Kristie and Rick Knoll Rebel
Corporate-Controlled USDA Regulation of Organic Farming
WILL HARPER / East Bay Express v.27, n.13 5jan04
The O Word: Kristie and Rick Knoll were early pioneers of organic farming. So why are they now rebelling against organic?
What passes for "organic" these days bugs the hell out of Rick and Kristie Knoll. For instance, there's the chlorine, the same chemical found in your swimming pool. Federal rules allow organic farmers to use it to wash their greens. To a farmer such as Kristie, who is intimately familiar with the aroma of newly harvested greens, a freshly opened plastic bag of organic salad reeks of chlorine.
Not only does the chemical kill off any bad microscopic organisms that might be on the greens, it also kills off the good ones. Rick Knoll spends months brewing homeopathic "potions" loaded with beneficial microorganisms that he uses to enrich the soil on his farm and fortify his plants against disease. He denounces the prevalent mentality that people are keeping themselves healthy by killing off all the microbes in their food. "In reality," he argues, "every day you want to eat food that has beneficial microorganisms on it -- that gets in your system, mutates, and causes you to be healthy."
To some they might sound like kooks, but the Knolls are widely regarded in the organic-farming world as pioneers. Their ten-acre farm in Brentwood supplies produce to some of the best restaurants in the East Bay, including Chez Panisse, Oliveto, and Dopo. More than two decades ago, they became among the first certified organic farmers in the Bay Area. That was when certification was a private affair, handled by an independent nonprofit agency. These days, the federal government has the final say on organic certification and who gets to legally use the phrase "organic." And as the feds were about to take over "organic" in October 2002, the Knolls were among the first and most prominent organic farmers to opt out and put the O word behind them.
Many environmentally oriented farmers viewed federal regulation as a great victory, the culmination of more than a decade of lobbying to get the Department of Agriculture to officially recognize organic farming as a legitimate enterprise. But a few purists like the Knolls viewed it as the end of the line. Federal recognition would also mean federal regulation -- regulation subject to manipulation by big agribusiness. Organic, after all, is now a $10.8-billion-a-year business, and even before the feds assumed oversight of the industry, the Knolls had been dismayed by the new corporate face of organic farming. General Mills, the maker of junk cereals including Trix and Lucky Charms, has owned the Cascadian Farm label, one of the oldest organic brands, since 1999.
Shortly after the federal program went into effect, people who didn't trust the government to protect the integrity of organic had their worst suspicions confirmed. In 2003, a Georgia congressman inserted language into a spending bill that would allow chicken farmers to give their "organic" chickens nonorganic feed to save money, although Senator Pat Leahy later managed to get the exemption repealed. Then, last spring, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, USDA administrators quietly tweaked organic rules to "expand the use of antibiotics and hormones in organic dairy cows, allow more pesticides in the organic arsenal, and for the first time let organic livestock eat potentially contaminated fishmeal." After a public outcry led by Consumers Union, the USDA withdrew the changes. Finally, this past October, organic watchdog Mark Kastel complained to the National Organic Standards Board that the mass-milking operations permitted by the USDA were incompatible with the true goals of organic farming. "You cannot milk ... five thousand cows -- milking them in many cases three times a day -- and provide them access to real pasture," said Kastel, cofounder of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.
Knoll Farms could easily qualify as organic under the new rules, and the Knolls still don't use any pesticides or herbicides. But they opted out of organic farming because they think the O word has been totally corrupted. "What are people eating, exactly?" Rick asks. "Is it the organic food that they thought it was when they went to the farmers' market and first discovered it twenty years ago? No. ... It's become so perverse that it's not fixable. We need to start over again."
But if you don't call it organic, then what do you call it? And when you start using another term that no one recognizes, how do you hang on to all those customers you've trained to look for the organic label?
As you drive east on the Byron Highway in Contra Costa County's agricultural core, Knoll Farms is easy to miss. The Knolls' ten-acre plot is dwarfed by two big conventional farms that sandwich it. The Knolls and their Brentwood neighbors are a study in modern agricultural contrasts. The 57-acre farm immediately south of the Knolls is the epitome of industrial "monoculture," filled entirely with one crop -- alfalfa -- this past season. In November, the neighbor's land was barren brown, having been totally harvested a few weeks earlier.
By comparison, the Knolls' farm -- which locals once referred to as the "Shit Farm" because of its unkempt appearance -- is a bountiful garden of Eden, even in the late fall. Chickens run around at the front of the property between the apple trees. At the back there are, among other things, rosemary bushes, a persimmon tree, and a fig orchard. The farm is perhaps most famous for its succulent figs, although Kristie says their peas, fava beans, and rapini greens are quickly becoming top sellers. One recent Saturday at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco, she sold nearly fifty one-pound bags of pea greens at five dollars a pop.
The Knolls grow year-round, filling orders as they come in from Bay Area restaurants and grocery stores like Berkeley's Monterey Market. Twice a week, they send out migrant workers with instructions on what to pick and bring back. The greens and figs are picked by hand. The Knolls employ nine field hands and one delivery driver. Kristie estimates that the farm grosses $350,000 to $400,000 annually.
Nearly all of the Knolls' clients are within a hundred-mile radius. They subscribe to the philosophy that the shorter the distance from the farm to your plate, the better the food. After all, the way the Knolls farm, their stuff doesn't travel well, says Bu Nygrens, purchasing manager for Veritable Vegetable, an organic-produce wholesaler. "They specialize in tree-ripe fruit, picked at the moment of its perfection. ... It's meant to be eaten within a couple of days and sometimes it takes a couple of days to get the stuff to our customers, if not longer. We've got customers as far away as Santa Fe and Colorado."
When the Knolls moved up from Santa Ana in 1979 and bought their alfalfa field for $110,000, they didn't intend to become farmers. Both had day jobs: Kristie worked as a legal secretary, and Rick was a chemist for the aerospace industry. But the health-conscious eaters wanted to grow their own food and save money on groceries. "We bought this piece of ground with the idea that we could have a lot bigger garden than we had in Santa Ana," Kristie recalls. "We could have our chickens and nobody would complain, and we wouldn't be in some shitty little neighborhood, we'd be out in a rural setting and we'd be a lot happier." After the Knolls got the garden started, though, they began wondering if there was some money to be made. "We grew everything without chemicals here," she says. "We thought to ourselves, 'Well, golly, maybe we can sell this to somebody. '"
The couple began selling their produce at farmers' markets and quickly found that many somebodies wanted to buy their stuff. In 1983, they decided to legitimize the business by having their farm certified organic. So they hired an independent agency to inspect the farm and verify that they used no pesticides. Kristie says Knoll Farms was the third farm in the region to earn the blessing of the California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the oldest and most renowned independent certifiers. At the time, farmers didn't have to be certified to claim to be organic, but doing so added credibility to their sales pitch.
Business soon picked up, to the point that the Knolls quit their day jobs and began farming year-round. They soon acquired a reputation as innovators -- or at least experimenters to watch. They were among the first organic farmers to intentionally harvest their garlic as what they call "green garlic," which gave them a much-needed winter revenue stream. They have pioneered the introduction of heirloom Italian produce items such as cardoon, a relative of the artichoke. And they were perhaps the first farm to start growing apricots organically. "To this day, very few farms use no-spray like we do," Rick says.
Bob Scowcroft, the first director of the California Certified Organic Farmers, remembers when the Knolls bought so-called "weeder geese" to eat all the weeds on their farm. Some people laughed at the Knolls, but others followed their lead. In any event, the geese aren't there anymore, and Kristie concedes that the experiment was a fiasco. "There was goose shit and flies everywhere," she now recalls.
Over the years, Rick and Kristie have settled into distinct roles in the business; she's the yin to his yang. Kristie serves as the office manager, now spending more time in front of a computer than on the farm. Actually, the "office" doubles as her house, where she takes refuge to get away from the real house out front, which she grouses is always under some kind of construction. Her partner, she notes, always has a dozen projects going at once. "I like order," she says. "I think he thrives on chaos."
Kristie views herself as the no-nonsense hard-ass of the two, which seems to be an overly harsh self-assessment. If anything, she possesses a folksy and delightfully foul-mouthed Texan charm. Still, she insists, Rick is the smoother salesperson. "You know, he schmoozes people, he blows smoke up their ass and bullshits 'em," she says. "When I call them up, it's like, 'Hi, it's Kristie, what do you want to order? I got forty people to call, just tell me whatcha want.'"
Rick is much more than a salesman, though. He's the hippie-farmer guru who looks much younger than his 54 years. His straight platinum-blond hair falls to his shoulders; his fair skin is reddish from working outdoors. He looks as if he just rolls out of bed in his plaid pajama bottoms, laces up his red high-top Chuck Taylors, and goes to work. In contrast to Kristie's Texan twang, Rick talks in California hippie-speak, communicating slowly and deliberately as if to make sure he is properly expressing the Big Thoughts on his mind. "My job," he explains, "is to be intuitive enough to know what to do next."
Three years ago, Rick knew what to do next: Drop the organic label and find another word.
The Knolls went so far beyond organic that they actually coined a new word: Tairwį. The word is inspired by terroir, a French term usually associated with wine. There is no adequate English translation for the word, which the Knolls say loosely translates into "the essence of place."
The French use "terroir" to describe why a wine from one location tastes different from wine from another. The soil, the local climate, and how the grapes are grown all combine to create a wine's unique terroir.
In the late '90s Paul Bertolli, chef and co-owner of Oakland's Oliveto restaurant, started broadening the term to apply to farms in addition to vineyards. Bertolli says that in his years as a chef, he'd noticed that some Bay Area farms could produce certain crops but others couldn't. He recalls one farmer in Santa Cruz growing better radicchio than anyone else. When he thought about why, Bertolli concluded a lot of the radicchio farmer's success had to do with the farm's terroir in its location near the sea, which helped the plant thrive.
The Knolls, who sell produce to Oliveto, were captivated by the word. It seemed perfect. Their location in Brentwood, near the Sacramento River Delta, had blessed their farm with a relatively high water table, allowing, for instance, thirsty fruit trees to thrive. At the same time, Brentwood's climate, with plenty of heat and wind, helps protect the trees from being oversaturated, Bertolli says. "The figs do extraordinarily well out there," he says of the Knolls' farm.
"We have decided over the years that this farm makes distinguished things," Rick says. "When you taste the arugula, you can tell if it came from here. And it seemed like this was one of the examples of organic farms that actually had a unique terroir. ... We kept looking at the word, and we wanted that word associated with our farm."
Kristie, however, didn't want to totally drop the word "organic." For two years, she and Rick argued over whether to remain certified. Rick never liked the idea of the government regulating organic farming; he preferred to keep the industry self-regulating. When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990 (which took the USDA twelve years to implement), "I knew we were screwed," he recalls. "If you get capitalism and the government involved in something, it gets co-opted so somebody can make money off it."
But Kristie felt that it was important to support the organic movement, not to mention the fact that the organic label would assure customers about the sanctity of their farming practices. Still, she had to admit that organic farming was becoming more corporate than ever before. The final straw for her came when she got three packets in the mail to fill out for 2002: One from the private certification agency, registration papers from the state agriculture department, and, for the first time, forms from the USDA. The latter packet was an inch thick. That was when she finally agreed to drop "organic" once and for all.
The Knolls agreed to use the word "terroir," but worried about Americans having trouble pronouncing it. So they decided to spell it phonetically. Thus, Tairwį Knoll Farms was born and Knoll Organic Farms was put to rest.
Kristie says they didn't intend for Tairwį to replace organic as a generic catchall for postorganic eco-farming. It's simply the name on their label. But it does encompass their farming philosophy, which goes beyond organic to encompass the mystical.
A farm's terroir is determined by more than just its geographic location. The farmer has a pivotal role in creating the terroir through his growing methods. In the Knolls' case, they believe in nurturing rather than manipulating their farm. To put it another way, they listen to the farm instead of telling it what to do. So they use no chemicals, and they grow foods in their natural season. "Instead of going into an area and tearing it up and saying, 'This is what I'm gonna plant,' you actually interact with the farm and get a sense of what wants to grow there that particular year or that particular succession," Rick explains. "Say, if you grow green garlic, the next thing you plant, it's really affected by that. Like tomatoes love to grow after garlic."
When the Knolls bought the ten-acre farm in 1979, the previous farmers had filled it with one crop -- alfalfa. The soil had been stripped of all its natural fertility. For the Knolls, everything starts with the soil. "The soil is what supports everything," Kristie says. "So all your energy goes into making the soil as fertile as possible, as alive as possible."
This means, in part, using common organic-growing methods such as planting cover crops (like their popular greens) that act as a living mulch. But Rick also uses more unconventional methods. He brews so-called "compost teas" in tanks and even in an old wooden hot tub. In one tank he has a pungent combination of Santa Rosa plums, molasses, and rock dust that has been fermenting for five months. The hot tub, meanwhile, actually percolates and bubbles. It's alive with microorganisms, Rick says. Eventually, the "potions," as he calls them, will be diluted enough that he can add them to the irrigation drip feeding the crops. "What we're trying to do is enrich the amazing forces that are living on the fruit ... and making those into homeopathic remedies," he explains, adding, "Every time we water we're reinoculating the farm."
Compost teas are gaining in popularity, Rick says. Whether the potions really work is open to scientific debate. "That's a scientific frontier that has yet to be adequately explored," says Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
The Knolls owe a lot of their philosophy to Rudolf Steiner, an early-20th-century New Age-style thinker and overall Renaissance man. Steiner, an Austrian, is perhaps best known as the father of homeopathic medicine and the Waldorf Schools, a network of nine hundred schools around the globe that stress the importance of educating the whole child: head, heart, and hands. But Steiner also developed "biodynamic" farming, a predecessor of organic farming that he first articulated in 1924. Although biodynamic farming isn't as well known as organic farming, it has been gaining in popularity in recent years, especially among winemakers. Farmers even can be privately certified through the nonprofit Demeter Association. Organic and biodynamic farming share many of the same tenets, such as frowning upon the use of pesticides and herbicides. But to enrich the soil, biodynamics stresses use of the homeopathic preparations that Rick calls potions.
Biodynamic farming also adds a holistic, spiritual component that posits the farmer as a sort of agricultural mystic with the farm as his cosmic church. One of the prerequisites for being certified through the Demeter Association is "that the farmer supports a broad ecological perspective which includes not only the earth, but the cosmic influences and rhythms of which the earth is a part."
Rick, too, believes there is a spiritual element to farming. The farm itself is a living, evolving organism with its own spirit, he says: "Like, when you go into pristine ecosystems you have this sense of spirit, this sense of well-being. Well, farms can have that. Once they start having that, they start having this what you would say is essence of the place, and so the name 'terroir.'"
Although Rick subscribes to many of Steiner's teachings, the Knolls decided against getting certified as biodynamic. "When we look closer at what Steiner was all about, he would probably not be part of the biodynamic association," Rick says. "His whole thing was, 'Go find your way.'"
Tairwį Knoll Farms isn't the only grower trying to find its own way. Several other terms have popped up at farmers' markets in recent years as alternatives to the O word, including "sustainable," "no-spray," and "naturally grown." None, however, seems to have caught on -- at least not in the way that organic has. The marketing power of organic after three decades of common usage is best demonstrated by a phrase gaining currency among those who reject the O word: "Beyond organic."
The beyond-organic movement irritates many farmers who pay for the right to say that they're organic. Since the national organic program went into effect in October 2002, farmers with more than $5,000 in annual sales can't market their goods as organic unless they've been blessed by a USDA-accredited certification company. The annual certification fee runs from about $250 to $5,000, depending on the size of the farm, says Holly Givens of the Organic Trade Association. USDA rules say a product must be at least 95 percent organic to bear the official organic label; those that are 70 to 95 percent organic can say "made with organic ingredients," but can't display the official seal.
Warren Weber of Star Route Farms in Bolinas, one of the first organic farms in the Bay Area, complained in a letter to a trade publication about "beyond organic" promotion at farmers' markets: "I am dismayed by the 'coat-tailing' that goes on in these markets. ... Certified organic growers earn the right to say they are organic, and yet in the farmers' market area we have returned to the 1970s when people would just say, 'Oh yeah, I'm organic.'"
In fact, the movement is gaining steam. Mendocino County already has its own peer-reviewed label, Mendocino Renegade, which boasts, "Buy Local -- Beyond Organic." The brains behind the brand is Els Cooperrider, an organic brewpub owner who led the campaign to ban genetically modified foods in Mendocino County last March. "The main reason we did it is because we did not want powerful lobbies to be able to influence what is organic and what isn't," she explains.
The agricultural standards set for the label really are beyond organic, Cooperrider says. "In Mendocino Renegade, if you are to be certified, you have to be all organic," she says. "You can't have any part of your operation nonorganic -- period." The federal rules, by contrast, allow a farmer to grow both conventional and organic crops on the same farm, she says. "Your entire operation has to be organic, because we felt there's too much room for cheating," she explains. "What's going to happen when they run out of the organic that fetches twice the price and they have a lot of the conventional left over? I'm not saying people are abusing the system, but there's definitely room for it -- in Mendocino Renegade there's no room for that." So far, five food businesses have been certified under the new label and five more are in the pipeline, she says.
Yet even Cooperrider hasn't been able to totally wean herself off the O word. Her brewpub, the Ukiah Brewing Company, remains certified organic to this day, in addition to following the tenets of Mendocino Renegade. She says it's a marketing necessity for someone like her, who has been in business for only four years -- as opposed to the Knolls, who have been around 25 years. "People know who they are, and they know they're organic," she says. "People are getting to know us, and we have to prove it to them somehow. ... Not everybody can get away with what Kristie and Rick are doing."
The real question was whether even Kristie and Rick could get away with it.
When the Knolls found their way beyond organic to the Tairwį label, they prepared themselves for failure. Rick bought a new surfboard and readied himself to spend a lot more time catching waves. Kristie convinced herself that she wouldn't mind scaling back the business if necessary; she thought she could return to community theater and singing, which she gave up in the mid-'80s because she didn't have time to rehearse. "We were both thinkin' we might have more time on our hands," she says. Still, they figured they could afford to take the risk since they didn't have kids to put through college or a mortgage to pay off.
They spent hundreds of dollars crafting a fancy new multicolored logo. But their earlier labels did have the benefit of using a recognizable industry term, boasting that the Knolls had been certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers since 1984 and that they were in compliance with California's 1990 organic law. The state law required only that growers and vendors marketing something as organic register with the Department of Food and Agriculture. The federal program took the requirements a step further, mandating that anyone labeling his or her goods as "organic" be certified by an agency like the Certified Organic Farmers. Since the Knolls weren't certified anymore, their new logo didn't feature the word "organic" anywhere. Instead, it read, "Tairwį Knoll Farms -- taste the essence of place."
Soon after the switch to Tairwį, Kristie struggled to explain their conversion to shoppers at the farmers' markets. At first, when people asked if they were organic, Kristie would just blurt, "No." Often, the potential customer would then just walk off. Kristie realized she needed to come up with a better response. "So I just started saying, 'We're beyond that,'" she says.
Some grocery stores also balked at buying something not certified as organic, which made it harder for the Knolls to explain to their customers. Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco complained and cut back its business with the couple. The Natural Grocery Company, with stores in Berkeley and El Cerrito, dropped them entirely, Kristie recalls. "There's three categories for food: Conventional, transitional, and there's organic," she explains. "When we dropped out of being organic, we put ourselves in a place where no one had a pigeonhole for us."
Nygrens, the Veritable Vegetable purchasing manager, says it's hard to market the Knolls' products to grocery stores without the help of the O word. "Having to explain to somebody, 'Well, they've decided not to be certified even though they were forerunners and pioneers in the organic marketplace,'" takes too long, she says. "You can't really spend ten minutes discussing ... their farm to a retailer. How is that retailer then going to transmit that to the customer?"
But while the Knolls experienced some setbacks after ditching organic as a marketing tool, the move didn't leave them more time for surfing or singing. They were as busy as ever. As it turned out, their transition out of organic was made easier by earlier changes in the industry during the '90s, when a lot of their mom-and-pop grocery-store clients were being bought up by the likes of the Whole Foods chain. Whole Foods didn't want to deal with small farmers like the Knolls; they wanted to buy from big farms that sold their stuff cheaper. That forced the Knolls to become more reliant on their relationships with restaurateurs who knew them and appreciated the high quality of their produce. So when the Knolls converted to Tairwį, it didn't matter to the restaurants they sold to. "The restaurants we deal with know us, they know what we're doing, they know how we're growing," Kristie explains. "They don't have to do point-of-purchase, so they don't have to have on their rack, 'This is organically grown by so and so.'"
Paul Bertolli of Oliveto says he didn't care that the Knolls stopped being certifiably organic. He has known Rick for more than fifteen years, from the time he met "this wild-haired man" at Monterey Market. Even if the Knolls didn't have the organic label, he trusted them enough to know they were still following its principles. Organic "is a way of life for them," Bertolli says, not just a marketing slogan.
Three years after going beyond organic, the Knolls have managed to survive and prosper, thanks to their reputation as organic-farming innovators. Kristie says their business steadily grows every year. They've even managed to snare some new clients, including a Whole Foods location in San Francisco. The funny thing is, Rick says, because they're no longer competing with other low-priced "organic" brands, they can charge more money for their stuff as purveyors of "specialty produce."
The Knolls' success can't necessarily be generalized as a good omen for other beyond-organic labels. Not everyone has been in the business for a quarter-century and can boast their reputation and contacts. "They don't need it," says Kirk Lumpkin, special-events coordinator for the Berkeley Farmers' Markets. "But there are a bunch of farmers who feel like they need that seal of approval -- something consumers will trust."
It's still too early to tell how much consumers trust other merchandising schemes like no-spray, naturally grown, and beyond organic. "It took thirty years for organic to become an identifiable regulated term," says Bu Nygrens of Veritable Vegetable. "I imagine that most of these other ideas will take a long time to develop."
In the meantime, the Knolls are embarking on a project that will further push the definition of "beyond organic": purifying their water. That will involve installing a filtration system to remove any toxins from the farm's water supply. Rick isn't sure what he'll find, but he assumes he'll find something toxic. First, he says, they'll purify the water used to wash their salad greens. After that, the Knolls plan to purify their irrigation water, an even trickier and more costly prospect. As far as Rick knows, no other farmer does this. "It's one of those things nobody wants to talk about," he says. "The water is a solvent that every life form needs, and it's just the most contaminated thing on this planet."
Bob Scowcroft, now the head of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, says he has never heard of any farmers purifying their water. "I'd say that's out there on the edge," he says. "They may be the tip of the iceberg on these things."
Rick figures he'll need permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to store and dispose whatever toxic waste he extracts from his farm's water supply. He knows it seems contradictory: On one hand, the Knolls are trying to avoid the federal government by not getting certified as USDA organic. But now they're inviting the EPA to regulate their water-purification plan.
"I don't know where we're goin' with all this," Rick concedes. "Maybe we'll be put out of business eventually for being too anarchistic."