Down on the farm:
San Diego agriculture

Sustainable agricultural is making a difference for health and the environment.

by Delia Hitz
bsolutely everyone eats, and anything that everyone does has a huge impact on the economy and environment - both good and bad. In the back of our minds, we know that our sustenance is grown somewhere. What you may not realize is that agriculture is a very big part of the business and environmental picture right here in San Diego.
Agriculture is our county's fourth largest industry, accounting for 1.6 percent of the gross regional product in 1994. There are 6,180 farms in the county. Agri-interests used 173,123 acres last year (more than half for livestock), worth more than $1 billion in revenue. For every dollar spent directly on farm products, an additional $3.50 of value is created, making a total impact of more than $4.5 billion.
The largest crop values are generated by nursery products and flowers ($585 million); fruits and nuts ($268 million); and vegetables ($87 million). The value of the 1994 avocado crop was the largest in San Diego history ($142 million). The $98 million citrus crop is also a big contributor. Additionally, tomatoes contribute $20 million and herbs $18 million. Livestock products are also significant: milk at $20 million, eggs at $58 million, and cattle and calves at $14 million.

Growing practices

Agriculture has changed dramatically since the end of World War II. Food and fiber productivity soared due to new technologies, mechanization, increased chemical use, specialization and government policies that favored maximizing production. These changes have had many positive effects and have reduced many risks in farming,
However, there have also been significant problems with the practices these policies and technologies have encouraged. Prominent among these are topsoil depletion, groundwater contamination, the decline of family farms, continued poor living and working conditions for farm laborers, and increasing costs of production.
During the past two decades, a new movement for "sustainable agriculture" has begun to challenge the assumptions that generate these problems. Sustainable agriculture addresses many environmental and social concerns, in addition to offering innovative and economically viable opportunities for growers, laborers, consumers, policy makers and consumers.
Growing practices determine the ultimate sustainability of a farming enterprise. There are currently two major directions farmers are taking to enhance sustainable agriculture: Integrated Pest Management, and the more stringent Organic Farming.

Pests Disintegrated

The "non-integrated" approach to pests is simple: dose the crops regularly with pesticides that kill everything in sight. However, the growers started to look at the economic and biological considerations of this approach. One factor, of course, is the cost of the chemicals. Also, the pesticides eliminate all insect populations - good and bad - while aiming at one target pest. Over time, the pests can become resistant to the chemicals, requiring ever more toxic formulations. A serious by-product is the loss of microorganisms vital to a healthy soil. Further, the pesticides jeopardize the safety of the workers.
Mary Mattava, an agronomist with AgriServices in Vista, notes that more farmers are now using "Integrated Pest Management" (IPM) methods to control pests. These include irrigation management, the use of genetically pest-resistant varieties of plants and use of beneficial insects to control pests - many of the methods traditionally used in organic agriculture.
She adds that many of the registered pesticide applications are soaps, oils, and detergents. IPM farmers use synthetic fertilizers, sometimes in combination with organic fertilizers such as manures, which add organic matter to the soil. "[IPM farmers] use pesticides only when economic damage is imminent, and they utilize pesticides that will have the least environmental impact while controlling pests," she states.
Most of San Diego County's agricultural acreage is in tree crops (49,262 acres vs. 7,899 acres of vegetable crops.) Over the past decade, most tree crop farmers have been using IPM to control pest problems.

Organic Farming

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) was formed as a requirement of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to help develop standards for the production and processing of agricultural products to be marketed as "organic." The NOSB defines "Organic Agriculture" as:
... an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.
The principal guidelines for organic production are to use materials and practices that enhance the ecological balance of natural systems and that integrate the parts of the farming system into an ecological whole. Organic Agriculture practices cannot ensure that products are completely free of residues; however, methods are used to minimize pollution from the air, soil and water. Organic food handlers, processors and retailers adhere to standards that maintain the integrity of Organic Agriculture products. The primary goal of Organic Agriculture is to optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals, and people.

California state law requires any farmer selling agricultural products as "organic" to register with the county. While there is no inspection or certification process conducted by the state, if a product sold as "organic" is determined by a county investigator to be non-organic, the offender is subject to a $5,000 fine. They also may be subject to up to $10,000 in federal fines and banned from the federal organic program for five years, according to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.
Until the federal program is implemented in 1997, certification remains the responsibility of private, non-profit organizations. In California, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and Quality Assurance International (QAI) provide these services to farmers for a fee. Farmers must pass an annual on-site inspection, during which the farmer must provide information about the crop management plan, soil and water management, a soil erosion plan, a plan for building soil fertility, the role of cover crops (which are used to add organic matter to soil and to attract beneficial insects), and the use of inputs (fertilizers and manures, and natural pesticides). Organic crops may not be produced on any land that has had prohibited substances applied to it within the previous three years.
There are 400 farmers registered as organic in San Diego County. In addition, there are 28 certified organic growers in the CCOF's Pacific Southwest chapter (which extends beyond San Diego to include several farms in neighboring counties). A total of 1,513 acres of farm land are currently certified by CCOF.

Delia Hitz likes to garden (organically of course) in between working for Adventure 16 and San Diego Earth Day /Mothers & Others Campaign for Better Food Choices.