Q&A with Zea Sonnabend, recipient of a national award for organic leadership
Call Zea Sonnabend on the telephone and chances are that the answering machine will tell you that she is “either out standing in my field, or out standing in someone else’s field”—a good bet, considering the CCOF organic farm inspector and policy specialist recently started farming again, herself.
But for today, at least, Sonnabend will instead be standing on a stage in Maryland, receiving the Organic Trade Association’s prestigious Organic Leadership Award. Given annually since 1997, the award is given to influential and innovative figures in the organic movement. Sonnabend certainly falls into that category: from her career at CCOF, to her involvement with the Organic Foods Production Association of North America, the National Organic Program, the Organic Materials Review Institute, and the Ecological Farming Association, she has led the organics movement forward in more ways than one.
As CCOF Executive Director Cathy Calfo put it in a recent press release, “Zea has played a key role in growing organic. She has worked the fields, analyzed the inputs, inspected farms, advocated for farmers, and told it like it is to regulators and policymakers. But, more importantly, she has generously shared with all of us her passion for ensuring the integrity of organic products, and, in doing so, she has helped our movement to grow and to thrive.”
GT caught up with Sonnabend, who lives in Watsonville, before she left for the Wednesday, Sept. 19 ceremony to learn more about her history with organics and her dreams for the future of the movement.
How did you first become involved in organic agriculture?
I’m not sure to begin with—I guess I just liked gardening and never really thought I’d be in agriculture. I was raised on the East Coast, and I decided after dropping out of college in the late sixties that it’d be a good thing to go back to school and study horticulture, and it was right when they were trying to recruit women for agriculture grad school. I ended up in grad school studying plant breeding. I learned a lot about conventional agriculture, but was much more interested in organics. So after school I came out to where there is a longer growing season, to Santa Barbara in the late 70s and to Tehama County in the early ’80s, where we started a farm.
Over the course of your career, have you seen the organic industry and movement change? How so?
It’s grown much bigger, of course. But the main reason I think it’s grown bigger is because, when we joined CCOF in 1982 in Tehama County as farmers, there weren’t really any rules—there were two or three pages in a handout of what to do on your farm. You couldn’t spray anything for a year [before getting certified], but there weren’t really any other rules. Pretty early on it became apparent that if it were to really grow, there needed to be some rules written down. I sort of got roped into writing [the first certification handbook].
How did that happen? And from there, how have you been involved in shaping and fine-tuning organic standards over the years?
I was down visiting a friend in Santa Barbara from our farm in Tehama County in ’84, and my friend in Santa Barbara said ‘I need a ride up to Marin County where CCOF is having a meeting,’ and I said ‘Well, I’m going to Marin County to see my aunt on the way home, [so] I’ll give you a ride.’ On the ride, she said it was the statewide meeting and that I should stop by. My aunt wasn’t expecting me until dinnertime, so I said I could stop by for an hour. I walk in and the regional representative from our chapter, the seat was empty, and I went up to the head of the meeting and asked why it was empty. They said [the representative] couldn’t make it and that, if I was from that area, I could sit there. Suddenly I was on the board. Just like that.
What are the biggest changes to organic standards that followed?
It was very important to get on the same page with other groups nationwide. One of the first things was changing it from one year to three years for not using pesticides. The next most important thing from my perspective is a clear list of which types of fertilizers and pest controls you can use and can’t use. [This was important because] which things you can and cannot use is not always clear because there are a lot of hidden ingredients.
You’re being awarded for helping “grow organic agriculture.” How do you think you’ve made a difference?
It all stems from what I said—making a clear set of rules. Along the way, doing it in a systematic and slow enough way that companies can make things that meet the farmers’ needs and that are allowed. If we had banned a lot of the stuff that used to be used all at once, the farmers would have been stuck without anything. But there is a process [now] that gives everyone in the industry time to either stop using it or develop a better product. I feel like the main thing I’ve brought to it is the systematic type of review that puts everyone on notice.
Looking forward, what is your personal hope and vision for organic agriculture?
Truthfully, I would really like to see the day when it's the chemical farmers that have to do all of the paperwork and be the minority, and have organic be the primary way agriculture is done in the country. There’s no reason this can’t be the way.
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