I have witnessed Cathy Calfo’s vivacious drive since 2011 when she became the Executive Director of CCOF. Since that time, she has been a friend, mentor, confidant and co-conspirator in advancing all things organic.
During her eight-year tenure, she achieved many policy and advocacy successes for organic agriculture in California and the Nation.
Cathy will leave the organization in March, in the good hands of Kelly Damewood.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Cathy about her work at CCOF, commitment to organic and vision for the future.
Prior to CCOF, Cathy served two terms as California Deputy State Treasurer where she led legislation and communications around key initiates with the intersection of environmental good and economic benefits. Before that, she was Executive Director of Apollo Alliance where she worked to advance clean energy and good jobs.
I asked Cathy what led her to CCOF, and she said, “When the CCOF position opened up it seemed like a great opportunity to continue the work I love doing, advancing environment wellbeing and economic prosperity.”
CCOF’s mission is to advance organic agriculture for a healthy world. Cathy’s work helped to further this goal in many ways.
During our chat, Cathy said, “Ag is one of the leading economic sectors in California, and just like clean energy, I felt a strong connection that we can grow healthier food in a more sustainable way while creating jobs and economic wellbeing.
I felt an affinity to CCOF as a member-driven organization. I believe in the democratic process, and I continue to learn how to bring diverse constituents together to advance a common agenda in an open democratic process—that’s what we do at CCOF.
The results have produced some big accomplishments, like updating and streamlining the State Organic Program. We were able to cap fees and broaden its role as a real advocate for organic in California.
Another way I’ve used the skills of bringing people together is growing the CCOF Foundation which was dormant for some time. I was fortunate when I came here that the board thought strategically about how to grow a Foundation that could be self-supporting. By using CCOF organizational funds, we could leverage other partnerships to build programs with the goal of advancing organic. We wanted specific programs that weren’t duplicative that could make a real difference. It was a natural progression to go from the work I had done in the past to CCOF.”
The CCOF Foundation was essentially reborn under Cathy’s leadership. I asked her about the beginnings and the priorities that are the guiding light of the mission. In response, Cathy said, “The Foundation set four program priorities that are tied to the barriers of advancing organic agriculture. We didn’t have a lot of money; the board gave $100,000 to start the Foundation the first year.
The first one is investing in the next generation of organic producers. Not just by investing in students in higher education but through a continuum of students as they go into elementary school learning about organic agriculture, and then in high school, they are inspired to go into organic careers.
We joined with a group of business partners who saw the same need who wanted to invest in the next generation but didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We developed a program that partnered with existing organizations that do Ag education.
For elementary programs, we partnered with ‘Ag In the Classroom’ and offered grants of $1000 to teachers who would teach organic-focused lesson plans. We had an overwhelming response. We saw students from K-6 have the opportunity to plant an organic garden, to shop for organic ingredients and learn what USDA organic means. We realized, as the program grew, this would have a big influence as thousands of students went through the program.
For high school students, we partnered with FFA and gave grants through their supervised agricultural experience program.
With higher education and vocational programs, we gave direct grants to students pursuing studies in organic agriculture. We recently did an independent evaluation of the program, and we learned that students in the FFA and higher education programs were extremely likely to go into careers in organic agriculture.
The second area we saw is that much of the infrastructure is geared towards conventional production methods. We heard the need for technical assistance geared towards organic production. We partnered with existing organizations to do workshops and webinars in areas already being done but with an organic focus such as food safety, farmers markets, and labeling. We have had several thousand go through the organic training institute. We just received $500,000 from USDA for farmers market management training.
The third area is educating consumers. We developed a “why buy organic” consumer education card which we distribute in farmers markets, and Costco distributed 150,000 in its stores.
The fourth area is a hardship assistance program for growers who have suffered a weather or health hardship or emergency. Since the inception, we have given $170,000 to support producers who have severe hardships.”
Over the last six years the Foundation has invested over $3 million into the organic sector to achieve these goals, and that will only continue to grow.
Cathy continued, “Yet $3 million in a $40 billion organic sector is small. We wanted to look at the bigger picture—how do we raise the bar to push the sector further? We launched a project this year called ‘The Roadmap to an Organic California.'”
Cathy and her team set a goal as was done when she worked in renewable energy. In ten years 100% of all energy will come from renewable resources in California.
“Our team thought if 4% of the land is farmed organic now, and there are tremendous economic and social benefits to organic, why wouldn’t we set something like a renewable energy goal for organic?”
They set out to learn what it would look like if 10% of the land in California was farmed organically by 2030. CCOF’s roadmap to meet the goal has two phases. The first documents what the environmental, economic and social benefits will be in California if organic acreage increases from 4% to 10% by 2030. It goes on to look at what those benefits would be if it was 100%.
The “Roadmap to an Organic California” was unveiled February 27that CCOF’s annual conference in Fresno California.
“The reason this report is significant is that it will represent the most current compilation of peer-reviewed research on the benefits of organic. By documenting those benefits in a credible way, we will inspire the community and policymakers to do more to advance organic agriculture” Cathy said.
She continued, “The next phase will be convening stakeholder groups in four policy areas: transitioning more land, accelerating demand, streamlining regulations for organic producers, and making organic more broadly accessible to consumers.
What happens in California influences the rest of the county. We need to think differently about food and agriculture policy.”
As Cathy leaves the organization, she holds a hopeful vision for CCOF and the future for organic.
“The question in front of us every day is how can the demand for organic be as strong we know it is and the opportunities so vast, yet the amount of acreage remains so low? Addressing that disconnect is the fundamental challenge for organic as we move forward.”
Cathy plans to stay deeply involved in the community, serving on the UC Davis Ag Sustainability Institute Advisory Board, Santa Cruz Homeless Garden Project Board, and The City Charter Review Commission.
Her work at CCOF bears witness of how much one person can achieve with great vision and enduring energy. Let us all inherit this spirit as we work to heal the planet through food and agriculture.