The first full-time employee of California Certified Organic Farmers and the co-founder of the Organic Farming Research Foundation shares stories and humor from the early days of organics.
The following interview has been edited and condensed from its original form.
Modern Farmer: You were an environmental activist in the ’70s. What led you to make the connection between the environment and agriculture?
Bob Scowcroft: I landed at Friends of the Earth (FOE) in 1979 with an idea to counter the prevailing corporate voice as the only voice representing the future of our remarkable United States. My idea was to organize small businesses to counter that as a grassroots voice. We organized natural food stores on Agent Orange and spray drift [pesticide] initiatives.
MF: So you went from fighting poisons to fighting for poison-free food?
BS: Right. Around that time, an organic farmer and a cooperative grocery in the Bay Area came to me in San Francisco and said, ‘hey, we saw your brochures and your campaign – you should really be for organic farming, rather than against these particular herbicides.’ The fact of the matter is, there are 7,000 or 8,000 agricultural chemicals out there, and you’re never going to regulate them all.
MF: Sounds like you shifted your focus not just from corporate pollution to safe, healthy food, but from resistance-style activism to proactively creating alternatives.
BS: These two gentleman persuaded me. They said, ‘you should really be for something. You should be for organics; no environmental group has ever supported our work.’
In the early eighties, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the EcoFarm Conference as the only environmentalist to ever embrace organics. All hell broke loose from there on out.
MF: That’s astonishing – it’s hard to believe that environmental groups weren’t rallying behind organic farmers at that point!
BS: In the early eighties, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at the EcoFarm Conference as the only environmentalist to ever embrace organics. All hell broke loose from there on out.
MF: I can imagine. What happened next?
BS: There was a state law in California that was the only legal definition of organic in the country [at the time]. It had a sunset clause that needed to be renewed [and made] into a more permanent standard. It was actually parked under the Health and Safety Code, not the Department of Agriculture, because agriculture, for some of the historic reasons at that time – unlike now – didn’t want to have anything to do with the term ‘organic;’ [they] thought it was bogus. Of course, we’d heard for decades that it was just a hippie garden project. They were wrong.
MF: I take it that you were successful in lobbying for the law’s renewal?
BS: FOE didn’t have an active ag program; they were never really interested, and they weren’t sure if it wasn’t just too controversial for them at the time. But with a little internal give-and-take, they allowed me to sign our name on, and Friends of the Earth publicly came out supporting the rule. A brand-new assemblyman agreed to carry it. There wasn’t that much controversy actually, it wasn’t a big deal; it was passed, they approved it. Absurdly enough, I remember that code to this day – it was 26569911.
MF: I’m curious who that assemblyman was.
BS: The assemblyman was Sam Farr. Sam eventually took Leon Panetta’s place and ran for Congress and is now the minority rep for the House ag appropriation subcommittee 35 years later. Sam and I have gotten ever closer over the years. That’s how it started.
Me: At what point did you leave FOE and begin to work full-time in the organic industry at CCOF?
BS: Friends of the Earth had gone through a structural failure, and everybody left. We were living in Palo Alto and moved down to Santa Cruz in ’85. I had a secretarial type job to keep the insurance covered. And then in ’87, a buddy of mine that I had met in the early ’80s – a guy by the name of Mark Lipson – encouraged me to apply for the position [at CCOF]. Mark was there part-time; I think he started in ’85, and they hired me to be the first full-time staff in late ’87. I went through a both serious, and occasionally hilarious, interview process with a lot of different farmers.
Me: What was your first order of business at CCOF? Was this the period of the infamous ‘Carrot Caper’?
BS: It was an incredible era in the first three years where we identified a fraudulent program and called them out. The [California] law had no enforcement protocol in it, and the board of [CCOF] decided that if we were the folks leading the charge, certification really didn’t mean much if we couldn’t stand up for our certified growers.
MF: Right, so California now had a law on the books that said if you are going to label your produce organic, then these are the rules. And you discovered someone who was breaking that law?
BS: It was a packing house. They were buying truckloads of carrots from Mexico and re-packing them as organic. We went for it all the way. We hired an attorney to get the state to enforce the law, but they wouldn’t do it. So we went to the county and tried to get them to do it under the pretense of false advertising. Ultimately we went to the press.
MF: I know you were tipped off that this was going on, but how did you actually gather evidence against these people?
BS: A friend went with a little newsletter on the pretense of interviewing the packer and went in the back of the house and took photos of them repacking. It was unbelievable! They gave them to me anonymously and we did a [press] release to the San Jose Mercury News, which at that time was one of the top 10 national newspapers. We said, ‘the state won’t enforce this, and we’re not standing for it… .This is a fraudulent operation, shut them down.’ The Mercury, at some stress to the reporter, wanted to know who the photos came from, which we did release to them.
MF: What was the response?
BS: The wires picked it up, the TV news picked it up; they went down there, and the state was there too, appropriately. It became a national story. That led to the packer going out of business, and it led to us having a lot more credibility. And it led to a call for the rewriting of the California Organic Foods Act to include fraudulent and felony penalties.
MF: How did that change things at CCOF?
BS: It was a great risk for us at the time. We put our name on the line and showed some real gumption and fortitude. Remember that organic was still considered something you hand wrote on a piece of cardboard – it was not really considered viable, there were no real standards, the industry wasn’t recognized, no studies had been done on its size or scale… .and here were these farmers saying that it’s big, it’s important, it’s an alternative and verified way to produce food, it works – and this guy is cheating. We want him busted. In our oral history, that became the ‘Carrot Caper.’
MF: How did it change things for the organic movement?
BS: The important theme all along here is that it came from the farmers, large and small, that were really sick of paying for certification, following the rules, being transparent within the CCOF guidelines, and then having someone sit up next to them and say, ‘hey I can call mine organic too, and you can’t do anything about it.’ We spent a lot of money and built a coalition with other environmentalists who I’d stayed in touch with, and even a consumer group or two, to pass the state law.
MF: How did all this dovetail with what was going on nationally at the time?
BS: Remarkably, intensely, around that time our group was percolating throughout the state, the NRDC (National Resource Defense Council) did a report on 60 Minutes on 20 suspected carcinogenic chemicals. You had Senator Leahy (D-Vermont) and his staff, including Kathleen Merrigan (a former deputy director of agriculture at the USDA), going around the country saying, organic is real in Vermont, but we’re having difficulty getting into other markets, because there is one line here, and one paragraph there that’s different than our law, and there’s no federal consistency, so maybe we should write a national law.
I get a burr under my saddle when anybody anywhere says organic doesn’t mean as much anymore.
MF: Sounds like the grassroots movement was catching fire. When was the national standard passed?
BS: The Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990. It all happened in the course of about 18 months. My hair turned gray and I gained a lot of weight… just kidding… .but we worked really hard for two years. Hundreds and hundreds of growers joined CCOF. We had evening news TV crews surround us. We were in the halls of Congress. A national alliance of farmers again led the way. These outspoken indigenous organic groups representing all sizes and scales at that time came together in agreement that we needed a federal standard that had a felony enforcement protocol in it.
MF: So the term ‘organic’ finally had some teeth to it. What’s your take on the organic movement today?
BS: I don’t hear Birkenstocks and hippies anymore, thank goodness. But I do hear lack of infrastructure, lack of information, lack of regional resources to assist people in figuring things out. I hear the squeaky wheels that are saying: That guy isn’t really pure or they’re just taking advantage of all my hard work.
MF: There’s no shortage of people who criticize the organic industry for getting too big. Costco is now the number-one organic retailer, for example.
BS: I get a burr under my saddle when anybody anywhere says organic doesn’t mean as much anymore, that it’s been weakened – I say, okay you want some trouble here or what? It’s the only standard that’s outside our agro-industrial system. Sure it needs improvement, sure we might differ on some points within it. But don’t tell me – because there’s no evidence, or possibly very little evidence – that some dark corporate hand is at play here to weaken the organic standard.
The kids that are coming into [organic farming] have a look in their eyes that is so empowering and moving to those of us that have been doing it for 30 years. The future – not that it isn’t going to be hard – but the future is bright, I think.
MF: What do you think motivates that line of thinking then?
BS: It comes from NGOs that have their own agendas and fundraising mechanisms and their own claims to being the great voice of this most purest… .and then you can fill in the blank – environmental, consumer or self-proclaimed organic label. In the meantime, organic farmers are making more money growing more food, expanding the marketplace, getting certified, and working with their verification programs all over the country.
MF: Still, in looking back, do you think the movement lost any of its soul?
BS: I think anyone that goes to an organic farming conference will see, touch, feel, taste, and maybe even dance to the soul of organic. It’s exciting, it’s positive; the kids that are coming into it have a look in their eyes that is so empowering and moving to those of us that have been doing it for 30 years. The future – not that it isn’t going to be hard – but the future is bright, I think.