The O Word 

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

Page 3 of 5

When the Knolls bought the ten-acre farm in 1979, the previous farmers had filled it with one crop -- alfalfa. The soil had been stripped of all its natural fertility. For the Knolls, everything starts with the soil. "The soil is what supports everything," Kristie says. "So all your energy goes into making the soil as fertile as possible, as alive as possible."

This means, in part, using common organic-growing methods such as planting cover crops (like their popular greens) that act as a living mulch. But Rick also uses more unconventional methods. He brews so-called "compost teas" in tanks and even in an old wooden hot tub. In one tank he has a pungent combination of Santa Rosa plums, molasses, and rock dust that has been fermenting for five months. The hot tub, meanwhile, actually percolates and bubbles. It's alive with microorganisms, Rick says. Eventually, the "potions," as he calls them, will be diluted enough that he can add them to the irrigation drip feeding the crops. "What we're trying to do is enrich the amazing forces that are living on the fruit ... and making those into homeopathic remedies," he explains, adding, "Every time we water we're reinoculating the farm."

Compost teas are gaining in popularity, Rick says. Whether the potions really work is open to scientific debate. "That's a scientific frontier that has yet to be adequately explored," says Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

The Knolls owe a lot of their philosophy to Rudolf Steiner, an early-20th-century New Age-style thinker and overall Renaissance man. Steiner, an Austrian, is perhaps best known as the father of homeopathic medicine and the Waldorf Schools, a network of nine hundred schools around the globe that stress the importance of educating the whole child: head, heart, and hands. But Steiner also developed "biodynamic" farming, a predecessor of organic farming that he first articulated in 1924. Although biodynamic farming isn't as well known as organic farming, it has been gaining in popularity in recent years, especially among winemakers. Farmers even can be privately certified through the nonprofit Demeter Association. Organic and biodynamic farming share many of the same tenets, such as frowning upon the use of pesticides and herbicides. But to enrich the soil, biodynamics stresses use of the homeopathic preparations that Rick calls potions.

Biodynamic farming also adds a holistic, spiritual component that posits the farmer as a sort of agricultural mystic with the farm as his cosmic church. One of the prerequisites for being certified through the Demeter Association is "that the farmer supports a broad ecological perspective which includes not only the earth, but the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part."

Rick, too, believes there is a spiritual element to farming. The farm itself is a living, evolving organism with its own spirit, he says: "Like, when you go into pristine ecosystems you have this sense of spirit, this sense of well-being. Well, farms can have that. Once they start having that, they start having this what you would say is essence of the place, and so the name 'terroir.'"

Although Rick subscribes to many of Steiner's teachings, the Knolls decided against getting certified as biodynamic. "When we look closer at what Steiner was all about, he would probably not be part of the biodynamic association," Rick says. "His whole thing was, 'Go find your way.'"

Tairwá Knoll Farms isn't the only grower trying to find its own way. Several other terms have popped up at farmers' markets in recent years as alternatives to the O word, including "sustainable," "no-spray," and "naturally grown." None, however, seems to have caught on -- at least not in the way that organic has. The marketing power of organic after three decades of common usage is best demonstrated by a phrase gaining currency among those who reject the O word: "Beyond organic."

The beyond-organic movement irritates many farmers who pay for the right to say that they're organic. Since the national organic program went into effect in October 2002, farmers with more than $5,000 in annual sales can't market their goods as organic unless they've been blessed by a USDA-accredited certification company. The annual certification fee runs from about $250 to $5,000, depending on the size of the farm, says Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association. USDA rules say a product must be at least 95 percent organic to bear the official organic label; those that are 70 to 95 percent organic can say "made with organic ingredients," but can't display the official seal.

Warren Weber of Star Route Farms in Bolinas, one of the first organic farms in the Bay Area, complained in a letter to a trade publication about "beyond organic" promotion at farmers' markets: "I am dismayed by the 'coat-tailing' that goes on in these markets. ... Certified organic growers earn the right to say they are organic, and yet in the farmers' market area we have returned to the 1970s when people would just say, 'Oh yeah, I'm organic.'"

In fact, the movement is gaining steam. Mendocino County already has its own peer-reviewed label, Mendocino Renegade, which boasts, "Buy Local -- Beyond Organic." The brains behind the brand is Els Cooperrider, an organic brewpub owner who led the campaign to ban genetically modified foods in Mendocino County last March. "The main reason we did it is because we did not want powerful lobbies to be able to influence what is organic and what isn't," she explains.

The agricultural standards set for the label really are beyond organic, Cooperrider says. "In Mendocino Renegade, if you are to be certified, you have to be all organic," she says. "You can't have any part of your operation nonorganic -- period." The federal rules, by contrast, allow a farmer to grow both conventional and organic crops on the same farm, she says. "Your entire operation has to be organic, because we felt there's too much room for cheating," she explains. "What's going to happen when they run out of the organic that fetches twice the price and they have a lot of the conventional left over? I'm not saying people are abusing the system, but there's definitely room for it -- in Mendocino Renegade there's no room for that." So far, five food businesses have been certified under the new label and five more are in the pipeline, she says.

Yet even Cooperrider hasn't been able to totally wean herself off the O word. Her brewpub, the Ukiah Brewing Company, remains certified organic to this day, in addition to following the tenets of Mendocino Renegade. She says it's a marketing necessity for someone like her, who has been in business for only four years -- as opposed to the Knolls, who have been around 25 years. "People know who they are, and they know they're organic," she says. "People are getting to know us, and we have to prove it to them somehow. ... Not everybody can get away with what Kristie and Rick are doing."

The real question was whether even Kristie and Rick could get away with it.


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