Organic Strawberry Fields Forever:
From Start to Finish
Organic agriculture is rightfully known as an important contributor to combatting a wide range of global environmental and human health problems. It protects our air, land, and water by eliminating the most poisonous chemicals from agriculture and by using substantially less fossil fuel than conventional industrial agriculture. Organic practices mitigate the adverse effects of climate change by sequestering carbon, improving soil water-holding capacity, and regulating soil temperatures so crops can survive droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures. But, all aspects of organic systems are not perfect. That is why drafters of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) allowed ample room for continuous improvements. One area still in need of improvement is organic transplants (starts).
Organic Strawberry Industry Dilemma
Sought after as a tasty, healthy, nutrient-dense food, organic strawberries contribute to both ozone depletion and environmental protection. That is because virtually all organic strawberry farmers grow their fruit from conventional nursery starts. Even though their land and growing practices are certified organic, organic strawberry farmers must purchase conventional starts grown in soils fumigated with methyl bromide (MeBr) and other toxic pesticides, because they have no other option. Until the launch of the Organic Strawberry Fields Forever Project, there were no commercial organic strawberry nurseries in the entire U.S. Organic Advocacy is leading the charge to develop organic strawberry nurseries and to assist the organic strawberry industry in transitioning to organic starts.
A minimum of 80 million organic starts is needed to transform the organic strawberry industry in California alone. Annual releases of approximately 1.3 million pounds of ozone-depleting and toxic pesticides will be eliminated once organic starts become the norm in the state 1 ending the industry’s contribution to ozone depletion and the associated health, environment, and climate warming effects.
No Organic Strawberry Transplants?
The lack of organic starts has put organic strawberry farmers in an untenable position, being forced to farm with conventional starts, without a reprieve in sight. USDA’s National Organic Program has allowed this practice to continue, virtually unchecked, under the organic regulation’s “commercial availability” clause. The clause was intended to facilitate organic starts and seeds development, but that has not happened. Since regulations do not mandate a deadline for eliminating conventional starts, no market pressure or incentives exist to stimulate the creation of organic strawberries nurseries. In fact, for over 25 years since the passage of OFPA, organic strawberry farmers have used conventional starts – because they have no other choice!
Methyl Bromide and Organic Strawberries?
Fumigating soils to combat pathogens, insect pest, and weeds with MeBr and the chemical warfare agent, chloropicrin, became the strawberry nursery standard in the 1950s. But, their use carries a high social cost. MeBr gas has 5 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide and its release from farms has caused 5-10% of world’s ozone depletion.2 Resultant UV radiation increases have caused elevations in skin cancers and cataracts, and impaired immune functions that fight disease. Environmental impacts include marine and glacial ecosystem damage and impeded plant development. Based on this data, industrialized nations agreed to ban MeBr by 2005 under the Montreal Protocol. Yet, U.S. strawberry nurseries have continued to receive “critical use exemptions,” albeit in diminishing but still significant amounts. Chloropicrin use has risen to fill the gap but its effectiveness is waning.
Organic Strawberry Fields Forever – A Game-Changer
When California’s proposed chemical substitute for MeBr, methyl iodide, was withdrawn because it is four times more acutely toxic, Dr. Lisa J. Bunin (Center for Food Safety) asked pioneer organic strawberry farmers to become part of the solution. In 2013, under the auspices of Organic Strawberry Fields Forever Project (OSFF), she convened an Organic Strawberry Summit of organic strawberry farmers, researchers, government regulators, and NGOs to discuss the imperative of ending the industry’s contribution to MeBr use and ozone depletion. Strategizing at subsequent meetings led to successfully jump-starting organic strawberry nursery production.
Since the onset of this project three years ago, OSFF has convinced two nurseries to grow organic starts and inspired the creation of Innovative Organic Nursery, LLC. That nursery supplied 200,000 organic starts of public varieties to OSFF growers in the fall of 2016. Field trials, funded by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, are being coordinated by OSFF, now under the direction of Organic Advocacy.
Crediting OSFF for leading the industry’s switch to organic strawberry starts, Driscoll’s, the world’s largest organic strawberry grower, decided to end using conventional starts by 2020. While beneficial for the environment and human health, it does not help independent and family farmers who cannot purchase Driscoll’s proprietary varieties.
Growth Market with an Impact
California’s organic strawberry growers produce an estimated 130 million pounds of berries annually, adding $63.5 million to the state’s economy.3 Their farm fields occupy 3,755 acres — which has more than doubled in the past 5 years — representing 10.4% of California’s total strawberry acreage.4 Yet, organic strawberry start production remains an unmet market opportunity.
The goal of OSFF is to meet this market demand by pursuing nursery development of public varieties so that all organic strawberry farmers can grow organic starts, beginning in California and moving east.
- Facilitate the development of public varieties of organic strawberry starts at multiple nurseries.
- Secure cost-share funding for organic farmers to encourage early adoption of organic starts and to pay for added costs, risks, industry leadership, and mentorship.
- Coordinate field trials of organic strawberry starts and the widespread publication of results.
- Create “start to finish” brand and a social media campaign to explain improvements in organic strawberries.
- Outreach to organic strawberry farmers to join OSFF and help transition the organic strawberry industry.
Given the continued and rapid growth of the organic strawberry industry, OSFF’s success will make a positive and measurable environmental and health impact by reducing the use and release of ozone-depleting, toxic, soil fumigants.
- CCOF Central Coast Chapter
- Center for Food Safety
- Organic Farming Reseach Foundation
- Straus Family Creamery
3Bolda, M., et al. 2014. “Sample Costs to Produce Organic Strawberries,” UC Cooperative Extension; (USDA/ERS, July 2013).
4CA Strawberry Commission. 2016. “California Strawberry Acreage Survey.”