Last October, the USDA implemented rules that govern how organic food must be grown or produced. But even with the new rules, the industry finds it constantly must defend the operating principles that define it. The attempt to dilute standards for organic feed via congressional budget appropriation is only the latest threat. A lot of pretenders want the benefits of the organic label.
Indeed, the 11 billion dollar organic industry is now known as much for quality and palatability as wholesomeness. The industry, once dominated by small farmers and food producers, has been entered in full force by mainstream corporations. To survive, many of the organic movement's pioneers now find they must redefine themselves to compete. To that end, some East Coast farmers are finding profit in strengthening bonds to a traditional ally. David Miller reports.
The kitchen at Restaurant Nora, an upscale white table cloth dinning establishment in Washington D.C., is getting ready for the dinner crowd. Chef Nora Pouillon, one of the owners, is preparing two of her own recipes, a Middle Eastern salad and rockfish filets.
But Restaurant Nora is no ordinary dining establishment. In 1999, Restaurant Nora, and its companion Asia Nora, became the first in the nation to be certified organic by the Oregon Tilth Association. This means that Chef Nora and her staff have the documentation to prove that at least 95% of the ingredients used in the creation of her signature dishes are from certified organic sources.
Nora's commitment to organics is based on a philosophy of low impact on the planet and high impact on the pallet. Each week, around 500 customers come to Nora's for the food and the atmosphere.
Chef Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora : "Well of course, organic food tastes, has much more flavor because of the way it is grown…For a chef it's very important to know where food comes from but even not only for a chef, for a regular person too. I think you should always ask where it comes from. Does it come from a third world country? Has your food traveled over thousands of miles before it has reached you? Has it been sitting in a truck for that long? I mean, it's very important."
When Pouillon opened Restaurant Nora 20 years ago she began a search for sources of organic produce and meats. In the early years it was not easy to find what she wanted.
Chef Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora:" …my choice was squash, squash, and one more time squash. But now I can get organic chocolate, organic coffee, organic marsh lettuce, arugala, I get balsamic vinegar, capers, all this sort of little bit unusual items maybe wanting to call them gourmet items, I can get them organically but before it was impossible."
Eventually, certified sources became more available. For the past 8 years, one of those sources has been the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative in Hustontown, Pennsylvania. Jim Crawford, Tuscarora's founder, who helped found Tuscarora in 1988, has spent the last 30 years growing several different kinds of vegetables organically on 25 acres at his New Morning Farm. Crawford feels the main reason for the cooperatives success is that his customers know who is growing their food.
Jim Crawford, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative: "…our customers have not cared that much about the fact that it's organically grown relative to and compared to the fact that they know the grower and they know it's fresh, they know it's homegrown, locally grown. But the organic aspect has been certainly a good seller but it's certainly more in recent years than in the past."
By establishing a customer base Crawford and Tuscarora were able to create a link from the field to the table. This link helped solved one of the major challenges facing most farmers: marketing.
Jim Crawford, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative: "…once we got the idea that we needed a lot of lead time and a lot of prior planning we did that and we set up, we made marketing arrangements way in advance and we continued them year after year and strengthened them year after year by reputation and so on. So, marketing hasn't been that hard for us relatively but it is a really big challenge, yeah."
Crawford sends a third of the product grown at New Morning Farm to the cooperatives warehouse. He enjoys not having to split his focus between the two full-time jobs of farming and marketing.
To better serve their customers, Tuscarora members gather together several times a year to decide how much and what kind of crops will be grown. Though planting decisions are not binding the growers usually fulfill their obligations.
Chef Nora is one of the customers whose requests are taken under consideration when the growing plan is written up.
Jim Crawford, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative" "Yeah, Chef Nora, one of our best customers, has been, has asked us a number of times for, her employees or her su chefs and people in her kitchen have asked us about unusual stuff that they can't find elsewhere or varieties that are maybe different from what we've been doing and we try to be responsive. "
During the growing season, orders can be made in the morning, gathered up later that day and delivered 120 miles away to restaurants in the D.C. area in less than 24 hours. Tuscarora tries to keep enough product on hand so orders can be filled even during the winter. Over the past 15 years annual sales has steadily increased to over $1-million.
Jim Crawford, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative:"…every bit of it goes back to our growers except for what our staff requires of course. But we love the fact that the members, the farmers own it and control it through the board of directors and any profits that are made, we are profitable pretty much every year modestly, any of that goes back to the growers."
And chef's like Pouillon reap the benefits of Crawford's work and Tuscarora's commitment to both grower and customer.
Chef Nora Pouillon, Restaurant Nora: "…because he really waits until the merchandise arrives in his warehouse, in his refrigerated warehouse. He takes the inventory and then he tells everybody what is available. Then the next day he delivers, he delivers, he used to deliver once a week, then twice a week, then three times a week and now I got it back to twice a week. It depends on the season."
For Market to Market, I'm David Miller