In Their Words: Cathy Calfo, Executive Director and CEO, CCOF, and Organic Champion


“I’ve always had extra passion for the underdog.  And, there is no question that organic, representing just 3% of agricultural land in California, is the underdog.  I’m motivated to see that 3% grow to 5%, 10% and more during the years to come.”

OPN Connect:  Can you give us a brief history on how CCOF started and how it has evolved ?

Cathy Calfo:  CCOF was founded by organic farmers as a non-profit organization in 1973 around the table of founder Barney Bricmont, in Santa Cruz California. CCOF’s original 54 grower members committed themselves to defining organic standards and certifying organic farmers.  The organization published its first standards (13 rules long!) in 1974 and began to lobby for passage of the California Organic Food Act (COFA) which was signed into law in 1979.  COFA defined organic practices in California, but made no provisions for support or enforcement. By 1988, membership grew to 300 organic growers.   

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In the late eighties, news reports on chemicals in agriculture caused public interest in organics to expand.  By the end of 1989, membership was up to 800 organic growers.  The Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) passed in 1990.  That Act called upon the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish the National Organic Program (NOP) which now accredits organic certifiers.  In 2002, the NOP implemented organic standards for use of the USDA organic seal.  Since that time, CCOF membership has grown steadily.  Today, CCOF Certification Services certifies more than 3300 farmers, processors and handlers across North America.  All CCOF certified operations become members of CCOF, Inc. – the parent organization – and are represented on the board of directors.  Two percent of certification revenues, combined with donations, fund CCOF Foundation programs to advance organic agriculture.

OPN Connect:  How has the membership changed over the years?   Who are your members and what do you think are their most important priorities?

Cathy Calfo:  CCOF members are as diverse as the organic sector, including farmers, processors and handlers of all sizes growing and handling the full range of agricultural products.  CCOF is unique in that it is farmer-governed and dedicated to ensuring that organic certification remains accessible to all.  CCOF represents some of the largest organic growers in the world and the largest certifier of those with the USDA ‘small farmer’ designation. 

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OPN Connect:  If you had a crystal ball, what does the future of CCOF look like, and what does the organic sector look like? 

Cathy Calfo:  Our mission is to advance organic agriculture for a healthy world through certification, education, advocacy and promotion.  Consumer demand is driving organic growth, which we believe is the future of agriculture.  For CCOF, this means organizational growth and continued focus on ensuring that certification is accessible to the full range of producers (affordable and efficient).  It also means continued member engagement in state and federal advocacy.  Farmers and organic businesses face a lot of challenges in today’s agricultural economy.  These range from labor shortages and land prices to regulatory requirements and natural disaster.  One of CCOF’s most important roles is to engage its members in effective advocacy to support member businesses and to advance organic agriculture. 

We had a big win last year when the Governor signed legislation to streamline registration for the California State Organic Program.   CCOF sponsored the bill, authored by Assembly Member Mark Stone.  CCOF member advocacy helped the bill sail through with unanimous support.  The law eliminates duplicate paperwork requirements, caps or reduces fees, and lets certifiers complete registration for their clients.  It updated the role of the California State Organic Program from just enforcing standards to conducting education and outreach to support organic agriculture.  Looking forward, we will further expand the civic engagement of our members, particularly in ways that impact public policy.

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OPN Connect:   What is CCOF’s position on bioponics?

Cathy Calfo:  CCOF certifies bioponic and container systems based on the nuanced requirements of a 2010 NOSB Crops Committee recommendation. We believe that these standards should be applied consistently and are advocating for such at USDA. 

OPN Connect:  Does CCOF believe that the organic community needs to accept bioponically-grown food to be able to feed the world for the future?

Cathy Calfo:  CCOF believes that organic is the future of food. Bioponically-grown organic food will be part of our future and should meet standards that are consistent with organic production methods. CCOF advocates for a whole systems approach to bioponic production with standards that require biological activity within the growing media/substrate of bioponic systems, the presence of organic matter sufficient to support biological activity in the growing media/substrate, and available nutrition within the growing media/substrate on an ongoing basis.

Organic Produce Network (OPN)

We also believe that it is in the interest and the spirit of organic production to ensure that organic systems evolve in ways that help innovators and next-generation farmers to address modern concerns related to energy, climate, water, and nutrition. 

OPN Connect:  Can you elaborate?

Cathy Calfo:  CCOF certifies about 130 hydroponic and container-based systems. These operations implement biologically-based nutrient cycling practices and use a whole systems approach to crop production.  CCOF verifies their practices through the annual inspection process and incorporates the nuanced requirements of the 2010 NOSB recommendation, Production Standards for Terrestrial Plants in Containers and Enclosures, into its certification processes.  Producers must use practices that align with organic principles and are evaluated based upon their site-specific conditions. Practices would include but are not limited to recycling of plant nutrients, prevention of water run-off, recycling and re-use of growing media and the use of growing media that has been verified to not include as ingredients any prohibited materials.  Further standards or guidance for these unique systems would ensure greater consistency among certifiers.

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OPN Connect:  Tell us about yourself – how long have you been the Executive Director/CEO for CCOF?  What led you to CCOF?

Cathy Calfo:  I joined CCOF in 2011 after serving as Executive Director of the national Apollo Alliance – an organization promoting clean energy and good jobs.  Prior to that, I served for nearly eight years as Deputy State Treasurer, leading legislative and policy initiatives for California State Treasurer Phil Angelides.  I was attracted to CCOF because, like at the Apollo Alliance and many of the initiatives that I worked on in the Treasurer’s office, it operates at the nexus of economic opportunity and environmental well-being. I’ve always believed in the premise that we do well when we do good. 

OPN Connect:  Where did your passion for organic agriculture come from?

Cathy Calfo:  Like so many others, my passion comes from my personal belief that there is a better way to produce food than the chemical-based systems that have overtaken agriculture during the past century.  My passion has intensified at CCOF as I’ve come to know the producers who are committed to growing food organically and to understand how challenging farming is in and of itself.  Choosing to farm organically presents a whole new host of challenges and opportunities.  The other thing that I’ll add is that I think I’ve always had extra passion for the underdog.  And, there is no question that organic, representing just 3% of agricultural land in California, is the underdog.  I’m motivated to see that 3% grow to 5%, 10% and more during the years to come.

OPN Connect:  What is the best decision you ever made, Professionally and personally?

Cathy Calfo:  Making my home in Santa Cruz. It’s been challenging at times to live here and to make the kind of impact I’ve wanted to make professionally. But it is a community that reflects my personal values and has been a great place to raise my family.

OPN Connect:  CCOF and OPN are hosting a brand-new event together next December, the Organic Grower Summit.  What are your goals for the event?  Why do you believe that OGS is important and timely for the organic food industry?

Cathy Calfo:  Our goal is to host an event that serves and inspires organic growers—one that offers technical and market information as well meaningful opportunities to connect with buyers, suppliers and other organic growers. The event will also focus on organic specifically, distinguishing it from the natural foods trade shows that take place annually on the east and west coast.

OPN Connect:  What do you feel is the most important part of what will be your legacy as a leader, innovator and driver for organic agriculture?

Cathy Calfo:  I hope that the legacy of CCOF will continue to be based on its commitment to first and foremost, represent the interests of organic producers and second, to move us a little close toward our organizational vision of a world where organic is the norm.

Bioponics: Is the End Near for Organic Labeling?

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By Mindy Hermann

Although bioponically-grown fruits and vegetables currently may be considered organic if they adhere to the organic regulations defined by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), they soon could lose their organic certification. Discussion at the upcoming USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) spring meeting is on track to conclude that aeroponic, aquaponic, and hydroponic crops do not meet organic definitions and therefore cannot carry organic certification.  

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Weekly Top 5: Organic News You Need to Know

Weekly Top 5: Organic News You Need to Know


1. Publix Looks to Expand GreenWise Concept
2. Papa John’s Goes Organic Toppings
3. Hungry Harvest Reclaims Ugly Produce for Delivery Service in Eastern States  
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