In Depth: Cathy Calfo

February 3, 2016

Santa Cruz is the birthplace of the organic agriculture movement and leading that charge is the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Organic agriculture plays a major role in our economy and is a growing industry beyond just providing high quality, nutritious food to feed our community. We met with Cathy Calfo, Executive Director of CCOF at Route 1 Farms to discuss the history of organic in Santa Cruz, why this industry is so uniquely suited to our community, and where the future of the industry is headed. 

Please Introduce yourself and tells us what you do.

My name is Cathy Calfo. I am the Executive Director of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

What does CCOF do?

CCOF certifies, educates, advocates, and promotes organic agriculture.

What inspires you to do this job?

I love working with the farmers that CCOF represents. It’s also really exciting to be in a place where people are working to make food in a way that serves the environment, the community, and people well.

What inspires the organization to do this work?

CCOF does this work because we really believe that organic is the right way to produce food. It’s good for people, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for our communities.

Farmers Market Dscf0518

Why was CCOF created?

CCOF was created here in Santa Cruz, by a group of farmers in Live Oak [an unicorporated portion of Santa Cruz County adjacent to the City of Santa Cruz], and a man named Barney Bricmont, who was a local educator and worked at Orchard Supply. He grew organic lettuce greens for the actress Carol Channing and was in touch with other farmers in California and around the country. 

The story goes that about seven of them got together around Bricmont's kitchen table in Live Oak in 1973 and they decided to form CCOF. The purpose of the organization originally was that farmers would certify each other, so the question they needed to answer was ‘what did organic mean?’ We had not been farming organically for very long, so the farmers wanted to define 'organic' so that people who sold organic produce and people who bought it would know what it meant. They then developed a list of criteria-really of inputs-things that could go into organic farms and things that were prohibited, like synthetic pesticides. Then they would inspect each other using this criteria, hold each other accountable and issue a certification, a CCOF certification. Then farmers could label their products as organic and have that seal of verification. 

They had a small marketplace back then because there weren't a whole lot of places to sell organic produce. It was actually illegal in California to sell produce directly from farms like you can today, so they worked with then-Governor Jerry Brown to open up farmers markets. This same group was instrumental in opening the first Live Oak farmers market here in Santa Cruz. In addition to the farmers markets there were a few natural food stores that sold organic produce, but the farmers realized that they needed to create a bigger marketplace and they wanted to do that by creating a regulatory system that was recognized by the US Department of Food and Agriculture. So they set about creating what we know today as the National Organic Program, which is represented by the green USDA organic seal.

What is it about Santa Cruz that led the founders to start CCOF here? 
I think it was a variety of circumstances. I think Santa Cruz has always been a community that brings together creative and innovative people and it's also a community that cares deeply about the environment so it makes sense that it would happen here. Like a lot of things, it just happened that there was one person who took the initiative here and then brought a cluster together. They really weren’t the whole movement but they provided leadership for the movement here and then our local government officials also chimed in. Congressman Sam Farr helped carry the National Organic Foods Production Act to fruition and make it happen. So there was a lot of support in the community. 

It was kind of a combination of longtime farmers and people in the agriculture industry as well as sort of a new generation, who were conscious of eating healthier and better food. For the longtime farmers, I think what fueled them was a desire to be more innovative. They realized that organic farming was a little more challenging and you had to be creative in some cases. In other cases, people had seen members of their family suffer from what they thought were chemically related diseases and wanted to move the next generation into a new form of farming, and then of course there were some who thought, ‘hey, a new market’ and wanted to be a part of it.

What is the biggest benefit to having your organization based in Santa Cruz?

The workforce for sure. The people who work with us and for us are what really make the organization. They’re on the front lines working with farmers to make sure they are certified. We are also working with the larger organic movement to expand the sector and do the analytical work you need to do to figure out things like "why is organic 2% of Agriculture when demand is sky high?" and what do we do to address those kinds challenges. Our vision is that organic is the norm someday, not the exception. So, we have a lot of work to do.

What is it about Santa Cruz that encourages you to stay here?

A few things. One, we started here and we’ve grown here. We have really grown with the organic sector in Santa Cruz, but also the people who work with us have started families and live here. We have grown from the very first person who was hired here in Santa Cruz to now about 75 people and their families. We love it here. It’s a community that is caring and that cares about the environment. We find that while it’s challenging to recruit people because we are a nonprofit and this is a really competitive sector, that living in Santa Cruz is a little bit of a competitive advantage for us. There are a lot of people who are willing to get paid a little less and do something that they love and has real meaning in the world. We may expand to other areas, but so far we are doing great here.

What is special to you about Santa Cruz? 

There are so many things that are special about Santa Cruz - West Cliff Drive, the beach, the commitment everyone has to the environment. It’s a really creative community and a compassionate community. I think both of those really support the work that we do at CCOF. To be an organic farmer, takes a lot of innovation and a lot of compassion. You have to have a lot of compassion for the earth and for all of the living things that you’re working with. So, Santa Cruz is a really special place.

"To be an organic farmer, takes a lot of innovation and a lot of compassion. You have to have a lot of compassion for the earth and for all of the living things that you’re working with." — Cathy Calfo

How does the fact that the organic movement started here affect your organization?

One of the great things that I think is related to starting here is that 30% of the land in Santa Cruz County is farmed organically. That is unprecedented anywhere. I think you are hard pressed to find any place where even 10% or 15% of the land is farmed organically. So, we have had an influence in that way. I think we have also been influenced by things in Santa Cruz. UCSC Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems has impacted us both in bringing people who are skilled to work for CCOF and help envision what CCOF can be, but also by highlighting organic and being an institution that values that and trains people to go out and be organic farmers. Cabrillo College also has a wonderful horticultural program that focuses on organic.

What is your relationship to the restaurants and artisanal food industry in Santa Cruz?

We love to eat in Santa Cruz restaurants and we provide lots of opportunities to work with Santa Cruz restaurants. Taking care of our staff is a big part of what we do, so we bring food in on a monthly basis for staff lunches and we have staff appreciation events and we make sure that local restaurants and organic producers are really featured front and center in all of those. And, our staff live here and participate in groups like Slow Food and in community events, so it's another one of those great symbiotic relationships with the community. 

We also love seeing food become such a big part of the tourism community here. I live downtown and I love seeing people take visitors on tours to the Buttercup Cakes & Farmhouse Frosting shop and the places I go everyday and I think this is amazing that I can live here and other people are coming here to visit and pay money to go on a tour of what I can see in my own neighborhood. 

Why did you choose to locate your offices where they are?

The major factor that led us to locate on the Westside of Santa Cruz was because there was a lot of room to grow and we wanted to be close to town. It's sort of the best of both worlds. We are kind of on the edge of the City, close to some farmland, and just down the hill from UCSC.

Did you work with the City to set up your building?

We didn’t work with the City so much when we set up the building but we've worked with the City more as we have grown to help us solve challenges we have had such as internet service, making plans for our growth, and knowing what’s going on around town.

As we grow we find that we are working with the City more and more to help make sure we have the tools that we need for our current workforce. One of those tools for example is internet, to make sure we have access to high speed internet internally and for our employees who work remotely to be able to dial in. That’s been a big challenge for us and the City has been helpful in a lot of ways. Another way we work with the City is that there are a lot local issues related to farming that come up here and there that we get involved in. We are also big fans of the Homeless Garden Project which we certify and we’ve been working with them to try to help them get into the Pogonip where we hope they will have a good demonstration farm that demonstrates organic practices right in the heart of the City.

Did you work with the Economic Development Department?

The Economic Development Department has brought City Council members in on a regular basis to learn more about the work that we do and to ask how they can be helpful to us, so that has been terrific.

How has the overall experience been working with the City?

Overall, it’s been great. City officials have been super responsive

What’s your relationship to the business community?

We are part of the business community. We have been active in the Farm Bureau and in the Economic Development work that’s gone on in the County and the City. Like most businesses, when things are going well, which they are, we don’t really have a reason to seek out help from the City. It’s usually when there’s a challenge or an issue that we need help with. There are some issues coming up I think. We are on Delaware Avenue and a lot of our employees ride their bikes to work. There are concerns about safety and the need for bike lanes. That’s an issue our workforce cares a lot about, that the City has also been responsive to. 

What opportunities do you see here for the organics industry in Santa Cruz?
The biggest opportunity for Santa Cruz is to really highlight organic and its role as the premiere location to go to learn about organic agriculture, eat organic food, and if you want to be certified organic, get certified.

We are shooting here at Route 1 Farms, so what has your work been specifically with Route 1 Farms?

We love Route 1! We certify Route 1 Farms. We love that they are in the local farmers markets, they wear their CCOF certified organic sign proudly, and Jeff Larkey, the owner of Route 1 Farms, is involved in a lot of issues that impact organic. He and I have had the chance to work together, most recently, working with Whole Foods to address some issues and concerns that people had around their “responsibly grown” rating system. Jeff and I, and about five other farmers and representatives from Whole Foods we able to work together to make some modifications to that rating system that I think improved the system, and I think they think improved the system, but also helped protect organic.

Do you end up working with big companies mostly or smaller companies?

The whole gamut. From a farmer who sells maybe $30,000 a year in fresh produce to a huge fortune 500 company like Whole Foods Market. Organic has really changed a lot. In 1973 it was in a few natural food coops, a few farm stands; today it’s everywhere - Walmart, Costco, New Leaf, Whole Foods, farm stands, farmers markets. It’s really everywhere, which is a great feeling but the irony of that is that it’s still only 2% of agriculture overall, so we have a lot of work to do

More about CCOF:

CCOF is a nonprofit organization that advances organic agriculture for a healthy world through organic certification, education, advocacy, and promotion. We envision a world where organic is the norm.

To learn more about CCOF, visit their website:

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