Oct 11, 2019
Organic program takes off at Driscoll’s
Ana Olvera

Driscoll’s has about 65%-70% of the U.S. market share in organic berries. And according to Emily Musgrave, organic program manager, that presence is growing rapidly.

“We have 150 organic growers, including those in the U.S., Mexico, Chile, and we might have one coming online in Peru,” Musgrave told a group of retailers and buyers on a tour of The Company Ranch near Driscoll’s California headquarters.

In order to lock in organic production, Driscoll’s is moving away from the use of fumigants, including methyl bromide, which many credit with ushering in the berry boom.

“We use only organically allowed inputs and fertilizers,” Musgrave said. “There’s no methyl bromide – which we’re phasing out – nothing like that.”

Emily Musgrave, organic program manager for Drisicoll’s. Photos: Gary Pullano

The process to convert from conventional growing to organic is extensive, she said.

“If you start today, and three years from today, the field would be organically approved,” Musgrave said. “During that time, you would have to have an organic inspection each year while it’s in transition. Organic is not about input substitution; you need to do cultural and biological practices first. All of our growers do things like releasing beneficial mites, biological controls and those sort of things. That’s what organic production is about.

“The spirit of organics is using those approaches, before you start using organic pesticides or fertilizers,” Musgrave said.

The company’s growers face stiff organic certification regiments.

“There are surprise organic audits by the certifiers,” she said “About 95% of our growers use CCLF (California Certified Organic Farmers). About 10% of the organic inspections they do are surprise inspections. We’ve had many of our growers receive surprise inspections. The CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) does their own surprise inspections.”

RELATED: Driscoll’s growth starts with plant

“California is unique,” Musgrave said. “You have to be certified by a third-party certifier, but voters also added in a CDFA program that no other state has. It’s actually a second check of California growers. The CDFA also does surprise organic audits. They go to farmers’ markets; they go out to the field. They are ramping up their surprise audits in which they will also do pesticide residue testing. They will also go to the retailers and take fruit off the shelf and test. We’ve had that and it always comes back with great results, with no contamination of materials. We’re very proud of that.”

“Fraud is a big thing right now in the organic community, so that’s always ramping up. We’re happy to see the results from our growers always coming back positive.”

Nursery concerns

Musgrave said most planting stock for berry crops does not come from organic planting stock, creating an exemption in the organic regulations.

“Organic planting stock has just not been available commercially in the quantity necessary,” she said. “Driscoll’s has been really innovative. We have had, since 2007, an organic nursery and we’ve been growing organic strawberry crowns and distributing them to all of our growers in this Watsonville-Salinas area.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. Each year we’re giving more organic crowns for our strawberry growers. In addition to that, we’re actually working on getting organic berry stock across all four berry types, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. Nobody else is really working on that on a commercial scale. Our certifier is taking notice of that, and saying if ‘Driscoll’s can get organic crowns, why can’t the rest of you folks do it?’ so it’s pretty amazing. We’re being such an innovator in the industry. Once we ramp that up, other people won’t be able to use the excuse, ‘well, that’s not commercially available.’

“That’s one of the projects I’m working on with our nursery team – it’s a big front for us,” Musgrave said.

The company also is pursuing other organically viable production methods, such as anaerobic soil disinfestation and steaming.

Gary Pullano, managing editor
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