The O Word 

Kristie and Rick Knoll were early pioneers of organic farming. So why are they now rebelling against organic?

What passes for "organic" these days bugs the hell out of Rick and Kristie Knoll. For instance, there's the chlorine, the same chemical found in your swimming pool. Federal rules allow organic farmers to use it to wash their greens. To a farmer such as Kristie, who is intimately familiar with the aroma of newly harvested greens, a freshly opened plastic bag of organic salad reeks of chlorine.

Not only does the chemical kill off any bad microscopic organisms that might be on the greens, it also kills off the good ones. Rick Knoll spends months brewing homeopathic "potions" loaded with beneficial microorganisms that he uses to enrich the soil on his farm and fortify his plants against disease. He denounces the prevalent mentality that people are keeping themselves healthy by killing off all the microbes in their food. "In reality," he argues, "every day you want to eat food that has beneficial microorganisms on it -- that gets in your system, mutates, and causes you to be healthy."

To some they might sound like kooks, but the Knolls are widely regarded in the organic-farming world as pioneers. Their ten-acre farm in Brentwood supplies produce to some of the best restaurants in the East Bay, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Dopo. More than two decades ago, they became among the first certified organic farmers in the Bay Area. That was when certification was a private affair, handled by an independent nonprofit agency. These days, the federal government has the final say on organic certification and who gets to legally use the phrase "organic." And as the feds were about to take over "organic" in October 2002, the Knolls were among the first and most prominent organic farmers to opt out and put the O word behind them.

Many environmentally oriented farmers viewed federal regulation as a great victory, the culmination of more than a decade of lobbying to get the Department of Agriculture to officially recognize organic farming as a legitimate enterprise. But a few purists like the Knolls viewed it as the end of the line. Federal recognition would also mean federal regulation -- regulation subject to manipulation by big agribusiness. Organic, after all, is now a $10.8-billion-a-year business, and even before the feds assumed oversight of the industry, the Knolls had been dismayed by the new corporate face of organic farming. General Mills, the maker of junk cereals including Trix and Lucky Charms, has owned the Cascadian Farm label, one of the oldest organic brands, since 1999.

Shortly after the federal program went into effect, people who didn't trust the government to protect the integrity of organic had their worst suspicions confirmed. In 2003, a Georgia congressman inserted language into a spending bill that would allow chicken farmers to give their "organic" chickens nonorganic feed to save money, although Senator Pat Leahy later managed to get the exemption repealed. Then, last spring, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, USDA administrators quietly tweaked organic rules to "expand the use of antibiotics and hormones in organic dairy cows, allow more pesticides in the organic arsenal, and for the first time let organic livestock eat potentially contaminated fishmeal." After a public outcry led by Consumers Union, the USDA withdrew the changes. Finally, this past October, organic watchdog Mark Kastel complained to the National Organic Standards Board that the mass-milking operations permitted by the USDA were incompatible with the true goals of organic farming. "You cannot milk ... five thousand cows -- milking them in many cases three times a day -- and provide them access to real pasture," said Kastel, cofounder of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.

Knoll Farms could easily qualify as organic under the new rules, and the Knolls still don't use any pesticides or herbicides. But they opted out of organic farming because they think the O word has been totally corrupted. "What are people eating, exactly?" Rick asks. "Is it the organic food that they thought it was when they went to the farmers' market and first discovered it twenty years ago? No. ... It's become so perverse that it's not fixable. We need to start over again."

But if you don't call it organic, then what do you call it? And when you start using another term that no one recognizes, how do you hang on to all those customers you've trained to look for the organic label?

As you drive east on the Byron Highway in Contra Costa County's agricultural core, Knoll Farms is easy to miss. The Knolls' ten-acre plot is dwarfed by two big conventional farms that sandwich it. The Knolls and their Brentwood neighbors are a study in modern agricultural contrasts. The 57-acre farm immediately south of the Knolls is the epitome of industrial "monoculture," filled entirely with one crop -- alfalfa -- this past season. In November, the neighbor's land was barren brown, having been totally harvested a few weeks earlier.

By comparison, the Knolls' farm -- which locals once referred to as the "Shit Farm" because of its unkempt appearance -- is a bountiful garden of Eden, even in the late fall. Chickens run around at the front of the property between the apple trees. At the back there are, among other things, rosemary bushes, a persimmon tree, and a fig orchard. The farm is perhaps most famous for its succulent figs, although Kristie says their peas, fava beans, and rapini greens are quickly becoming top sellers. One recent Saturday at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco, she sold nearly fifty one-pound bags of pea greens at five dollars a pop.

The Knolls grow year-round, filling orders as they come in from Bay Area restaurants and grocery stores like Berkeley's Monterey Market. Twice a week, they send out migrant workers with instructions on what to pick and bring back. The greens and figs are picked by hand. The Knolls employ nine field hands and one delivery driver. Kristie estimates that the farm grosses $350,000 to $400,000 annually.

Nearly all of the Knolls' clients are within a hundred-mile radius. They subscribe to the philosophy that the shorter the distance from the farm to your plate, the better the food. After all, the way the Knolls farm, their stuff doesn't travel well, says Bu Nygrens, purchasing manager for Veritable Vegetable, an organic-produce wholesaler. "They specialize in tree-ripe fruit, picked at the moment of its perfection. ... It's meant to be eaten within a couple of days and sometimes it takes a couple of days to get the stuff to our customers, if not longer. We've got customers as far away as Santa Fe and Colorado."

When the Knolls moved up from Santa Ana in 1979 and bought their alfalfa field for $110,000, they didn't intend to become farmers. Both had day jobs: Kristie worked as a legal secretary, and Rick was a chemist for the aerospace industry. But the health-conscious eaters wanted to grow their own food and save money on groceries. "We bought this piece of ground with the idea that we could have a lot bigger garden than we had in Santa Ana," Kristie recalls. "We could have our chickens and nobody would complain, and we wouldn't be in some shitty little neighborhood, we'd be out in a rural setting and we'd be a lot happier." After the Knolls got the garden started, though, they began wondering if there was some money to be made. "We grew everything without chemicals here," she says. "We thought to ourselves, 'Well, golly, maybe we can sell this to somebody. '"

The couple began selling their produce at farmers' markets and quickly found that many somebodies wanted to buy their stuff. In 1983, they decided to legitimize the business by having their farm certified organic. So they hired an independent agency to inspect the farm and verify that they used no pesticides. Kristie says Knoll Farms was the third farm in the region to earn the blessing of the California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the oldest and most renowned independent certifiers. At the time, farmers didn't have to be certified to claim to be organic, but doing so added credibility to their sales pitch.

Business soon picked up, to the point that the Knolls quit their day jobs and began farming year-round. They soon acquired a reputation as innovators -- or at least experimenters to watch. They were among the first organic farmers to intentionally harvest their garlic as what they call "green garlic," which gave them a much-needed winter revenue stream. They have pioneered the introduction of heirloom Italian produce items such as cardoon, a relative of the artichoke. And they were perhaps the first farm to start growing apricots organically. "To this day, very few farms use no-spray like we do," Rick says.

Bob Scowcroft, the first director of the California Certified Organic Farmers, remembers when the Knolls bought so-called "weeder geese" to eat all the weeds on their farm. Some people laughed at the Knolls, but others followed their lead. In any event, the geese aren't there anymore, and Kristie concedes that the experiment was a fiasco. "There was goose shit and flies everywhere," she now recalls.

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