FRESNO, Calif. -- In 1988, the Salinas-based Nunes Co. Inc. heard rumblings that organic produce could go mainstream. That spring, it began converting its iceberg lettuce to organic.
But last March -- three years later -- the 9,000-acre corporation quit growing organic and went back to using man-made fertilizers and pesticides.
The company was just losing too much production and too much money, said David Nunes, vice president, even on the 4 percent of its acreage devoted to organic.
"On a per-carton basis, it cost us 30 percent more than conventional, because yields were lower. So we didn't see a real premium. In fact, we lost a lot of money."
Sometimes, Nunes could sell only 25 percent to 30 percent of a field's production as organic, "because the demand wasn't there."
Nunes isn't alone in questioning organic's future. As the organic-produce industry grows up, even the most committed growers seem to question its future, at least its future as a purely natural, anti-synthetic pesticide crop regimen.
"We believe there'll always be a pocket market but that organic ** won't go mainstream," Mr. Nunes said.
The company now prefers an integrated pest-management approach, one that attempts to use natural predators along with synthetic chemicals.
More and more, growers talk of compromise between pure organic and pure conventional farming. Some talk of a newer thinking, called agronomic responsibility. That entails taking care the soil and the plants, but not necessarily drawing a distinction between naturally and artificially derived inputs.
Norman Freestone, an Orosi organic-citrus grower, sees this compromise on the horizon. "Organic may not necessarily change its standards, but technology will change to make organic more like conventional and conventional more like organic."
Denesse Willey of T and D Farms in Clovis talks of how even large conventional growers may find themselves moving toward organic types of practices as they lose chemicals to the regulatory process.
"Growers are learning they must learn the skills of biological farming. Their tools are less effective and less available," she said.
Gradually, agrichemical companies are dropping registrations for pesticides used on lower-volume and specialty crops, meaning that farmers are sometimes without pesticides for their crops.