Dennis Holbrook has been the proud owner of South Tex Organics since 1984, when he decided farming organically was not only nature’s way but also the way to grow the most nutritious and best tasting citrus. Dennis and his wife Lynda, along with family members, work together to manage the citrus and vegetable production and distribution business, along with a new retail store called Earth Born Market.
Dennis’s story spans three decades–really four, if you reach back to before he bought the citrus business from his parents. Growing up in a farming family showed him the full spectrum of pre-chemical agriculture (tilling with less or no chemicals) to what we now call conventional agriculture (chemicals to control weeds and pests) to organic agriculture.
South Tex Organics was certified organic by TDA in 1988. Converting from decades of chemical-assisted farming to organic growing methods was a daunting task. It took several years of growing cover crops and applying compost before there was evidence of renewed life in the soil. Another challenge was learning how to grow in harmony with nature.
Dennis recently took time to talk with us and share his insights on becoming certified organic.
Why did you choose to become a certified organic producer?
Dennis: “I was raised in conventional agriculture. Our family had a grove management company. I bought that company from my parents when I was 23. I did that for the next few years and things were good…I was young, happy and starting a family. In ’81 and ’82 Texas had the second and third largest grapefruit crops in history. It was overproduction and we were selling at $15 per ton. We were not making our production costs back, so I started looking at alternatives.
I knew from the time when I was a young kid, 11 or 12 years old, I could see that there were a lot of changes in growing methods – open tillage changed to chemical weed control. My first reason for changing to organic was when I began doing analysis…a great deal of research. What I found out was that by not having crop forage to turn back into soil we had depleted the organic matter and humus that was feeding the microbial content of our soil. So what we were seeing in conventional ag was we were creating a sterile media and had to supplement artificially with synthetic fertilizers.
The second reason was that Texas Tech was doing a blind test of ag workers for pesticide residues, and they asked if they could test our employees. I said okay but on the condition that they test me as well. When the results came back I was off the charts. As a teenager I operated orchard sprayers and herbicide applicators and worked for a crop duster, mixing the chemicals that were flown on the fields. Even though I hadn’t been applying chemicals for a while, I had high numbers in comparison to others being tested.
My final reason for going organic came in December of 1983. We had a major freeze. For me, this was an opportunity to make a break and get off the chemical merry go round. I began by converting 60 acres of citrus to organic. Up until ’89, we were doing both conventional and the organic program. We were learning… it was an education process for us. In 1989 a second 100-year freeze hit. Before the ’83, freeze there were 70,000 citrus acres in the area, today there are approximately 27,000 acres of citrus in production.
After the freeze I felt we had enough experience growing organically to go completely organic. I could see a growing opportunity for another option for the consuming public that was less harmful to the environment. In my opinion organic produce is safer and more nutritious. Today we have over 700 acres in our program, which has spanned 30 years from our beginning in 1984.”
How do you handle the paperwork requirements of organic certification?
Dennis: “For me it was easier because, being a grove management company, we had daily logs of the work we were performing in the fields. That part of the record keeping wasn’t an added burden. I admit the certification process is a little time consuming but I believe it is well worth the effort to maintain the integrity of the program. You know, I hear complaints from the conventional growers about the requirements for ‘trace back’, I don’t understand why–that’s been a part of the organic program from the beginning. The tracking system doesn’t have to be a modern or high tech system. For instance, there is a place on our cartons where we record all the required information that is necessary for ‘trace back’ with lot numbers, pack dates and such. It’s a simple system we developed to meet requirements.”
Have you received a return on your certification investment?
Dennis: “Without question… We couldn’t sell to the customers we sell to without the certification. We distribute throughout the nation and to Canada, and in the past we exported to Japan and some to the European Union. I believe in organic certification because the consumer has to be confident that what they are buying meets a standard. It is difficult to be certified organic on an acre or two in your backyard because of the cost. That’s the benefit of farmer’s markets for those producers who develop personal relationships of trust with their customers. But selling large volumes to places like HEB, Sun Harvest or Whole Foods…you are going to have to be certified organic.”
What is the most difficult part of the inspection?
Dennis: “Finding the time. We have over 30 different fields and our packing facility to be inspected, because we have both a producer and distributor certification. Inspection can hit during our busiest time. We had one certification due during our busiest time, February, and our distributor’s license then came up in August. We consolidated both dates…so we do both inspections at same time now. August is a slow time for us. It’s good for inspectors too because they don’t have to make two trips here for inspection.”
Where do you get most of your organic certification technical information?
Dennis: “I go to the National Organics Program website. It’s not the easiest website to navigate through but if you are persistent enough you can find what you need. Sometimes you just have to do your own research. For instance, you can look at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) website to find products listed for organic.”
Did you ever use ATTRA or Texas Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (TOFGA) as a resource?
Dennis: “You know, I was one of the charter members of TOGA (Texas Organic Growers Association), TOFGA’s predecessor. We didn’t have a lot of resources back then so we figured it out pretty much on our own. Both of these organizations today are excellent sources for obtaining information. I recommend you spend some time becoming familiar with their websites. They are putting the message out there.”
If you knew then what you know now about being an organic producer, what would you have done different at the beginning of your organic business?
Dennis: “I think from the very beginning, when I decided to pursue organic production…well, my thought process was that I would have my own facility here…grow and pack it. I did a study of all the health food stores in the area. I went around to see if any of these stores were interested in organics – I did not find a single person interested. That was my original plan. When I realized that business model was not going to work, I decided to become a wholesaler…to become nationally significant. We set our goal and directed our operations to meet that goal. Our model is derived from that vision. I can’t say that I would do anything substantially different because we lived that dream and made it a reality, but in the process of building a business you step out on a limb. We’ve been very fortunate…blessed to be at the beginning of the organic movement. The organic industry has experienced continual growth for the past 30 years. Sales of organic products were $35.1 billion dollars in 2013…up 11.5% from the previous year. There’s a growing demand but not as many people pursuing organic production as the market needs.
The most encouraging message Dennis shared with us about his experience as a certified organic producer: “See the vision and catch the dream.” We all wish a happy 30th to South Tex Organics!
To learn more about South Tex Organics visit http://www.stxorganics.com/.
You can also contact them by calling 956-585-1040 or toll free at 888-895-0108.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer Buratti is currently a board member of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She was previously a grant project manager for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality and Education and Outreach Coordinator for Texas State University.