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Local is the new organic 

Regional farmers and grocers shed label after big business butts in

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The organic label often conjures images of chemical-resistant tree-hugging farmers toiling to provide the healthiest produce possible.

But these days organic farming is often conducted by huge mechanized agribusinesses, supported by federal and state bureaucracy. The actual produce is then shipped cross-continent to market.

As a result, many longtime organic farmers -- now skeptical of their own label -- are looking for something else to call their food.

"We're disenfranchised organic farmers," said local organic farmer Daniel Hobbs, who is the co-founder of the Tres Rios food co-op. "Organic farming has gone the way of corporate America."

The solution, Hobbs says, is to encourage shoppers to buy chemical-free produce from local sources -- without calling it organic.

Tilting the marketplace

This spring, six chemical-free farms and ranches, along with three independent natural grocery stores in Colorado and New Mexico are launching a new food label. They call it "Beneficial" -- a label that backers say will guarantee to customers that the food is not only chemical free, but also produced close to home.

"We're expecting that fresh, local and healthful will be the next wave," Hobbs said, "and be bigger than organic."

But because of massive federal and agribusiness participation, replacing organic as the mark of quality may be tough.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's certified organic label, required since October 2002 for organic food producers selling more than $5,000 worth of goods, has tilted the marketplace in favor of large-scale growers and chains such as Whole Foods, Hobbs said.

"They've compromised the values of organic," said Tejon Street Market co-owner Melissa Marts, who will offer Beneficial-labeled produce at her downtown grocery store. "Organic doesn't necessarily mean organic anymore," she said, adding that the USDA allows a percentage of chemicals and non-organic seeds in certain cases.

Big-operation critics like Hobbs point to the risk of seeds from genetically modified crops blowing into organic fields.

And then there's the paperwork. Hobbs, whose vegetable and seed farm is certified organic, said that the certifying agents "spent three hours going through my files and receipts and then went out in the field for, like, six minutes." He said that frustration with the fee, which can range from $800 to $2,500 in Colorado, is driving small farmers away.

Creating regional identities

Organic farming has "saved a lot of farms," particularly small ones, said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.

Putting an organic label on foods, she said, can often drive sales by tapping into the increasingly large market of health- and environment-conscious consumers.

"People can say it's too much paperwork to get certified," she said. But without the organic label, she said, you can't be sure you're getting food produced with only natural fertilizers and pesticides.

And if the cost of being labeled organic is too high, she said, farmers are often able to apply for a federally funded rebate. In Colorado, that rebate usually amounts to $500, and 83 Colorado farms received the subsidy in 2004, according to state figures.

Coming up with a new term for chemical-free food has been "hugely frustrating," Hobbs conceded. But he and Marts take solace in the exploding number of regional eco-labels similar to the Beneficial label in places like California.

Hobbs hopes Beneficial farms and ranches can establish a local food network throughout Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. "People want to create a regional identity," he said.

-- Dan Wilcock

  • Regional farmers and grocers shed label after big business butts in

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