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An Organic thread

post #1 of 2
Thread Starter 
This was sent to me courtesy of John Evans:

Published on Sunday, April 9, 2006 by the Los Angeles Times Opportunity, Cubed, for World's Organic Growers A sugar plantation in Brazil found dividends beyond its dreams after making
the switch. The reason? U.S. farmers can't meet demand.

by Colin McMahon and Andrew Martin

SERTAOZINHO, Brazil — Growing up on his family's sugar plantation, Leontino
Balbo slept like a dream. The hard work, fresh air and lullaby of the sugar
mill's machinery brought him peace.

Years later, the place would keep Balbo up at night. After becoming
agricultural director of the farm, Balbo took a giant risk.

He threw away things his family had learned. He embraced things his family
had forgotten. He turned the farm organic, abandoning pesticides, chemical
fertilizers and methods of planting and harvesting that had served the
family's bottom line for years.

Sugar cane yields fell. Critics snickered. The men who were not just his
blood but also his bosses asked, "You sure you know what you're doing?" And
Balbo lay awake, asking that of himself but vowing to see the project

Now the Sao Francisco mill in Sertaozinho boasts higher yields than ever,
some of the highest in Brazil's sugar-rich Sao Paulo state. Fellow cane
growers come to Balbo for advice. And, capitalizing on a lack of organic raw
ingredients in the United States, Grupo Balbo supplies several prominent
American food makers, including Whole Foods' private label and Newman's Own.

"I felt the pressure so heavily," Balbo said, conducting a tour of his cane
fields in a sport utility vehicle powered by ethanol produced from organic
sugar. "I was so thin. I had to take medicine to sleep…. But I do not like
easy things. My family does not like easy things."

The difficult conversion to organic has paid dividends beyond even Balbo's
hopes. The dark green cane in the farm's rolling fields can rise 15 feet
high, and yields have shot up about 20% since the farm started converting to
organic in 1995.

Sugar is Balbo's chief export. Almost half of all organic sugar consumed in
the United States, and nearly 40% worldwide, comes from Balbo's Sao
Francisco mill. Balbo's own brand of organic food products, called Native,
is beginning to appear in the United States.

Balbo's organic products join others from Brazil in U.S. stores, as well as
items such as raspberries from Chile, broccoli from Mexico and blueberries
from Quebec.

Sales of organic food and beverages have increased an average of 20% a year
in the United States and reached an estimated $14.5 billion in 2005.

Although the number of U.S. farmers growing organically has surged, they
still cannot meet U.S. consumer demand. So food makers look abroad.

That dismays some in the organic movement who believe the "local" aspect of
organic farming is as important as the process. But producers say they have
no other choice.

"The imports aren't supplanting what we grow here," said Katherine DiMatteo
of the Organic Trade Assn. in Greenfield, Mass. "People are going there
because we don't have enough. It's a question of conversion of U.S. land to
more organics."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in February 2005 estimated
that organic imports exceeded exports 8 to 1. U.S. imports of organic
products are estimated at $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year.

If a product is not made of at least 95% certified organic ingredients, it
cannot be labeled "organic." And the supply of organic raw materials is so
tight in the United States that Stonyfield Farm of Londonderry, N.H., has
had to substitute ingredients and remove the "organic" label from several
items in its line of yogurts, ice creams and drinks.

"It's like a morgue in here when that happens," said Nancy Hirshberg, vice
president of natural resources for Stonyfield Farm, who buys her company's
sugar from Balbo in Brazil. "That's exactly the direction we don't want to

In the dairy industry, growth is penned in by the scarcity of organic feed,
said Lynn Clarkson, president of Clarkson Grain in Cerro Gordo, Ill. Dairy
farmers have to look overseas, primarily to China.

Beyond that, farmers in some other countries are just better prepared to
answer the demand for organic products, Clarkson said.

He mentioned China, Brazil and Argentina as having fewer obstacles to
organic farming, partly because their land has been less subjected to
chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

"They have land that they can instantly certify as organic because they
haven't put anything on it," he said. "Most U.S. land has to go through a
three-year transition."

The transition for Balbo was not as easy as clearing a new patch and seeding
it with cane. Balbo had to wean Sao Francisco's fields off chemicals, and he
had to change the way the mill processed the sugar to meet the standards
demanded by the organic industry.

"People said to me, 'You are going to ruin the family business,' " Balbo

But Balbo persuaded his partners and bosses to stick with the Green Cane
Project, as the conversion was called, through the 1995-97 transition years.
By 2000, Sao Francisco's yields had surpassed the best harvests achieved
using conventional methods.

Balbo, 45, is not only the agricultural director of Sao Francisco but also
commercial director for the Native line of organic products. Besides
packaged sugar, which is turning up in more coffee shops in Brazil, Native
also sells coffee, powdered chocolate, fruit juices and other products.
Launched in 2000, Native started turning a profit in 2005, Balbo said.

The skeptics had underestimated not only the market for organic sugar but
also the Balbo family's willingness to take risks, and pride in a history of

The Balbos helped design a new harvester that spreads the leaves and other
waste from the cane, providing cover to protect the soil and control weeds.
Waste from the distilling of sugar into ethanol is turned into a potent

Pests are controlled in a number of ways, including by raising tens of
thousands of tiny wasps that infect a type of caterpillar that can destroy
sugar cane. The wasps are hatched in the bug building at the plantation,
nurtured until they can fly and then released by the cupful into the fields.

Beneficial critters, such as earthworms, are protected, partly by using
tilling and harvesting methods that do not compact the soil.

Sao Francisco also has returned some of its acreage to woodland.

Not only has that brought back wildlife not seen in the region for decades,
but it also has helped combat erosion.

Balbo said, "You have to give nature an opportunity to participate in the
stewardship of the soil…. We treat the farms as a living organism, while
most conventional farmers treat their farms as being sick." McMahon reported
from Brazil and Martin from Washington.

© Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
My latest musical venture!
http://www.myspace.com/popshowband "I'm at the age when food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact I've just had a mirror put over my kitchen table." Rodney Dangerfield RIP
My latest musical venture!
http://www.myspace.com/popshowband "I'm at the age when food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact I've just had a mirror put over my kitchen table." Rodney Dangerfield RIP
post #2 of 2
Way to go Balbo :bounce: :bounce:

There's a message there somewhere for agribusiness!

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