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April 13, 1998

UCSC teams up to create organic farm at former Fort Ord

By Jennifer McNulty

UC Santa Cruz has leased a 130-acre parcel at the former Fort Ord military base to Dynasty Farms, Inc., of Salinas, which will operate a certified organic mixed-vegetable farm on the site.

Dynasty will hold the lease for a minimum of five years, said Lora Lee Martin, director of UC's Monterey Bay Education, Science, and Technology (MBEST) Center at Fort Ord.

"This agreement reflects MBEST's emerging role in the regional economy and contributes to the growth of the organic farming industry in the Monterey Bay region," said Martin. "This unique collaboration between MBEST, UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, and Dynasty Farms, which is a major national distributor of produce grown on the Central Coast and elsewhere, promises to bring new opportunities and jobs to an expanding marketplace."

As part of the agreement, Dynasty will make several acres of the parcel available for university research projects that are in keeping with the company's overall farming objectives. Opportunities for student internships will also be available.

"This particular piece of ground and the tie-in with the university really presents an opportunity for large conventional growers and organic growers to come together and hopefully build the marketplace for sustainable agriculture," said Tom Russell, president of Dynasty Farms. "We'll be able to share information, and this gives us a chance to be on the cutting edge of new technologies. It's in everybody's best interest if sustainable agriculture grows."

Technical advisers who will oversee operations at the site include UC Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as UCSC's Center for Agroecology, which has earned an international reputation for its leadership in the development of sustainable growing practices.

The leased parcel is located between Blanco and Reservation Roads in Monterey County. Dynasty joins the growing list of MBEST tenants, which include Systems West, a satellite weather-technology company; UCSC Extension, which offers classes in environmental remediation and other topics; and the Pacific Cetacean Group, a nonprofit education and research organization. The university also recently signed a lease with the Don Chapin Company, Inc., also from Salinas, to operate an asphalt and concrete recycling facility on a 5-acre parcel for up to five years.

For Dynasty, the farming lease represents a major commitment to an expansion of the company's activities in organic agriculture, which had previously made up only about 1 percent of its business, said Russell. Dynasty currently contracts with about 45 growers in the Salinas Valley, in addition to farmers in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Mexico, most of whom use conventional growing techniques. With the MBEST property, Dynasty expects to be overseeing a total of nearly 1,400 acres of certified organic farmland in California and Arizona.

"By harvesting two crops a year on most of the land, we'll actually be operating nearly 2,500 crop acres," added Russell, who sells to large retail chains, including Nob Hill, Raley's, and Safeway. Dynasty's sister company, Pacific International Marketing, manages annual produce sales of about $85 million, he said.

Organic farming emphasizes the use of materials and practices that enhance the natural ecology, including crop rotations, compost, and biological pest controls, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Certified organic produce has been verified as organically grown by an independent third party that enforces minimum standards as described by law.

The market for organic produce has grown exponentially in recent years, with retail sales nationally jumping from $1.25 billion in 1991 to $3.5 billion in 1996. The number of acres farmed organically in California nearly doubled from 1993 to 1996, when a total of 13,785 acres were in organic production, according to California Certified Organic Farmers. The Central Coast region has led the way, with sales of organic produce in Monterey County nearly doubling to $21 million between 1995 and 1996.

"We've seen a tremendous number of our conventional produce customers express an interest in selling more organic produce," said Russell, whose company is poised to load organic produce on the same trucks they fill every day with conventional product. "Our goal isn't to compete with existing organic shippers of organic product but to expand business with mainline retailers and to offer a year-round volume that will really build the presence of organic produce in the market."

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