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Organic farming in San Diego county.

April 17, 2012 1:02 p.m.


Eric Larsen, Executive Director, San Diego County Farm Bureau

Nan Sterman, Garden designer and author, "California Gardener's Guide Vol. II", and "Waterwise Plants for the Southwest".

Related Story: Organic Farming In San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Recently, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors gave an initial okay to a plan to get rid of eye gnats that breed in organic farms. The plan is not too popular because it allows the praying of nonorganic pesticides. As the plan is still being studied, we thought it might be a good time to find out about organic growing in San Diego. How far of our agriculture is made up of organic farms, and what their face. Eric Larson is executive director of the San Diego farm bureau. Welcome to the show.

LARSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Nan Sterman, welcome back.

STERMAN: Thank you, Maureen. Happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: I think most people am have an understanding that growing organic means not using pesticides but is it more than that?

STERMAN: Sure. Growing organic, there's a whole lot of components to it, and it's a very vague term. There's different definitions for organic. From a scientific preserve, requesting is organic that has carbon in it, that's not what we're talking about. But we're talking about avoiding pesticides, avoiding herbicides as much as possible, and the ones that you do use are based on natural products, so plant or animal-based. It also in that general term, organic growing would involve building the soil, adding organic matter, so you build the soil, you build the beneficial microbe, fungi, wrack tearia, because they're not all bad, so you build that soil population, and you have basically an ecosystem in the soil that's interacting with the roots of the plants, and you have an entire system rather than a plant in the ground, pour some fertilizer on it, and expect it to grow.

CAVANAUGH: Does it take more effort for someone to grow organically?

STERMAN: Well, not really because there's a lot of things you don't have to do. You don't want have to spray on a regular basis. Your fertilizing is done gradually. The fertilizer that you use tend to break down more slowly. So you fertilize at planting and at longer intervals because the synthetic fertilizer are available immediately but they tend to wash through the soil more quickly. You don't have to water as much. The maintenance tends to be low depending on the crop. Upon really, it's les input, it's just what you it choose to put in.

CAVANAUGH: Why do people want to do this in the first place? We all grew up eating foods that were sprayed with pesticides, we're still alive.

STERMAN: Yes, we have, but until the 40s, that was not the case. Pesticides, which Eric --

LARSON: World War II

STERMAN: Yeah, World War II was when all of the synthesized pesticides and herbicides, and fertilizer, that's when they came on the market. They didn't exist before then. So we are still the generation who has lived with nonorganic farming. It's called conventional farming, but actually it's unconventional farming.

CAVANAUGH: It's the one that came up since the '40s.

STERMAN: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: How much of a chunk of San Diego's agriculture is organically grown?

LARSON: We don't want have good numbers on the value. The values in San Diego County are checked in one big chunk. But we have about 60,000 I gaited acres in San Diego County, and just under 10% of those are certified organic. If we look at the value, the acreage, we're looking at just under 10%.

CAVANAUGH: And is that number increasing over the years?

LARSON: It has because the number of organic farmers has increased over the years. But see more increase with a new desire for urban farming, and a lot of small-plot farming, want the presence of organic farmers in this county have been and are still avocado and citrus growers.

Cavanaugh: And is this are a big export?

LARSON: If you look at the, avocado, they stay domestic. If you look at the smaller crops, strawberries, they're gonna stay right here in San Diego County. They tend to end up with community-supported agriculture boxes: The citrus can travel quite a distance. We have a couple packing houses who do ship it to markets quite a ways away.

CAVANAUGH: What are the challenges that organic farmers in San Diego County face that nonorganic farmers don't?

LARSON: Well, Nan said it simpler. I'm going to have a little bit of a disagreement on one item, and that's weeds. Organic farmers really have to fight weeds. They sit there and build up the soil, create this tremendous amount ever nutrition ins soil their plants, and they end up spending a tremendous amount of labor on weed troll, where I conventional farmer would just come in there with an herbicide. If you're an organic farmer, you're gonna -- hoeing the weeds or mechanic cool mowers and doing that. So weeds is a big challenge, and then being certified organic. You have to go through a certification process, and there's a pretty expensive recordkeeping.

CAVANAUGH: And we have on the live Jacqueline bower, director of qualify assurance.

BOWER: Thank you for judge having me.

CAVANAUGH: How is a grower certified as organic?

BOWER: And really any food manufacturer or food handler, they follow the same protocol, which would be the national organic program it's a federal regulation that illustrates and areas the requirements for the rabbling and production of organic food. They have to prove you that their operation has been following an organic operation for a minimum of three years. And it requires a formal audit to verify the organic practices. There must be an annual on-site inspector, where an inspector goes and checks for the -- it's a very long process that kind of makes filling out our tax forms look like a piece of cake. But as organic stamps in the marketplace, it's a matter ever accredited agents being the gate keepers for organic integrity, and insuring that promise to consumers.

CAVANAUGH: With the problem that some of our organ if I can farms in San Diego County have been having with eye gnats, what can and can't an organic operation do when it comes to eliminating pests and maintain that organic certification?

BOWER: I think Nan said it well. Organic farmers focus on prevention and being proactive, rather than relying on a huge tool kit of chemical can solutions to apply to their crops. They are restricted what they can use to control pests and weeds. The aim of organic production is doing -- makes the soil stronger and more resistant on to outbreak. I like to think of organic form farmers as dirt farmers, building soil, cover crops, things that build nitrogen naturally, and approved amendments like compost and manure, most people who garden can definitely appreciate the importance of really healthy soil of the it's the foundation for organic agriculture, building healthy soil, and pest loads will naturally lessen. If there is pest infestation, it's a matter of using more mechanical pest control methods, things like bug zappers, pheromone disrupters to detract from the mating of any type of pests.

CAVANAUGH: If a farmer was forced on use as I nonorganic pesticide, how difficult would it get to get recertified as organic?

STERMAN: It's more than 500 pages of definition for what is and is not planned for propagation. This would be proper cause to lose 1's organic certification as well as that rights to use the USDA organic symbol on their packaging and as toing. Fortunately and unfortunately we have water, wind, birds and bees, and therefore while we have the organic inclinations, sometimes there's that inadvertent contamination that can occur because of wind.

CAVANAUGH: Nan, there are organic pesticides and herbicides. How are they different from the nonorganic ones?

STERMAN: My understanding about -- those are products that are derived from plants -- mostly from plants. So they're plant products. If you think about is it, there are lots of plants that have toxic effects. Think about any of the plants that we're told not to eat because they're toxic. Plants in their natural environment, many of them if you ingest them would be toxic, and they're similarly toxic to bugs. Chrysanthemums, to my knowledge, those are considered to be organic pesticides. But they're from the actual plant materials rash rather than being synthesized chemically in a laboratory.

LARSON: And it's not just those items. There's also bacteria based pesticides. Things that will actually attack the digestive system of the inspector disrupt their life cycle some way.

STERMAN: Then there's things like nematodes, which are parasitic on some of the pests.