Coastal farmer gives a big raspberry to 'chemical strawberries'

STUCK IN A GROWING RIFT


Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Sep. 23, 2007



A sign leads strawberry pickers to the Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport. Michael Macor/SFC


A cell of an insurgency operates from an idyllic little berry farm perched on the coastal terraces north of Santa Cruz.


"Chemical strawberries" are doomed, and so is the industrial agriculture model and the politicians who sustain it, warns Jim Cochran, owner of the organic Swanton Berry Farm.


"You've got three generations of people in the industry who have grown up in industrial agriculture, so they just don't understand the sea change that's taking place," Cochran said. "It's parallel to the sea change that took place in Detroit in the '70s. They laughed at Toyota in the same way the people in D.C. laugh at organics. And laughed at the first Whole Foods store. And they're about ready to get the daylights knocked out of them."


Bold talk for a little grower who makes half his farm's annual revenue at a roadside honor till and farmers' markets.


Bold talk, except that Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey told a Berkeley audience this year that his organic sales had topped $1 billion, predicting that "ecological agriculture" is poised to "become the dominant food paradigm over the next 50 years."


It has been 25 years since Cochran left farmworker activism in Salinas to find out whether a small farm could succeed. Investing $12,000 he inherited from his grandfather in a piece of coastal land, he began farming on 4 acres, and now operates 200 acres under leases, with $1.75 million in annual sales.


Few cared about organic strawberries in 1983. Farmers' markets didn't exist, much less Whole Foods. "There were a few little co-ops," Cochran said. "It was rough the first five or six years."


His farm would fail any standard efficiency test. Without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, his berries cost at least 25 percent more than conventional berries. Conventional farms have delivered cheap food to America. But the food is cheap, he argues, because "it's not very good, and so it's not worth very much."


Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead



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