By Joe Traynor

The nut industry has not been immune to the recent boom in organically grown produce.

Although there has been a market for organic produce for over 100 years, when all produce was organic, the last 30 years have seen increasing interest in organic farming and in sustainable agriculture - terms that are often used interchangeably. This latest boom started between the 1960s and 1970s and corresponded with an anti-establishment "back to nature" trend in the United States.

Organic produce has commanded a premium price since the 1960s and recent years of prosperity have allowed more consumers to go organic. Those that think nothing of paying a dollar for a bottle of water in the grocery store do not blink at paying a premium for food they feel is both safer and more nutritious. Farmers, even those initially skeptical, have been adept at meeting the organic demand. The current downturn in the economy is squeezing the organic market as laid-off Silicon Valley types and others are undoubtedly tightening their food budgets; however the organic market is here to stay.

Seven Organic Points?

Organic advocates blend a mixture of fact and fiction into a witch's brew that too many people have swallowed. Following are seven points that the "organic crowd" parade to support their cause and a discussion of each:

1. Modern farming practices hurt or "ruin" the soil - This philosophy was recently expressed in a story in the Aug. 19 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, stating that sustainable agriculture "... maintains the quality of the soil for future generations." Poppycock! There is not one shred of evidence that several generations of modern ag practices have been detrimental to California soils. Quite the contrary, as crop yields have climbed over the years and show no evidence of declining. Hydroponic, or "soil-less," culture has shown that plants can produce great crops without soil, using only inorganic nutrients (ironically, such produce is often sold as "organic"). The main - possibly sole - function of soil appears to be to provide physical support for the tree or crop so that it does not fall over.

2. Organic farming "brings the soil to life" - Organic farming practices increase microbe and earthworm levels in soils, but so what? Under current farming practices, soils contain millions of microbes per cubic inch. Would adding millions more actually be beneficial? And would all the added microbes be beneficial ones? Even after soil sterilization, such as with methyl bromide, beneficial microbes in soil rebound remarkably quickly. Increased biological activity in soil is touted to improve soil tilth and aeration, however normal ag management, which includes the use of cover crops, can accomplish much of the same benefits.

3. Organic produce is more nutritious - Highly doubtful. Again, there is absolutely no evidence to support this overblown claim, although a possible case could be made that some organic produce has a lower moisture content, thus providing extra nutrition on a fresh-weight basis. Organic produce may also have slightly higher calcium levels that would have a far greater effect on taste than on nutrition. Curiously, many organic advocates are strongly opposed to crops that have been genetically engineered to provide more nutrition and to reduce pesticide use.

4. Organic produce tastes better - Here, the organic advocates may have a point - but not for nut crops. I can personally attest to the fact that some organically grown produce - such as tomatoes, peaches, raisins - do indeed taste better. Part of the reason is varietal, since often these are varieties that are rarely seen in the market because they don't ship well. But a major reason is that standard ag practices are overdone. A primary reason for the better taste of some organic produce is that such produce receives significantly less nitrogen. Nitrogen gives better yields in the form of more tonnage, at the expense of taste. Bigger fruit requires more water, thus lowering soluble solids and sugar content. Excess nitrogen also reduces calcium levels in fruit, whereas ample calcium gives a crunchier, more palatable product that has a longer shelf life.

With nut crops, the deleterious effects of high nitrogen would be manifested on the outer hull, not on the kernel. Thus, hulls from organically grown almonds could be more palatable - although there's no word as to whether cattle prefer organic almond hulls.

The French are more attuned to the "less is more" philosophy than we are. Wine grape growers in France are not allowed to irrigate or use nitrogen fertilizers in the belief that withholding water and nitrogen improves wine quality. Many California vintners, including some table grape growers, have adopted this philosophy that the vines must suffer to produce a quality crop, although most California growers can't afford not to irrigate.

5. Ag chemicals are a health hazard, causing cancer, etc. - There is no evidence that current pesticide programs cause health problems. This is especially true for nut crops because the edible kernels are well protected from sprays. Todays pesticides are short-lived and those used on nut crops are also widely used on crops where the edible portion is directly exposed to sprays, such as peaches and apples. For almonds, there are significant restrictions on pesticide rise after hull split in mid-June and further restrictions if hulls are to be used as cattle feed, as most are.

There is evidence that some fungal diseases, if not controlled by pesticides, constitute a health hazard. Also, the widespread use of human and animal feces, or manure, in organic farming is a potential health hazard, especially on crops such as nuts, which are picked up directly from the orchard floor. Organic growers often send their clients newsletters during the year with columns such as "What's Going On at the Farm," but I know of no such newsletter asking customers to "... join us for our annual 'Spreading of the Feces' Day."

6. Organic fertilizers are both superior and more environmentally friendly than synthetic fertilizers -To organic enthusiasts the word 'inorganic' is a pejorative term, yet all plants take up nutrients solely in the inorganic form. Nutrients tied up in organic fertilizers must first be converted via microorganisms to inorganic chemicals prior to uptake by the root system. Organic advocates may not be aware that organic fertilizers also contain significant amounts of nutrients in the inorganic form.

Francis Broadbent, a soil scientist with UC. Davis, put it this way in 1972:

"Virtually all organic fertilizers of natural origin, such as manures and composts, contain a considerable portion of the plant nutrients in mineral form. This is particularly true of phosphorus and potassium. There is a little irony in the fact that the only truly organic fertilizers are the synthetic ones such as urea (CO-NH2)." Broadbent concluded that many ".... have become organic faddists because they lack the background to judge analytically the claims made for organic foods. It is to this group that agricultural scientists must present their side of the story."

Dr. Broadbent also concluded, "The pollution potential of organic is higher than that of mineral fertilizers when applied at levels equivalent in terms of crop production ... " since nutrients can be leached into water tables when roots are dead or inactive, since many organic fertilizers continually release nitrates. With synthetic fertilizers, the nut grower can time applications to coincide with the period of maximum root activity when the active roots intercept nutrients, thereby minimizing groundwater contamination.

Try this quiz on a family member or an organic friend: The major component of ag crops is an organic nutrient; what is it and where does it come from? Answer: carbon from C0~.

7. Ag chemicals are a hazard to the environment- Organic advocates have a point here. This was brought home in a big way when DBCP contamination of ground water was discovered 20 years ago, resulting in the banning of DBCP. Recent detection of dormant spray materials in surface water supports the organic argument and has led to restrictions on dormant spraying. These findings are forcing growers and scientists to find environmentally friendly ways to control pests, an outcome that is not altogether negative.

Some buyers of organic nuts are smart enough to realize that these nuts are neither safer nor more nutritious; these buyers are making a statement that they don't want to contribute to the chemical burden on the environment and to the energy consumed in manufacturing ag chemicals. It is difficult not to respect those that take such a stand.

A Mixed Bag of Nuts

The organic influence on nut growers has not been all bad. California almond growers have adopted "organic-type" methods not because they wanted to but because regulations have forced them to. Burning restrictions have resulted in a considerable tonnage of winter prunings being shredded and returned to the soil. Concerns over water contamination have forced growers to find substitutes for organophosphate dormant sprays. Pressure to reduce insecticide applications has spurred efforts toward "clean" methods of insect control such as mating disruption with pheromones (although we're still waiting for someone to claim that these pheromones affect human behavior). Dust control regulations are looming and should help lower mite control costs, as well as equipment maintenance costs. Many growers that have been forced into using new, environmentally friendly practices now admit, albeit reluctantly, that their operations are better off for it.

Thirty years ago, Boysie Day, the Associate Director of the University of California's Agricultural Experiment Station, made a statement that is just as applicable today. Day said, "There are sufficient good reasons for organic farming, without giving credit or credence to the phony claims made by cultists." Arguments made by organic enthusiasts are a mixed bag with some fact, but mostly fiction. That there are people willing to pay a hefty premium for organically grown nuts because they believe such nuts are both safer to eat and more nutritious is proof of PT. Barnum's adage: "There's a sucker born every minute."

Joe Traynor is an ag consultant based in Bakersfield and author of the book Ideas in Soil and Plant Nutrition.