There’s another difference here, though, which you can’t see: unlike the majority of commercial berry farms, Cochran’s is organic and has been for 30 years. When he was just starting out, Cochran worked on a farm that, like most, treated the berries with pesticides and fumigants, such as methyl bromide and methyl iodide. The wisdom at the time was that it wasn’t possible to grow strawberries on a commercial scale without chemicals, because they’re a finicky crop, prone to soil diseases, mold and other maladies.
One morning, Cochran was standing in the middle of the field at dawn, wondering whether the crop duster had come, when the sun’s light and warmth activated the recently applied pesticide—an organophosphate—creating a toxic cloud that caused him to become temporarily sick, shaky and short of breath. At that moment, he realized that chemical pesticides and fumigants posed too great a health risk to the environment and to the people working in the fields, and resolved to go organic.
Cochran started his own farm, leasing the land and building a small, simple cabin to live in so he could devote his time and money to the berries and other fruit. He began by experimenting with techniques to control weeds and pests, rotating crops to add nutrients to the soil, trying different composts and planting methods, and spacing the strawberries out so they got more air and less mold. Eventually, he was able to grow big crops of organic berries with only about 20 percent less yield than conventional ones. For 25 years now, Cochran has proven to the $2.3 billion California strawberry industry—which grows 88 percent of the strawberries in the country—that it’s not only possible to grow organic strawberries on a large scale, but that it can be economically viable too.