The O Word 

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

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When the Knolls found their way beyond organic to the Tairwá label, they prepared themselves for failure. Rick bought a new surfboard and readied himself to spend a lot more time catching waves. Kristie convinced herself that she wouldn't mind scaling back the business if necessary; she thought she could return to community theater and singing, which she gave up in the mid-'80s because she didn't have time to rehearse. "We were both thinkin' we might have more time on our hands," she says. Still, they figured they could afford to take the risk since they didn't have kids to put through college or a mortgage to pay off.

They spent hundreds of dollars crafting a fancy new multicolored logo. But their earlier labels did have the benefit of using a recognizable industry term, boasting that the Knolls had been certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers since 1984 and that they were in compliance with California's 1990 organic law. The state law required only that growers and vendors marketing something as organic register with the Department of Food and Agriculture. The federal program took the requirements a step further, mandating that anyone labeling his or her goods as "organic" be certified by an agency like the Certified Organic Farmers. Since the Knolls weren't certified anymore, their new logo didn't feature the word "organic" anywhere. Instead, it read, "Tairwá Knoll Farms -- taste the essence of place."

Soon after the switch to Tairwá, Kristie struggled to explain their conversion to shoppers at the farmers' markets. At first, when people asked if they were organic, Kristie would just blurt, "No." Often, the potential customer would then just walk off. Kristie realized she needed to come up with a better response. "So I just started saying, 'We're beyond that,'" she says.

Some grocery stores also balked at buying something not certified as organic, which made it harder for the Knolls to explain to their customers. Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco complained and cut back its business with the couple. The Natural Grocery Company, with stores in Berkeley and El Cerrito, dropped them entirely, Kristie recalls. "There's three categories for food: Conventional, transitional, and there's organic," she explains. "When we dropped out of being organic, we put ourselves in a place where no one had a pigeonhole for us."

Nygrens, the Veritable Vegetable purchasing manager, says it's hard to market the Knolls' products to grocery stores without the help of the O word. "Having to explain to somebody, 'Well, they've decided not to be certified even though they were forerunners and pioneers in the organic marketplace,'" takes too long, she says. "You can't really spend ten minutes discussing ... their farm to a retailer. How is that retailer then going to transmit that to the customer?"

But while the Knolls experienced some setbacks after ditching organic as a marketing tool, the move didn't leave them more time for surfing or singing. They were as busy as ever. As it turned out, their transition out of organic was made easier by earlier changes in the industry during the '90s, when a lot of their mom-and-pop grocery-store clients were being bought up by the likes of the Whole Foods chain. Whole Foods didn't want to deal with small farmers like the Knolls; they wanted to buy from big farms that sold their stuff cheaper. That forced the Knolls to become more reliant on their relationships with restaurateurs who knew them and appreciated the high quality of their produce. So when the Knolls converted to Tairwá, it didn't matter to the restaurants they sold to. "The restaurants we deal with know us, they know what we're doing, they know how we're growing," Kristie explains. "They don't have to do point-of-purchase, so they don't have to have on their rack, 'This is organically grown by so and so.'"

Paul Bertolli of Oliveto says he didn't care that the Knolls stopped being certifiably organic. He has known Rick for more than fifteen years, from the time he met "this wild-haired man" at Monterey Market. Even if the Knolls didn't have the organic label, he trusted them enough to know they were still following its principles. Organic "is a way of life for them," Bertolli says, not just a marketing slogan.


Three years after going beyond organic, the Knolls have managed to survive and prosper, thanks to their reputation as organic-farming innovators. Kristie says their business steadily grows every year. They've even managed to snare some new clients, including a Whole Foods location in San Francisco. The funny thing is, Rick says, because they're no longer competing with other low-priced "organic" brands, they can charge more money for their stuff as purveyors of "specialty produce."

The Knolls' success can't necessarily be generalized as a good omen for other beyond-organic labels. Not everyone has been in the business for a quarter-century and can boast their reputation and contacts. "They don't need it," says Kirk Lumpkin, special-events coordinator for the Berkeley Farmers' Markets. "But there are a bunch of farmers who feel like they need that seal of approval -- something consumers will trust."

It's still too early to tell how much consumers trust other merchandising schemes like no-spray, naturally grown, and beyond organic. "It took thirty years for organic to become an identifiable regulated term," says Bu Nygrens of Veritable Vegetable. "I imagine that most of these other ideas will take a long time to develop."

In the meantime, the Knolls are embarking on a project that will further push the definition of "beyond organic": purifying their water. That will involve installing a filtration system to remove any toxins from the farm's water supply. Rick isn't sure what he'll find, but he assumes he'll find something toxic. First, he says, they'll purify the water used to wash their salad greens. After that, the Knolls plan to purify their irrigation water, an even trickier and more costly prospect. As far as Rick knows, no other farmer does this. "It's one of those things nobody wants to talk about," he says. "The water is a solvent that every life form needs, and it's just the most contaminated thing on this planet."

Bob Scowcroft, now the head of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, says he has never heard of any farmers purifying their water. "I'd say that's out there on the edge," he says. "They may be the tip of the iceberg on these things."

Rick figures he'll need permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to store and dispose whatever toxic waste he extracts from his farm's water supply. He knows it seems contradictory: On one hand, the Knolls are trying to avoid the federal government by not getting certified as USDA organic. But now they're inviting the EPA to regulate their water-purification plan.

"I don't know where we're goin' with all this," Rick concedes. "Maybe we'll be put out of business eventually for being too anarchistic."

PLACES YOU CAN FIND THE ESSENCE OF PLACE

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