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Coastal Farmer Gives a Big Raspberry to 'Chemical Strawberries'

Davenport, Santa Cruz County -- A cell of an insurgency operates from an idyllic little berry farm perched on the coastal terraces north of Santa Cruz.

"Chemical strawberries" are doomed, and so is the industrial agriculture model and the politicians who sustain it, warns Jim Cochran, owner of the organic Swanton Berry Farm.

"You've got three generations of people in the industry who have grown up in industrial agriculture, so they just don't understand the sea change that's taking place," Cochran said. "It's parallel to the sea change that took place in Detroit in the '70s. They laughed at Toyota in the same way the people in D.C. laugh at organics. And laughed at the first Whole Foods store. And they're about ready to get the daylights knocked out of them."

Bold talk for a little grower who makes half his farm's annual revenue at a roadside honor till and farmers' markets.

Bold talk, except that Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey told a Berkeley audience this year that his organic sales had topped $1 billion, predicting that "ecological agriculture" is poised to "become the dominant food paradigm over the next 50 years."

It has been 25 years since Cochran left farmworker activism in Salinas to find out whether a small farm could succeed. Investing $12,000 he inherited from his grandfather in a piece of coastal land, he began farming on 4 acres, and now operates 200 acres under leases, with $1.75 million in annual sales.

Few cared about organic strawberries in 1983. Farmers' markets didn't exist, much less Whole Foods. "There were a few little co-ops," Cochran said. "It was rough the first five or six years."

His farm would fail any standard efficiency test. Without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, his berries cost at least 25 percent more than conventional berries. Conventional farms have delivered cheap food to America. But the food is cheap, he argues, because "it's not very good, and so it's not worth very much."

"An apple grown efficiently doesn't taste anywhere near as good as an apple grown 'inefficiently,' " Cochran said. "Give a kid a really good tomato, and they'll eat the tomato. Large farms are really not good at growing really good-tasting tomatoes. They can grow mediocre tomatoes."

Quality he defines as "flavor, freshness, care of the land in producing it, the cost on the people producing it."

Like many small organic farmers now facing larger competitors, Cochran relies heavily on direct marketing to consumers. He diversifies risk by growing a variety of fruits and vegetables, which also spreads out seasonal work and provides crop rotations.

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