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April, 2006

Something Stinks In Marin's Organic Certification
By Carol Sterritt

What is the process that allows a food producer in West Marin to obtain the desirable "organic" label? Unlike all but one other county in California, the growers in our community look no further than the County Ag Commissioner's office in order to apply for this labeling.
On first glance this would seem to offer a value-added convenience --yet another amenity of having a Marin County address.

But stop and think about it. If Ag Commissioner Stacy Carlsen's office is in charge of offering the proof of the organic stamp of approval, this might make it easier than applying at the state level as farmers in other counties do. But what happens if you really do value the integrity of the organic label. So when you hear that other ranchers and farmers are going to spray either 2-4D or Transline aerially, would you freely protest against this? And if you did so would you be worried about the consequences?

Alternate Versions of Reality Collide
For the dirty little secret is that the Ag Commissioner's Office is not only in charge of offering the organic certificates, but is in charge of granting the spray permits as well.

The Ag Commissioner's Office has created the process that organic gardeners undergo to receive certification. When a grower goes to the Office, they are offered Web sites and other information to help them become knowledgeable as to what being organic entails. Then the grower must submit the written application to the Ag Commissioner Office. The grower also submits a one time $200 application fee. After the package is reviewed, one of the field officers goes and inspects the property where the produce will be grown. There is a $70 an hour fee for the inspection.

The officers in charge of the program like the fact that all the records are under one roof. Since a landowner has been required to ask for a permit whenever they need to spray, it is easy for them to review the parcel in question and determine when the last time that pesticides have been used there. To receive organic standing, the grower must have kept the land free from pesticides for three full years.

When there is a conflict between an organically certified grower and a neighbor whose use of pesticides might imperil the purity of the organic crop, the County feels that by requiring a buffer zone of the pesticide-user, all will be well.

That is the official version of the reality.

But by talking to a handful of organic growers in West Marin, it was easy to see that the actual "street" version of this reality is quite different. First of all, people in West Marin understand that a great deal depends on having good relationships with your neighbors. If you make trouble for a neighbor, you may be safer in terms of the purity of your products, but what other aspects of safety will you sacrifice? It is your neighbors who help you in many ways-letting you know if a fence goes down in a windstorm, helping you put out a fire occurring on your property. If you endanger these working relationships, aren't you leaving yourself wide open to unpleasant retribution?

And should an organic producer speak out and protest the policies of the County in regard to allowing for aerial spraying, how hard would it be for the County to negatively impact that producer the next time the yearly renewal form sits on a desk in the County Ag Commissioner's office…

Well, you say, perhaps at that point you could turn to one of the lead organizations, Marin Organic, that serves as a needed resource for those in the organic community.

The results of my interview of Helge Hellberg, who heads Marin Organic, offer me little reassurance. During the morning of March 23rd, I asked him what his thoughts were about the fact that the Ag Commissioner's office not only certifies the organic farms but grants the permits for aerially spraying. Far from having any concerns, Hellberg answered that he would welcome that, if that were the case, but that I was incorrect as far as understanding procedures.

Here is the interview with Hellberg
Hellberg speaking on the Ag Commissioner being in charge of both granting spray permits and offering organic status: "How could there be a better way for the County Ag Commissioner to know exactly what was happening-he would know what was held in both hands."

"And that wouldn't be a conflict of interest?"

"Why no because don't you see, he could best determine and understand the impact of the situation."

A slight pause. Hellberg continues. "And besides what you are saying, Carol, is simply not the case. The Ag Commissioner's Office does not have the ability to offer permits to the ranchers. He's not allowed to do that. The farmers have the right to spray and that is their right and there is no need for them to apply for permits. They spray and only after they spray does the Ag Commissioner get involved."

"After they spray, then he gets involved?"

"But the ranchers do not make any applications for permits?"

"No of course they don't. But after they spray the Ag Commissioner comes in and makes determinations about spraying."

"And you don't see a conflict of interest?"

Only after re-interviewing a local rancher was I able to calm my nerves and override the above misinformation. The ranchers really do need to obtain a permit in order to spray. The permit is granted by the Ag Commissioner's Office, County of Marin. No helicopter pilot will undertake the spraying of pesticides until he has that permit in his hands. It is disconcerting that the head of Marin Organic does not know that the ranchers need to obtain spray permits. The additional fact that Hellberg entertains only the same viewpoint as the Ag Commissioner's Office is bewildering.

How is it that Marin Organic is not hearing the concerns that I hear when I interview the organic producers? And if he does not hear these concerns, how can he properly determine any strategy of merit to help cope with the problem.

This is a shame because Hellberg's yearly events raise a great deal of money for his organization. Since money offers clout, Marin Organic would be the perfect organization to deal with the problem. Unlike little small time growers, he is someone that Ag Commissioner Carlsen would take seriously. But with Hellberg refusing to see the elephant in his midst, he won't need to deal with it. So there is no effective way for the organic community to unite "off the record" and take their concerns to a larger organization. No strategy is offered to deal with such things as concern about aerial drift, or about whether the buffer zones created by the County are adequate. And a resource sorely needed by Marin's organic community remains non-existent.

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