Peninsula embracing organic

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What used to be a niche market for organic food is becoming big business in San Mateo County, though a pesky moth is causing headaches for local farmers.

Half Moon Bay farmer Stan Pastorino knows the local fruits and veggies market is changing. He began farming three of the county’s 190 acres of organic farms in June when he secured state certification to grow organic produce. He harvests 160 variations of crops, including 19 types of potatoes, deriving from many of the 38 different crops grown organically in the county.

County Agricultural Commissioner Gail Raabe called the shift in organic farming a noteworthy movement for the region’s $605 million per year agriculture industry. It drives prices for the historically costly organic produce down and improves supply, culminating with the county’s first all-organic grocery store, New Leaf, which opened in Half Moon Bay in June, she said.

The county is still dominated by farmers who use chemical sprays, but cultivators are using organic methods more than ever, and ultimately it is the consumer that benefits, Raabe said. Typically, organically grown produce remains in the area and is sold to local residents, as opposed to conventionally grown food sold at chain grocery stores, she said.

“We are seeing what I hope will be a continuing trend,” Raabe said. “What it means is that there is a market, a growing market, for organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables [in San Mateo County].”

It was no accident that New Leaf built its new 21,000-square-foot grocery store in San Mateo County, said General Manager Rex Stewart. It held a symposium of potential purveyors in February, and more than 50 local growers showed up with their products, he said.

Nearly the entire New Leaf produce section is organic, and county farmers, including Pastorino, supply as much of it as possible, Stewart said.

“To all people, it’s not going to make any difference; to some people, it will,” Pastorino said.

Pastorino said the ongoing concern over the light-brown apple moth is leaving organic growers with constant anxiety.

Organic farmers face a tough choice if the moth infests their crops: They could spray the moth with chemicals to quickly eradicate it, a violation of organic standards that would strip the farm of its organic certification for three years. If they chose to use slower, organic eradication methods, and save their organic license, they must stop growing crops in the moth-infested areas for 60 days so the pest’s larvae has time to die.

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” Pastorino said. “I’d probably have to bite the bullet and wait the 60 days.”

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

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