All around the Santa Cruz farmers markets, signs hang on stands bearing the seal of CCOF, or California Certified Organic Farmers. Closer inspection of my pantry reveals CCOF certification on items ranging from purple sweet potatoes to nori-wrapped energy sticks.
Yet it’s easy to forget, in an era when “organic” is a common label on products even in mainstream mega-grocers, that it wasn’t until 1990 that the “certified organic” claim really meant anything. The mission to define and create the code for what constitutes organic was nearly two decades in the making, and Santa Cruz-based CCOF had been on the forefront since the concept was fringe, mostly sold out of health-food stores with names like Bread of Life and Nature’s Heartland (both of which, along with others, eventually merged into Whole Foods).
“California is the heartbeat of organic farming, and Santa Cruz County is the center of that heart,” says Nesh Dhillon, executive director of Santa Cruz County Community Farmers’ Markets.
Over the last 30-40 years, says Dhillon, the organic industry has grown from small, niche farms into separate tiers of small, medium and large-scale farmers.
But long before organics went mainstream, a Live Oak-based farmer named Barney Bricmont founded CCOF. Bricmont, who grew organic salad greens for the actress Carol Channing, started the organization around his dining room table in the early 1970s. Back then, the market for organic produce was only a “few health food stores and Carol Channing,” says Cathy Calfo, the recently retired CEO of CCOF.
Calfo is seated at the dining room table in her sun-filled house, a stone’s throw from Pacific Avenue, reflecting on the history of the organic movement and her own long, multifaceted career. She’s carried forth her philosophy of engaging with the public sector in a positive way, not only as CEO of CCOF but as a founding member of the City of Santa Cruz Commission for the Prevention of Violence Against Women, Deputy State Treasurer of California (1999-2004) and Executive Director of the Apollo Alliance, a national nonprofit that promotes clean energy and creation of “green-collar” jobs that ensure worker health and environmental protection.
Sipping chai from 11th Hour Coffee, Calfo—a radiant, energetic 61-year-old—is simultaneously soft spoken and dynamic, driven yet calm, and she exudes the enthusiasm for which former colleagues unanimously praise her.
“The thing that struck me most about Cathy is how positive she was, no matter the situation,” says Pete Petri, the COO of CCOF. “Cathy left the organization in a far better state than when she came, which is inspirational.”
Scott Roseman, who founded New Leaf, says, “Cathy did a great job. [CCOF] grew tremendously under her leadership. I credit her for that and for upholding the integrity of CCOF.”
THE LIGHTHOUSE FIELD FIGHT
Calfo’s entrepreneurial mission—the intersection between environmental sustainability and economic success—first emerged during her college years at UCSC in the late 1970s. “Saving Lighthouse Field got me involved in the political side,” she says of Santa Cruz citizens uniting to stop a 1972 project for a hotel, convention center and shopping mall on the site of Lighthouse Field.
Then, while working under Phil Angelides as Deputy State Treasurer, “I saw how you could move hundreds of billions of dollars to do social good,” she says. “That was a core principle at the time I was there. As a staff person who was really privileged to make that vision happen, it stays with you.”
She credits those years as transformative to her long career as a sustainability changemaker, which compelled CCOF to tap Calfo as a natural to lead the organization and further its mission in 2011, after Briemont passed away at the age of 73.
THE CCOF STORY
When the organization was founded, “no one had a definition for organic,” Calfo says, and therefore no standards existed. Bricmont recalled in UCSC’s Regional History Project oral history that farmers at the time, “couldn’t go off their land and sell their products directly to the consumer. They had to go to wholesalers through the big markets.” He believed these problems could be solved with legislation, working with State Assemblymember Sam Farr on the California Organic Foods Act of 1979—and state-certified farmers’ markets were born.
Bricmont started Santa Cruz County’s first market at Live Oak Elementary in 1975, the same year that Phil LaRocca, organic winemaker at LaRocca vineyards and current board chair of CCOF, was starting out as an organic apple grower in the Chico area. “Phil took some apples in a box marked ‘organic’ to a local grocery store,” Calfo recounts, “and they didn’t want it.” LaRocca was told the organic products would, “contaminate our other stuff.”
But farm workers, innovators and a new generation were becoming more aware of environmental concerns and effects of toxic pesticides. CCOF and other organic supporters mounted a grassroots effort, with members meeting in locations around California to create organic standards. The farmers themselves wrote the code.
“They didn’t disparage conventional agriculture, and didn’t put down conventional farming,” Calfo says.
CCOF hired its first staff member in downtown Santa Cruz right before the 1989 earthquake and the Alar apple scare. Alar was the trade name for daminozide, a growth regulator that was sprayed on apple trees to keep the fruit from falling before it got ripe. It was the subject of a peer-reviewed study conducted by nonprofit environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Council, which found the chemical to be carcinogenic, posing an especially significant risk to children. Public outcry ensued. Actress Meryl Streep appeared on talk shows saying she only bought organic food for her family, and “the phones went crazy,” Calfo says. Suddenly everyone wanted to know where to get organic produce.
It took a decade to form a consensus about what was and wasn’t organic. CCOF sponsored a bill to establish the California Organic Foods Act of 1990, which added an enforcement element to the existing state law. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 was completed as part of the U.S. Farm Bill, and called for the establishment of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) and National Organic Standards Board, finally backing the “certified organic’ claim with federal legislation.” Codifying what “organic” meant ensured it wouldn’t be “a group of farmers just inspecting each other,” says Calfo.
Ken Kimes, a longtime organic microgreens farmer who co-owns Corralitos-based New Natives Organic Sprouts, was one of those farmers. As the 11th farm certified in California, he says he joined “for camaraderie, because of med fly spraying and a generally hostile attitude from conventional farmers, which was common in those days. We knew we needed some friends, read about the organic group in the paper, and we went in and joined up. We began certifying. I was the chapter dude for a while. We certified each other.”
Today, CCOF is a top USDA National Organic Program certifier—it has been the largest, in fact, for several years—and its history parallels movements in other parts of the country, such as Oregon Tilth in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest Organic Services Association.
“To understand my tenure at CCOF,” says Calfo, “is to know that all of our energy from 1990 to 2003 was focused on putting the law into place.” The organization had fewer than 1,000 members at that time and jumped to 2,300 members after the label was created.
“With that wind at our backs—not because of me or any group of people, but the forces of the marketplace—consumer confidence was high,” Calfo says. “As I leave, there are 4,000 members of CCOF.”
New Leaf founder Roseman says that while there are other good certifiers, “CCOF continued to set the bar. If [a product] had that CCOF label, it really meant something. Even after the national organic standards were developed—especially after—CCOF was, ‘This is really organic.’”
Calfo is most proud of helping to build a team and organization that could accommodate such growth and continue maintaining consumer confidence. And that team is quick to reciprocate her gratitude.
“Cathy ushered in CCOF’s greatest era of success and change thus far,” current CEO Kelly Damewood says. “When [Calfo] started at CCOF in 2011, CCOF certified about 2,000 producers and employed about 50 staff. When she stepped down just eight years later, CCOF had nearly doubled in size—4,000 certified producers and over 100 employees.”
On a sunny, bustling Wednesday at the downtown farmers’ market, Benjamin Amago of Blue Heron Farms says organic certification is of the utmost importance as consumers become increasingly savvy. “CCOF is such a reputable organization, people in other states try to get California certified,” he says. “The integrity of the produce is so high.”
A few aisles down, Robert Serna of Twin Girls Farms refills a bin of the season’s first peaches. Serna has worked for the farm—which is certified organic by Quality Assurance International (QAI)—for over 25 years, and has witnessed the importance of certification, along with the spike in consumer demand. “There’s a lot of fraud out there, when people can say it’s organic when it’s not,” he says. He stresses that certification is a rigorous process that starts with “cleaning up the soil” and having it tested after a mandatory three-year waiting period.
“Legally you can’t call yourself organic unless you’re certified,” says Dhillon, executive director of the markets. “It eliminates cheaters. There’s no gray area anymore—that’s the current environment. If we don’t have consistent definitions of terms, fraud is inevitable.”
Though organic has grown to an almost $50 billion sector of the ag economy, just under 4% of land in California is organically farmed. For a state that is home to 19% of the country’s organic farms and 36% of its organic sales, “We’re thinking, [organic is] everywhere, but it’s so little land,” Calfo says.
Calfo worked on four key goals during her time at CCOF: transitioning land that’s been conventionally farmed to organic; creating a new generation of farmers, as more than 60% are over 60 years old; making organic food more broadly accessible; and modernizing government regulation of organic farmers. Take water. “It might not make sense to go through all the pesticide and water quality work conventional farmers do, since they don’t use those methods,” Calfo says.
CCOF is currently researching, analyzing and vetting a series of policy recommendations to increase organic acreage to 10% of California’s agricultural land by 2030. Calfo calls this a modest goal, pointing to the clean energy sector in which she used to work as a model. “It would be great to beat our goal,” she says. “With clean energy, a goal we thought was ambitious ended up being very modest. I think the same thing will happen here.”
One of the crowning achievements of Calfo’s CCOF leadership, the Roadmap to an Organic California report, breaks down the economic, environmental and social benefits of organic agriculture. It also provides a collection of current peer-reviewed data on the dietary and health benefits.
“There are more details in this report than when I started at CCOF in 2011,” Calfo says. “The health benefits are strongly supported in this report.” The climate figures in the report suggest that hitting the 10% organic goal would be equivalent to taking 601,500 cars off the road.
SHADES OF ORGANIC
Lest one think organics is a field of happy farmers holding hands, Dhillon paints a more complicated picture. While organic going mainstream over the last 30-plus years is good “because people are getting more access,” he adds that, “When the growth of the industry reached a certain level of accessibility and delivery to the consumer, the federal government started to take notice. This was a fairly robust market share. Big industry didn’t take it seriously for a long time, and realized this is where the growth is coming from. They got involved.”
That led to major conflict when the government decided to put together the original language for the USDA National Organic Program.
“It was hotly debated because there were two camps, Big Ag and the fringy, organic small growers,” he says. “They’re sitting at the table saying, ‘This is how we think it should be.’ It was divisive and contentious. Unfortunately, the language that was put together was watered down, because the industry wanted more flexibility, pushing for procedures and uses that would not be considered acceptable by the vast majority of pioneering organic farmers. The growers were like, ‘This sucks, it’s not what we started.’ There are some that refuse to be certified because of it.”
Kimes, the microgreens farmer, says the issue wasn’t “between big and small farmers, but what’s right and wrong.” Genetically modified (GMO) food, irradiation and sewage sludge were all proposed in the first bill. “There was such an outcry, more so from consumers than farmers. There were 250,000 letters. That was back when the government actually used to respond to people’s concerns,” he says.
While Kimes explains that the bill was ultimately rewritten “pretty much to everyone’s satisfaction,” he believes GMO was involved in its composition so that it would be made to work for that industry.
Dhillon emphasizes the lack of simple answers. “The term ‘certified organic’ is so common now. The take-home message is ‘Know your farmer, know your food,’” he says. “CCOF is the gold standard, the first, and they’re here in Santa Cruz. But there are certification agencies all over the place, and their level of scrutiny varies depending on who you’re dealing with. There’s pros and cons to all of it. The markets have become less important over the last 20 years because people think, ‘I can get organic at Costco now,’ though it’s packaged in plastic and comes from who knows where. ‘It’s all good.’ Well, is it?”
LIFE AFTER CCOF
As CCOF hit its big transition from defining organic standards and making laws enforceable to helping to shape the next generation of organic farmers, Calfo saw it as time to recruit a young staff with fresh energy.
“It’s time to put [the organization] in the hands of the next generation of really visionary people who want to do this,” she says.
She’s spending time with her first grandchild in Petaluma and helping her 18-year-old transition to work and higher education—and enjoying weekly organic dinners with him at Café Mare, one of her favorite local restaurants. (Calfo’s family has roots in Calabria, Italy, where Mare’s proprietors are from.) She’s also spending time with her own mother. This isn’t new to retirement; family has always been a priority.
“Cathy supported working parents under her leadership,” Jody Biergiel Colclough, CCOF’s interim chief certification officer, tells GT via email. “She supported flexible schedules and contributions to childcare costs. She modeled how to be an ambitious working mother.”
Though Calfo is “taking six months to just breathe and think,” she isn’t entirely the retiring type. For Calfo, part of this breathing-and-thinking period entails serving as board chair of the Homeless Garden Project. Calfo’s track record continues: Roseman, who knows Calfo primarily through their mutual work with HGP, says, “She brings tremendous passion and vigor, and because of that we’ve been successful.” They are about to reach an important monetary goal for their permanent project at the Pogonip.
And naturally, Calfo remains an organic farming advocate. Her advice to burgeoning leaders and changemakers reflects a principle that’s carried through her career, and into something as close to retirement as it seems she’s going to get: “Set a big goal and move toward it, and don’t get caught up in all the reasons why it won’t work.”