space in a sea of labels claiming all-natural and non-GMO. “Retailers are looking to fill whatever meets demand and that a lot of people don’t realize is GMOs are prohibited in organic production, but non-GMO is not necessarily organic,” notes Calfo.

Startup support for farmers

CCOF continues to find ways to help farmers make the switch by alleviating some of the challenges in starting out. Through its charitable foundation, CCOF offers grant opportunities and hardship/disaster relief support, in addition to promoting the USDA’s organic certification cost-share program. The cost-share program helps farmers and processors struggling to afford certification costs by refunding them up to 75 percent.

“Crop insurance has not been as widely available to organic producers as it has for conventional in the past,” says Calfo. The new farm bill passed in 2014 reinstated the organic cost-share program in all 50 states, totaling more than $13 million per year in refunds.

CCOF is also working to reduce paperwork and fees for California’s organic producers so they can focus on what they do best — producing quality crops. CCOF recently sponsored AB1826 — the California Organic Food and Farming Act (COFFA), passed the California Assembly in a unanimous, cross-party vote in favor of reducing fees and paperwork burdens on California’s organic producers.

The unified show of support underscores the critical role organic producers play in California’s economy and environment. The hope is to boost organic production and put farmers in a more competitive economic position.

The demand for organics shows no signs of slowing. While farmers continue to make their best efforts for healthy, environmentally-beneficial products in the field, California Certified Organic Farmers is protecting their best interest through certification, education, advocacy and ongoing support.