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How a Fake Organic Fertilizer Bamboozled Farmers and Watchdogs Alike

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Farm Issues page, All About Organics page, and our Safeguard Organic Standards page.


It's no secret that the organic food industry has seen explosive growth, taking only a mild drubbing through the recession and then continuing its ascent. At the heart of that growth has been trust -- consumers are willing to shell out more bucks for organic because the food's been grown without synthetic chemicals, with that claim verified from farm to market.

Yet two major cases of federal fraud have been filed in the past six months, rocking the California farming world and alleging that probably millions of pounds of produce sold as organic over several years weren't worthy of the label.

So why haven't you heard about this? Because the shady practices came from a side of the farming world that few shoppers think about: the fertilizer industry. And the real dupes weren't consumers but organic farmers.

In March, Kenneth Nelson Jr. was indicted by a federal grand jury on 28 counts of mail fraud as part of long-running scheme to sell liquid fertilizer through Port Organic Products and several related businesses. He claimed the juice was made from fish meal, bird guano, and other organic-friendly products -- but it turns out it may have been spiked with far cheaper synthetic fertilizer.

His was just the latest case. In October, FBI agents swooped into LAX and arrested Peter Townsley, who headed California Liquid Fertilizer in the Salinas Valley, the heart of the state's produce industry. Although the company's product was labeled as natural fertilizer made from fish, it also allegedly contained synthetic nitrogen -- and it had been widely used by organic farmers for years.


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