Texas Organic Label First in Nation

First Texas official Organic Label

Texas was first State to certify an Organic Label for produce.

That’s right—TEXAS!  In 1987, the Texas Department of Agriculture established an official State label guaranteeing that the produce was organically grown. It is a little known fact.  It is so little known that it has almost been completely written out of the  history books. 

People’s History in Texas unearthed this nearly buried fact in our interviews that have been tracing the accomplishments of the Texas Department of Agriculture during the glory years of the Jim Hightower administration, 1983-1991.

Susan Kaderka went over the details in a recent interview and oral history with PHIT.

Kaderka joined the TDA in 1983, having shifted over from the House Study Group.  Officially, at TDA, she was in charge of Weights and Measures.  In the old days… and well, let’s be honest, the current days… that sleepy, dusty outpost of Weights and Measures was responsible for egg inspections, gas pumps, and calibrating meat scales at grocery pumps.  Boring!!

But…the 1980s TDA added organic certification to that mundane list and, thereby  became the FIRST state in the nation to offer an organic label that consumers could trust.

Concern over the quality and purity and health of vegetables and produce began with the Rachel Carson expose on pesticides and pesticide problems.  Religious groups like the Mennonites in the Pennsylvania area had been farming organic since…well…Biblical times. Other fringe groups had been advocating for the quality of the earth since the turn of the century.  Of course, beginning in the 60s, hippies and anarchists demanded fewer capitalist chemicals in their food.

But for someone who didn’t own their own farm or personally know the farmers, it was hard to know what was in their food.  Groups of farmers on the West coast, such as the California Certified Organic Farmers, created standards, but they could only enforce the standards for their small group of members. Non-members made up their own definitions of organic, and marketed their products as organic as well.

So an organic label was effectively meaningless.

Organic vegetables at Farmer’s Market

The 1980s TDA transformed the Organic label into a marketing tool to promote Texas agriculture, and specifically, smaller, family farm agriculture.

Susan Kaderka recalled the surprise of the California organic farmers.  

“Dan Kelly and I took a trip out to California to visit with the  California Certified Organic Association.  We set up meetings and, after we got copies of their standards, we toured an organic farm.  The state of California did not certify organic food at that time— it was the Growers Association that did that. So they were fascinated with the idea that the state of Texas— which they didn’t consider to be, you know, as cool as California—that the state of Texas was interested in this, and bringing the power of the state behind it… they were just shocked by that.”

“We didn’t make law. That was the point of it. We developed a little logo that said Texas Organic.  Growers had to submit to an inspection.  And we hired Keith Jones to be the Program Director.  But he was the actual on-site inspector and he would go out to farms and conduct this inspection, to verify their practices and to give them the green light to start using this logo.  It was an inspections based marketing program.

So, we didn’t have to pass any laws.  We just had declare that we had this label that people could use.  Keith was doing these inspections. As the program matured, we eventually trained other inspectors.”

Other states started duplicating the effort—because honestly, who wanted to get upstaged by Texas. According to Koderka, “Texas recognized early on that we needed national legislation to harmonize the definition of organic, so consumers would be able to trust what they were buying at their grocery store, even if it didn’t come from Texas. We started working with Senator Leahy’s staff, especially Kathleen Merrigan. I think we shocked ourselves when we got the very conservative National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to back Senator Leahy’s bill, and testify in favor of it. That was a sea change, driven by consumer demand.”

Prologue to the National Organic Production Act

Keith Jones and Jim Hightower went to Congress to testify.  Hightower, in his Texas drawl, explained to the Senate,  “We have developed this organic certification program in Texas in 1987, providing this label that can be used by the farmers and by the marketers of a Texas Department of Agriculture Certified Organic product.

We, as a State agency, do the inspections on farm. It is a requirement, and Keith, you can add to this if you want, but it is a requirement of 3 years pesticide free.

We had 30 farmers certified in March 1989. Today, we have 140 farmers certified. That is a 450 percent increase in a single year, and we expect 250 farmers to be certified by the end of this year. Farmers are moving dramatically into this. We will have about 1,000 percent increase in the volume of organic production moving into the marketplace this year, and that does not begin to reach the actual potential that is out there. 

These are, as I indicated to you yesterday, not just balloon flying hippies out there with half an acre and wanting to do what is right. These are mainstream farmers who are beginning to make this conversion.”

Hightower offers the example of Jim Crawford who was a farmer in Muleshoe, Texas. “Seven years ago, he was losing money in the traditional production techniques_ about to go under. So he decided to switch to organic just to stay afloat, because it promised to reduce his input costs and promised a higher market price at the time. It took him about 3% years to convert. We got him certified about 1987 and it is working. He is getting substantially higher yields today than his neighbors do. You can test his soil and go right across the road and test the soil there. There are substantial differences, in fact, unbelievable differences in soil quality and till.”

The Leahy Organic Bill passed in 1990.  The  USDA foot dragged, of course, and it took until the next century to devise and approve standards. 

The Hightower TDA deserves credit for pushing the standards. The Chemical lobby, the USDA, the established industry didn’t like it. The TDA received a lot of blowback.  

Texas A&M

Susan Kaderka recalls Texas A&M University being particularly unhappy. “Yes. I remember them having a meeting with Hightower where they just ripped into him.  I mean, they were just furious with him because they thought that the very fact of organic… of there being a label for organic agriculture… essentially cast aspersions on conventional agriculture and and it was suggesting that growing without pesticides was better for people and they were just outraged that the Agriculture Commissioner, who they considered their advocate at the state level, was doing this.  

Hightower, his attitude was— there’s a market for this, people want this, and so if there’s a market for it, and if Texas growers are producing it, then it’s fine to promote it.  So he did.   He got a lot of pushback from it, but, we just kept going.”

Kaderka is still surprised at how effective they were.  “I’m proud that Hightower allowed us to do this…to really participate in a a vigorous and robust way in national discussions and actions not only around food safety, but also organic agriculture and sustainable agriculture in general.”

“With the state organic standards, I felt like we gave a big push to organic production.”


Billboard in Deaf Smith County

This is the first post on PHIT’s oral interviews with Texas Department of Agriculture Hightower years( 1983-1991).  The goal of the TDA was to create an agricultural economic environment that would deliver food that was safe for the consumer, safe for the farmworker, safe for the planet, and would allow the family farmer and family rancher a decent living.

One of the Hightower’s administration’s longer lasting impacts for Texas was the TDA’s fight against the federal Department of Energy’s designation of Deaf Smith County as a national nuclear waste dump.  Stopping a high level nuclear waste dump planned sited directly over the Ogallala Aquifer seemed like a no-brainer and the TDA assisted Deaf Smithians in fighting it.

Possible Dump Sites

Deaf Smith County is the number one farm county in the state.  The landscape in this panhandle county is dotted with grain elevators and cattle feed yards.  In summer, green fields of sugar beets, wheat, corn, sorghum and vegetables are irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, the nations’ largest underground water supply.  Firms in area include Frito-Lay, Holly Sugar, and Arrowhead Mills.

Yet, the Department of Energy, tasked with the problem of finding a storage dump for nuclear waste, picked Deaf Smith County, Yucca Flats, Nevada, and Hanford, Washington. 

The plan was to inject the radioactive waste deep underground below the Ogallala via pipes that went through the Ogallala.  Major processing firms based in Deaf Smith were already planning to move, because of the fear of possible contamination, mere rumors of which would spell consumer doom for their products.  This, remember, was just a few years after Three Mile Island and historically, very soon, Chernobyl will implode.

The DOE had to make a decision by 1991. But Deaf Smith County didn’t want anything to do with it.  Duh!

Gary Keith talked to PHIT about his involvement with that particular inane episode.

Gary Keith had contributed articles to the Texas Observer when Hightower was editor.  He had been involved in Hightower’s Railroad Commission run.  Although he left the state to be a professor up north, he wanted to get back to Texas, so he applied for a position at the House Study Group at the Texas legislature but, before that could happen,  Hightower’s people plucked him off the waiver wire.  He was recruited to work for the TDA in 1985. 

  One of his early chores at TDA was to respond to the nuclear waste dump proposal.  State agencies don’t generally get involved in these sorts of issues and generally just rubber-stamp the federal proposal.  But Hightower’s people thought they were supposed to protect the agricultural community and that included protecting water safety and promoting the availability of non-radioactive land.  This is a prime example of the uniqueness of the TDA and why PHIT is collecting these stories. 

Official survey

By law, the DOE is supposed to survey the community about community support, but the DOE is rather lax about such things and the TDA acquired a grant for the DOE to conduct that community survey.  Gary Keith described the process:  “We put state money into it… when I say state money, what I mean is that our money came indirectly came from DOE.  DOE was required to to engage with state and local entities. So DOE gave a grant to the governor’s office. The governor was Mark White and White knew that since this was a big agricultural area, there were big agricultural issues here and, and his guy Steve Frishman gave a grant to Hightower. So that is what we lived off of… this grant that came via DOE. Mark White, and Frishman had to publicly be neutral. But he was a supporter of us. He wanted us to do as much as we could. And then boom, White is defeated by Clements. And Clements stripped our money away.  So that was the end of the project. But at about that same time, DOE designated Yucca Flats, Nevada, and so we were off the hook.” 

“But it was a run for two to three years.  Julie Brody…her field was community psychology… so she did surveys of residents. And then I did work more on the ground.”

The TDA couldn’t exactly do the organizing against the waste dump, but they could provide information and coordination and forums for discussions.  So they assisted the local groups who had experience organizing against Pantex.

Gary Keith:   “So it was, you know….you’re doing stuff that follows up on the earlier work that people did… Tani Adams had been active in battling against the expansion of Pantex. So she didn’t start from scratch either.   There was an organization in place that, you know… you never want to have to keep doing something… but  they did the Pantex  work, and then lo and behold, along comes the high level nuclear waste possibility. So they geared up again, with some of the same people, same organizations.   But some were new— one was STAND- Serious Texans Against Nuclear Dumping. And then there was the Nuclear Waste Task Force. So we had those local organizations that would have their meetings and we did what we could to support them. I brought in Scott Denman of the Safe Energy Community Council out of Washington DC.   We did a workshop with the local groups in Amarillo on how to work the media.

‘You all be media advocates.’”

Just say No

“We came up with a slogan, I can’t remember who did it, but it was at the same time that GSD& M was doing their Don’t Mess with Texas. Thing that we came up with was Don’t Waste Texas.”

The story however is never-ending as Texas continues its dance with the federals on the issue of nuclear disposal. Yucca Flats eventually opted out of being the waste disposal for the country.  The United States is still looking for a place to dump its high-level radioactive trash.  And they still have their eyes on Texas.  In 2014, a proposal was floated for a dump site in Loving or Howard County.

Rick Perry defeated Hightower in 1990, and went on to become Governor of Texas.  As Governor, Perry presided over the expedited permitting of a low-level nuclear waste disposal facility in Andrews County, in the Texas Panhandle. Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who in 1995 acquired Waste Control Specialists was a huge contributor to Perry in all his campaigns. Simmons’ new company wanted to dump low-level radioactive waste.  The permitting was nasty and lengthy.  Four major aquifers flow under the site in Andrews County; the Ogallala Aquifer flows 14 feet below the lowest extremity of the excavated nuclear waste disposal pit.  But Simmons and Perry won that battle.

Oh, for the old TDA, the TDA that thought protecting agriculture meant protecting the safety of the Texas agricultural land.