From: Kathleen Hennessey, Associated Press
Published September 12, 2005 12:00 AM

California Farmers Want Classification for 'Sustainable' Produce

SACRAMENTO — Shoppers who are attracted to organic fruit and vegetables but put off by their often steep prices may soon have a less expensive alternative in sustainable produce.


That's the hope of environmentalists, farmers and public officials who want produce grown according to sustainable agricultural standards to be certified, labeled and marketed as such.


Certified growers of sustainable produce would have to meet requirements regarding soil management, water quality, wildlife protection and labor practices, as well as pesticide use.


Supporters say such produce would be more affordable than organic fruits and vegetables.


Cheryl Brickey, executive director of Protected Harvest, a Maryland-based nonprofit that certifies produce as being grown according to sustainable practices, said too many Americans cannot afford to pay for organic produce.


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"We're trying to break that barrier," she said.


Protected Harvest's certification program does not prohibit farmers from using synthetic pesticides -- one of the most notable differences between it and organic certification.


Farmers are scored on their pesticide practices and are asked to do detailed research before applying chemicals. Less is better, but other factors are considered, said Bruce Rominger, a tomato farmer outside Sacramento.


"If you can't use chemical herbicide, you have to kill those weeds some other way," he said. "One way is to go out with a tractor and cut them out, but that costs you money, too, and you're burning diesel and you're stirring up the ground and could be causing erosion."


Protected Harvest mandates conservation practices, such as leaving buffer zones around trees and waterways to protect wildlife, and requires farmers to train workers in certain practices.


But the group faces opposition from a well-established organic industry that does not welcome the competition.


"These new eco-label and verification schemes tend to really just muddy the waters with questions," said Jake Lewin, marketing director at California Certified Organic Farmers, an organic certification and trade group. "It's not clear to consumers, 'What is this product and why should you want it?'"


This summer, Protected Harvest received about $500,000 in grants from state and federal agencies to help develop the labeling system for a sustainable tomato billed as the 'Sacratomato.'


The group also has plans to certify sustainable strawberry, plum and nectarine farms. Seven vineyards already have the Protected Harvest certification.


The programs are being modeled after the "Healthy Grown" potato in Wisconsin that is certified by Protected Harvest.


Rominger, the tomato farmer, will be one of the first to grow the Sacratomato, which will initially be marketed to processing plants.


Rominger said he does not want his tomatoes to be niche products. He thinks the benefit of sustainable certification is that the label is designed to be practical and profitable for large operations.


Protected Harvest says it is too soon to know what the Protected Harvest California produce will cost. But farmers such as Rominger say their commitment to the project is about more than profit.


"I want somebody else to be able do this on this land 100 years from now," he said.


Source: Associated Press


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