California Tomato Farmers Dabble in Sustainable Agriculture
California's Central Valley growers want to make the humble tomato, the main ingredient of ketchup, pizza and spaghetti sauce, into a dominant new player in a growing movement to curb the use of pesticides and fertilizers on U.S. farms.
After years of unsteady prices and crop yields, farmers in leading tomato counties such as Fresno, Yolo, San Joaquin and Colusa hope to boost profits and keep consumers happy by dabbling in the burgeoning movement known as "sustainable agriculture."
Central Valley farmers supply 95 percent of the nation's processing tomatoes.
Tomato growers and processors hope special labeling will one day generate sales for their produce, much as organic growers do for their crops. Some industry representatives have begun teaming with a nonprofit Maryland group known as Protected Harvest to use that moniker as a label for "sustainably grown" tomato products.
Labeling could begin within two years for tomato juice, salsa, sauces and ketchup -- more than half of a product lineup that grosses a whopping $5 billion on grocery shelves.
"We're kind of putting our toes in the water and getting a feel for it," said Rich Rostomily, administrator of the California tomato industry's largest processor, Woodland-based Morningstar Packing Co. "We do support it."
Asked what percentage of the tomato crop currently is sustainably grown, Rostomily said: "I'd be surprised if it's more than 10 percent. It's just not very much at this stage."
Estimates are hard to come by because the industry has not yet defined what sustainable agriculture means in the tomato business, but Protected Harvest has a plan to do just that.
So-called eco-labeling represents the newest twist in a food labeling movement that touts organic produce nationally -- "California-Grown" food in the Golden State, "Healthy Grown" food in Wisconsin, and in some instances, food and wine from California counties that ban genetically modified foods.
Even as organic growers often criticize "sustainable agriculture" as falling short of their environmental objectives of ending the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, its boosters believe they can prod more change on the farm with a gradual approach.
"We strongly support organic agriculture," said Erik Olson, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental group. "But this can be an addition that can reach a much wider swath of the economy and of agriculture."
Winters-based tomato grower Bruce Rominger acknowledged a need for changes, saying: "We use pesticides that you can use at ounces per acre. But we have some we need to phase out, realistically, and we're working on that."
Sustainable farming is a 1980s label that has come to mean greater use of predatory insects to control pests, less plowing to curb dust and planting more offseason crops that replenish soil nutrients. It advocates family farms, greater crop diversity, better farm labor conditions and healthier rural economies.
The 4-year-old "Protected Harvest" logo, which already marks sustainably grown potatoes from nearly 6,000 acres in Wisconsin, won both praise and more than $500,000 in government funding Monday in Sacramento.
During a capital city appearance, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson stressed that "sustainable agriculture is very important to President Bush."
"Consumers want to know the food they buy is healthy for their families and is grown responsibly," he said.
Johnson's appearance marked the agency's $78,000 contribution to the tomato effort, alongside $425,000 from the California Water Resources Control Board.
The money, given to Protected Harvest, will fund a book of mutually agreed practices that specifically define "sustainably grown" for tomato processors.
Only growers and processors that follow those practices can label their product, said Carolyn Brickey, executive director of Protected Harvest, based in Arnold, Md. The group has also received a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to eventually launch more sustainable farming practices in the state's tree fruit industry.
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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News