By Laura Fraser, "Picking Season,"May/June 2013
When Jim Cochran was a child, he loved to visit his grandmother, who always gave him his favorite treat: a big bowl of little strawberries. The farm-fresh berries were ripe and sweet, each one bursting with flavor. “They made a big impression on a 5-year-old,” says Cochran, California’s first commercial organic strawberry grower and owner of Swanton Berry Farm, near Santa Cruz, California.
As Cochran—now 64—grew older, those succulent strawberries became harder to find, replaced everywhere with berries that fared well in commercial growing and shipping but had none of the flavor of the berries his grandmother served him. “It was the advent of the cardboard strawberry,” he says. To find the luscious strawberries he craved, he had to grow his own.
Today, if you visit the Swanton Berry Farm—a gorgeous 40 acres along a rugged stretch of the Santa Cruz coast—you can see why Cochran’s berries are different. Row upon row of little white-flowered plants sit widely spaced in rich dark earth, warmed by the California sun, cooled by the Pacific breeze. Instead of the big Seascape type most often found in stores, Cochran grows Chandlers, which are smaller and more intensely flavored. “People confuse sweetness with flavor,” Cochran says. “If you have a big, fat strawberry, it may be sweet, but it doesn’t taste all that much like a strawberry.” Aroma is a clue to how delicious a strawberry will be: a flavorful berry has a sweet, fruity, distinctly strawberry scent.
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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.
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That’s important, because most conventional farmers still say they need to use chemicals, particularly methyl bromide, to stay in business. The fumigant, which sterilizes soil to control weeds and diseases, was supposed to be phased out under the Clean Air Act by 2005, because it depletes the ozone layer. (The common alternative, methyl iodide, was pulled from production by its manufacturer last summer and banned by the EPA in December. A carcinogenic, it can affect the brain and nervous system of anyone exposed to it.) But methyl bromide is still used by most strawberry farmers under “critical use” extensions from the EPA, granted on the basis of industry claims that there are no technically and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical. Jim Cochran has proved them wrong: it’s “surprisingly easier” than many farmers claim, he says, to grow strawberries without chemicals. He believes there’s no need to be poisoning the air, water and workers with harmful chemicals to have a profitable berry business. These days, more strawberry growers are following suit, but still only about 4 percent of commercial berries are organic.
Aside from the impact on the environment, experts say that strawberries are one of the fruits and vegetables that are highest in chemical residues. Gina Solomon, senior scientist and public health expert at the National Resources Defense Council, says that strawberries are treated with a number of fungicides that have been proven to be carcinogenic or toxic. “To scrub off the toxic chemicals on a conventional strawberry, you’d have to scrub until there was no strawberry left,” she says.
At the Swanton pick-your-own fields—marked by a vintage pickup truck with a bright strawberry sign—there’s no scrubbing. Kids, fingers stained red, pop bright berries into their mouths as fast as they go into the baskets. Inside the farmstand, visitors gather at blue picnic tables, sampling strawberry shortcakes, pies and preserves or eating the little jewels plain.
Cochran surveys the scene and smiles. “Have some shortcake,” he tells a visitor, offering a flaky biscuit with glistening berries and a froth of real whipped cream. Cochran says shortcake is his favorite way to eat strawberries. He looks forward to it every season; by midwinter he’s almost dreaming of it. Then, finally, in spring, he gets his first bowl of deep red, freshly picked strawberries, tasting the way strawberries should: an intense flavor that always takes him right back to his grandmother’s garden.