Aug 12, 2020
Farmers’ friend: A Q&A with Kelly Damewood of California Certified Organic Farmers
From international fraud investigations to Super Bowl commercials and serious discussions about the very nature of what it means to be a certified organic grower, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) play a dynamic role in the industry.
The nonprofit organization, which employs more than 100 individuals, certifies more than 4,000 operations across North America that offer more than 1,100 different types of crops, services or products. Most of those operations, though not all, are in California – 2,858. There are also 241 members in Mexico and 13 Canadian members, including Whole Foods, who are certified to the Canadian Organic Regime. CCOF’s services extend far beyond certification – it is also an advocate for its members, influencing organic policies, and – through its foundation – a conduit for charitable causes.
To catch up with the organization’s activities, we recently spoke to CCOF CEO Kelly Damewood.
Organic Grower: Congratulations on the Super Bowl commercial! I know the partnership with Michelob ULTRA Gold, to raise funds for converting conventional farms to organic, was just one small part of the CCOF Foundation’s work with funds raised from the certification fees. What’s the bigger picture?
Kelly Damewood: It’s not just the fees. We give 2% of our certification revenue back to communities through our foundation work, but the lion’s share of our foundation’s funding is actually from individual donors, businesses, family foundations.
So, we go out and seek to raise funds every year to match our commitment to giving back. And we have a wide range of programs. They’re really designed to help the next generation of organic farmers and help farmers and handlers stay in business. Since 2014, we’ve given away $600,000 in scholarships to students learning about organic (agriculture). We’ve given over $200,000 in hardship assistance grants (to) any organic producer; you don’t have to be a CCOF member, you can be any organic producer who’s experiencing any kind of hardship.
Whether it’s a natural disaster or a family illness, we have a pool of funds to help weather the tough times. And then we also have a training program, so helping farmers meet their food safety needs or learn new practices about soil health.
OG: The Real Organic Project and a few other industry groups have continued to come out vocally against hydroponic organic growing. I know containers are also controversial for some. What’s CCOF’s current policy for certifying soilless growers?
KD: We do certify hydroponic grow operations that are in compliance with the national standards. And the National Organic Program (NOP) has been firm and clear that these operations are eligible for certification. You know, one point underlying the conversation on hydroponics is, ‘What is hydroponics?’ There’s a lot of diversity in container-based operations. People tend to think of hydroponic as completely indoor, potentially a water-based system, and there’s really a whole range of systems: People using different kinds of substrate, different kinds of containers. So I share that with you because it seems an important piece of the conversation, is getting clear on what kinds of systems people feel challenged by including in organic. We’ve been certifying some kind of container-based system for many years, for decades.”
I would say that lack of sufficient water, lack of access to land increase the popularity of some of these systems, especially in arid southern regions, like Southern California or areas of Mexico. And it’s not all crops. I’m thinking some of the primary crops we would see new hydroponic or container (production) would be leafy greens, tomatoes and cucumbers. We see a lot of our producers incorporating these systems for a range of reasons unique to their production system. And a lot of them still maintain in-ground production, and they’re cycling production between their in-ground production and their container system.
It’s an important conversation. It’s a conversation CCOF has been a part of. At the end of the day, what the organic community wants to maintain is the focus on protecting soil health. At the end of the day, all of these systems are producing quality organic food. So to be certified organic regardless of what system you’re in – you have to use only organic inputs, you have to foster biodiversity, you have to maintain natural resources.
OG: I’ve been surprised by the diversity of growers, and opinions among growers, in what’s already a niche market space. How do you engage with those different interests in organic agriculture without alienating anyone?
KD: You know, CCOF’s values are community, transparency, respect. And we try to cultivate a collaborative tone at our events and our meetings. We’re governed by a board of directors made up of organic producers, so we have sort of that direct, ear-to-the-ground producer perspective. And we have to lean into tough questions quite often, both at CCOF and the broader organic community.
The organic movement was built off of the severely passionate and dedicated changemakers, and so there’s inevitably going to be disagreement. I think the standards have the integrity they do today because the early organic advocates spent the time debating the nuances, stepping back to look at the end goals and trying to shape something that would have integrity and meaning.
So yes, there is still debate, ongoing debate in all areas. And I think that’s what makes us stronger, is holding each other accountable. We all have the same goal of promoting organic integrity and re-establishing a food system that helps us mitigate climate change, promote health equity and have better economic prosperity for farmers and their communities.
OG: As we are talking, I don’t believe a draft of NOP’s “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” rule has been released. Based on what you know, how will this change the industry?
We have been waiting and we are excited to see this rule come out because it’s an important rule to provide additional clarifications.
My understanding of the rule is, it’s really cleaning up some of the ways organic product is handled – specifically, how the product moves through traders and brokers, and requirements for importing products into the United States. Some other areas would be clarifying qualifications training, field training for inspectors and also increasing reporting to the organic integrity database, which is a database certifiers report into about the operations they certify. And that database provides them a central slot to coordinate investigation efforts.”
We know for sure that the main impact will be to brokers/ traders and handlers in general. Growers may be impacted, however, because the handlers they sell to may need to make updates to their systems. Ultimately, we will need to wait and see what the proposed regulation says to determine how large the impact will be across the organic supply chain.
OG: CCOF and three other certifiers in January received the NOP Director’s Award for their work investigating grain fraud cases in 2018 and 2019. Can you describe CCOF’s involvement in that effort?
KD: We were so proud to receive this award, and this acknowledges our contributions to investigating grain fraud. Unfortunately, I think the investigation is still underway so I can’t speak to specifics, but trying to provide information quickly and efficiently, and doing research to support the NOP’s investigation. We also received, for the third year, a Data Integrity Award – so this is an award from CCOF that acknowledges CCOF’s commitment to providing solid, quality data to the database, which I mentioned earlier, is a really central tool for coordinating efforts for tracking organic producers all around the country.
OG: I didn’t realize the cases associated with the Director’s Award were still ongoing. Are these cases that people would have heard about?
KD: There’s at least one case that’s still open that people may not have heard about, but it is about grain fraud. NOP has been making every effort to step up oversight over grain and improve how they track down and investigate when there’s cause for concern.
OG: What are you most proud of about your staff?
KD: I think what makes me most proud is their dedication to integrity. You know, we do a lot of different things at CCOF. When I think of certification staff specifically, what I think of is talking to producers on the phone, walking them through to create, maintain their organic system’s plan, answering questions and sometimes having tough, unpleasant conversations about something that a producer needs to correct.
Our producers are out there in the field, learning continually, working on their own professional development and have been meeting directly with producers, looking at their fields, looking at their facilities, maintaining oversight. I think in all the work we do, whether it’s the simple, day-to-day routine, or the complex, new, challenging, investigation, we always approach it with integrity and mindfulness.
OG: Is there anything else you’d like to say to the growers?
KD: We’re just really aware of how the pandemic conditions are impacting our members. I think some members are going above and beyond to meet demand while also keeping their team safe. We’ve seen a lot of producers pivot very quickly from selling to restaurants to trying to channel their resources to retailers in need to direct to consumers.
It’s been really inspiring to watch how producers have adapted. This is an incredible moment when we’re shining a big spotlight on how essential our producers are, and a steady, healthy organic food supply. I also know people are struggling and we are redoubling our efforts to give away hardship assistance grants … really just trying to do whatever we can to help.
Top photo: California Certified Organic Farmers CEO Kelly Damewood, right, presented the Grower of the Year award to Grant Lundberg of Lundberg Family Farms at the Organic Grower Summit in Monterey, California in December. Photo: Stephen Kloosterman
Editor’s note: In early July NOP presented a webinar on the “Strengthening Organic Enforcement” proposed rule, and said a draft of the rule would soon be released for formal public comments. For more information, visit www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/strengthening-organic-enforcement-proposed-rule.