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Durst Organic Growers, California

Jim Durst, farm director at Durst Organic Growers, was a member of the California organic certification board when the organic standards for CCOF were first being debated and written. In his “Know Your Farmer” video, Jim explains that agriculture should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life.

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Know Your Farmer | Durst Organic Growers, California

Jim Durst: Organic is all about soil. It is about putting as much carbon and nutrients back into the soil as you take out – or hopefully more! My philosophy is: healthy soils make healthy plants, and healthy plants make healthy people, and healthy people make healthy communities.

Jim Durst Looking at a Tilled Field
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

Farming at Durst Organic Growers, California

Our farm is in central California – in Yolo County. We currently farm about 700 acres, and our major crops are asparagus and snap peas (in the spring), cherry tomatoes and seedless watermelons. (in the summer), and in the fall we start out winter squash. Our markets are mostly into the wholesale and retail markets across the United States. So we do ship to the East Coast and to the Pacific Northwest, but a good deal of our product stays on the west coast. During production time we have about 175 people working here and we try to pay above what anybody else pays for wages.

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Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

Competition from Mexico

I’m in the tomato business, and our season is only four months long, but right now we’re getting a lot of competition coming out of Mexico. At our farm, we pay more in one hour than they do in 10 hours in Mexico. Where’s the parody there? And that’s organic; I’m glad they’re growing organic. However, it’s not Mexican farmers who are growing organically. They are mostly California farmers who got tired of the regulations in this state and moved their operations to Mexico. Then they’re sending it back up here because they have marketing organizations all set up in this country.

Boxes of Squash
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

A Broken Food Distribution System

The hardest thing for new farmers is getting food into a local supermarket – one that’s within 5 or 10 miles of the farm. It is pretty difficult because the grocery stores already have established buying channels, and these buying channels are tied into big marketing organizations that are working all over the world.

Unless you can tie into one of those marketing organizations, there are very few retailers that will give you a spot on the shelf – even if you only have 10 boxes [of produce]. The retailers don’t want 10 boxes; they want what they want. They want how many they want. You have to be able to produce and keep up with them if you want to be one of their preferred providers.

There is something about the distribution system that we are working in right now that is probably unhealthy. We need to decentralize our distribution systems. We have developed a culture that is addicted to strawberries 360 days out of the year. They don’t even taste good out of season!

Box of Organic Cherry Tomatoes
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

Shaping Organic in California

When I joined California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) in 1984, I became Certification Chair for our chapter – this meant that I was automatically on the state certification board. At that time, we were writing a lot of the rules and the regulations for organic agriculture in California. Every week, we just hammered on one point, and wrote, and rewrote, and finally came up with things that we thought had to do with the integrity of working with the soil and creating healthy soil.

Agriculture, wherever you are, should be built upon the premise that the soil brings us life. We have a responsibility to return, enhance, and build up the life in the soil. It’s a living creature. The soil is not dead. It’s a living thing. When we learn this, as a culture, we will have a different outlook on how we fit into this planet.

Jim and Deborah eating watermelon
Image Courtesy of Durst Organic Growers

There is a lot of philosophy in the organic rules. We were constantly asking, “How are we going to steward this in a way that is sustainable, not just for our generation, but for generations to come?”

For us, working with people and working with plants and working outside –  It doesn’t get any better than that.

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