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Dave Garibaldi holds a piece of Swiss chard damaged by bugs on their family farm near Pescadero, Calif., Tuesday , November 13, 2007. Garibaldi has been growing flowers but recently decided to go into produce as well, recieving their USDA certification in August. (John Green/San Mateo County Times)
PESCADERO — When the tall, red-veined Swiss chard stalks poking out of the Garibaldi's vegetable fields appear at a supermarket near you, they will bear the stamp of a certified organic product.

To consumers, that stamp may mean paying more for a product they consider safer or more nutritious. To the Garibaldis, it raises the possibility of surviving in agriculture.

Last winter, Lisa, Don and Dave Garibaldi looked at their farm's bottom line and realized they needed to diversify. Their fourth-generation family-owned operation, Ano Nuevo Flower Growers Inc., was drowning in a flood of flower imports from South America, where labor is cheaper and warm weather allows flowers to be cultivated without any greenhouse heating bills.

Rather than cut corners on their own product, the Garibaldis decided to start growing organic produce — and to seek organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making them the first family farm in San Mateo County to do so. They earned their stamp in August.

The Garibaldis say they've had to learn a new set of "rules" for an entirely new game, one that comparatively few farmers are playing — at least for now.

"We thought, let's specialize in something that's a little harder for them (in South America) to specialize in," said Dave Garibaldi. "We made our living for 100 years on conventional farming, and we need something new. It's easier to sell than conventional. It seems like more consumers and markets are asking for it."

Industry proponents of organic produce say removing synthetic fertilizers and herbicides from the mix, such as methyl bromide, can have direct health benefits for consumers and the environment.

But the Garibaldis made their decision based on math — specifically, the ability to sell their first complete crop of organic Swiss chard this winter for upwards of $15 a box — as compared with previous years, when experiments with conventionally-grown chard fetched just $5 a box from wholesalers.

Once begun, the certification process was relatively painless. Because the Garibaldis had records to prove that the 15-acre plot of land destined for their chard and sugar beets had been fallow for three years — the amount of time required to purify soil — they were able to receive certification in three months instead of three years.

It also helped that the organic fields are bordered by Ano Nuevo State Reserve to the south, the ocean to the west, and a grove of eucalyptus trees to the north — posing less risk of receiving pesticide runoff from an adjacent field.

The inspector the Garibaldis hired from the California Certified Organic Farmers, a nonprofit that offers USDA certification, also made sure that the organic produce and flowers would be kept in separate packing sheds. They learned they would be allowed to use the same tractor equipment in both types of fields — but that the tractor would have to be "triple-washed" every time it entered the organic fields.

They learned about organic fertilizers — biodegradable and made of animal-derived feather meal, bone meal and sulfate of potash — and how they differ from the standard brands made of synthetic nitrogen and phosphate. (The organic stuff "smells like rotten eggs," according to Dave Garibaldi).

They chose a CCOF-approved insecticide that includes, among other ingredients, rosemary and peppermint oils. And they have to document, for the record, every single fertilizer and pesticide application to make sure they're not using it irresponsibly. If they did, they could lose their certification in an audit.

"There's not one fertilizer that we use on the flowers that we can use on the organic stuff," said Dave Garibaldi.

When all is said and done, the farm will have invested between $7,000 and $10,000 into "going organic" by the rule book. The new fertilizer alone costs $1,200 a ton — twice what they pay for the conventional kind.

Times have changed since Don Garibaldi's grandfather sprayed cyanide in his greenhouses in Colma to kill off the bugs that threatened the family's flower business. DDT, now a banned toxin, was regularly added to the open fields.

These days, the Garibaldis count on ladybugs to eat the pests in their organic fields. 

"We have to start all over again," said Don, shaking his head.

Unfortunately, the organic ingredients are not as effective as they could be. The organic fertilizers break down slowly and usually take more than 10 days to activate, whereas the insecticide does kill pests but decomposes very quickly, according to Dave Garibaldi.

Early results suggest the Garibaldis will have to throw out 30 percent of the organic produce they grew this year because it wasn't market-standard.

Stooping in the field on an early November morning, Don Garibaldi picked up a discarded leaf of chard. It was filled with holes in it big enough to see through and pocked with dead aphids.

"When we first saw all these leaves full of holes we said, wait a minute! We cant sell this stuff!" He joked. Although quick to agree that conventionally-grown vegetables sill often "look better" at the supermarket, he remains optimistic that organic producers can do better over time.

Consumers certainly demand it. The market for organic products as a whole grew by 21 percent alone in 2006, bringing in $17.7 billion in sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. That's approximately 4 percent of all domestic food consumption.

But the domestic supply has not grown nearly as fast — a problem that Mark Lipton, policy program director at the Organic Farming Research Foundation, attributes to the "favoritism" with which U.S. government still treats conventional farmers.

The lack of established marketing infrastructure and a streamlined organic production process has left organic farmers to "figure it out for themselves," and has slowed down the pace at which organic farmers can access the marketplace, said Lipton.

"You have to change your production system and your marketing system at the same time — that's a pretty tough equation to solve."

The supply-and-demand imbalance has necessitated more organic imports, much of it from U.S.-certified produce farms in Mexico: ironically, just the sort of competition the Garibaldis were trying to avoid.

The organic buzz has long since reached California. The CCOF, which certifies three-quarters of all organic farms in the state, says its client load grew 22 percent between 2004 and 2006, for a modest total of 1,500 USDA-certified farms and food processors.

Not everyone makes it. California organic farms still fail 10 percent of the time, said Lipton. In many cases, the economic benefits they hoped for don't pan out.

For their part, the Garibaldis hope people will continue to pay for the vegetables they went to so much trouble to grow.

"It's a learning process for us," said Lisa Garibaldi. "I think people are more aware of what they're eating now, and that's a good thing.

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or at julia.scott@bayareanewsgroup.com.