The vast arid sprawl of the sun-baked Sonoran-Colorado Desert does not inspire confidence in the signs welcoming visitors to the winter vegetable kingdom of Imperial Valley.
Bordered by the Colorado River to the east, the post-apocalyptic terrain of the Salton Sea to the west, the playground cities of the Coachella Valley to the north and Mexico to the south, the dry and dusty surface of Imperial Valley belies the region’s bounty.
Contrary to the hauntingly desolate landscape, a defiant eco-system bolstered by abundant sunshine and enviable water supply has taken root here to supply North America with fruit and vegetables, especially during the winter months.
“Welcome to my gardens in the desert,” booms Jeff Ciachurski to a curious carload of foodies and investors, as the barren land straddling California State Highway 111 gives way to fields of neatly planted organic vegetables.
It is here, in this corner of Southeastern California, that Ciachurski, a B.C. veteran of sustainable wind and solar energy projects, is turning over a new leaf and becoming a green giant.
And it is here that plans are being initiated to reduce the price of organic vegetables — a move that could affect the industry as a whole and boost the consumer’s buying power.
TRANSFORMED BY IRRIGATION
Once considered worthless and inhospitable, primarily due to a lack of water, Imperial Valley was shunned by many of the early Southern California farming pioneers until the turn of the last century,
In the 1930s, the All American Canal — a 130-kilometre long aqueduct to divert water from the Colorado River to Imperial Valley — was constructed and pumped new life into the unco-operative clay soils of the region.
Today, the canal system irrigates more than 250,000 hectares of good cropland, transforming one of the driest regions on earth into one of the most productive agricultural areas of the world.
Born and raised in Greater Vancouver, Ciachurski, 55, developed a profitable affinity with Mother Nature’s largesse at an early age.
“I have always believed that there is money to be made from the sun, wind and land God has given us,” said Ciachurski, a father of seven.
The son of a Polish father and an Asian mother, Ciachurski describes himself as coming from “a very poor immigrant family with humble beginnings.”
“I was taught early in life to set goals and go after them one at a time,” he said.
After graduating from BCIT’s mining school, Ciachurski started his first public company in 1985.
In 1999, with a handful of loyal investors, he founded Vancouver-based Western Wind to produce renewable energy from wind and solar power. The company was sold to Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners in 2013 for $420 million.
With almost two decades of experience as a CEO and director in the renewable energy industry, and after having completed over $1.7 billion in corporate transactions, Ciachurski turned his attention to organic farming.
In early 2014, he sowed the seeds for his new venture, Captiva Verde Industries Ltd. (CSE:VEG), which is now the only publicly-traded 100-per-cent organic farming company.
Operating under some of the world’s strictest organic farming rules, Captiva Verde’s operations, which are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, span three locations totalling 3,671 acres.
The isolated fields in Arizona, Imperial Valley and Tehachapi are all at different elevations for production synced to optimal climate conditions.
“This allows for 365 days of harvesting and a crop rotation of between 20 baby vegetables and commodities,” said Ciachurski, adding that Captiva Verde is looking at another 2,270 acres in the region for organic cultivation.
Captiva Verde’s diverse organic crops include spinach, green chard, red chard, green romaine, red romaine, green oak, green tango, wild arugula, mizuna, green kale and red kale.
Expanded operations will produce broccoli and leafy vegetables including bak choy and tatsoi, favoured by the East Asian palate.
Harvesting targets from all the Captiva Verde fields range between 400,000 to 500,000 pounds per week.
“We are focused on becoming the No. 1 certified organic vegetable producer in North America,” said Ciachurski.
ORGANIC PRODUCE ON AVERAGE 69 PER CENT MORE EXPENSIVE
A cornerstone of Ciachurksi’s success over the years is the people around him.
In this case it’s David Pratt, Captiva Verde’s chief operating officer and executive vice-president of farm operations.
With 15 years of experience in large-scale farm operations, harvesting revenues of $65 million US annually, Pratt hails from a traditional farming family in which mom, dad and son all hold agronomy degrees from the University of Arizona.
“My family has been in the farming business for many generations. This is my dream job,” said Pratt, who was certified as a pest control adviser before joining Captiva Verde in 2014.
Pratt oversees a small army of well paid and loyal farm workers, agro-scientists, food safety experts, contractors and administrative staff to ensure Captiva Verde’s promise of treading lightly on the planet to produce healthy, organic greens is adhered to every day.
In his mid-30s, Pratt is also part of a growing trend where the younger generation is turning to tilling the land without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
This new generation, influenced by a growing consumer base that demands fresh and local food grown with minimal environmental effects, has taken to organic farming.
Agriculture data shows that 12 per cent of organic farmers in Canada are under 35 years old and the number is growing at a similar rate in the U.S. “It’s hard work but rewarding,” said Pratt, a father of two.
In addition to growing their operations and moving into new markets, Ciachurski and Pratt have also embarked on a mission to make organic produce more affordable.
Consumerreport.org, which conducted a study last year, found that, on average, organic foods were 47 per cent more expensive than conventional produce. A 2013 study by MacEwan University in Edmonton found that, on average, organic foods were priced 69 per cent higher than their conventional counterparts in Canadian grocery stores. The premium varied across different food categories.
“We need to remove the price barrier so more people can eat healthily,” said Ciachurski.
“There is just too much fat in the middle and we are working on ways to streamline the farm-to-market system and avoid too many middlemen,” said Ciachurski.
For example, a pound of organic broccoli is $1.50-$2 when it leaves a farm in California. By the time it reaches B.C. consumers at the supermarket, after going through a supply chain that includes processors and brokers, the broccoli sells for up to $16 per pound.
INVESTMENT TREND TOWARDS ORGANIC FOOD
The demand for organic foods, estimated to grow at a conservative 15-20 per cent annually, is also attracting investments by money managers and individuals looking for gains from socially responsible assets.
Jeff Kowal, a veteran Toronto-based investment adviser, said he was attracted to Captiva Verde because of Ciachurski’s public market pedigree, the operational plan for year-round harvest and the “tough-to-get” USDA certification.
“I have about a million shares now in Captiva Verde and it’s a personal investment that makes me feel good,” he said.
Kowal said large institutional investors are also eyeing operations like Captiva Verde because “it’s all good news when it comes to organic farming and there is not enough of it.
“The market is also excited about Jeff’s plans to bring down the cost of organic produce by reducing the middlemen operations between the farm and the supermarket shelf,” said Kowal.
Max Meier, the chief executive officer of Vancouver-based PI Financial Corp., whose company manages more than $2 billion in client assets, described Ciachurski as an “innovative and tireless go-getter.”
“There is an upward trend in people wanting to have socially responsible companies in their portfolios and Captiva Verde is one of them,” said Meier, former chairman of the Vancouver Stock Exchange.
“I had two doctors who are clients of mine who recently called to thank me for putting their money into Captiva Verde. This does not happen often.”
While big money is being attracted to organic farming, Ciachurski also believes operations like his provide good investment vehicles for individuals looking for companies that share their social commitments.
“Some institutional investors tend to focus on larger companies with hundreds of millions in market capital, and some of them want to micromanage your affairs… The smaller mom-pop investors, they share in your struggle,” he said.
Sam Hirji, owner of Vancouver-based Samco Printers, is one of those smaller investors.
“I feel good about investing in something that is part of my everyday life,” said Hirji, who recently toured Captiva Verde’s Imperial Valley farms. Dr. Jonathan Lloyd, an agricultural consultant with Farmlytics, said that Canada has the fifth largest market for organic food globally, after the U.S., Germany, France and China.
In 2013, Canada ranked 10th in terms of the total area of organic and in-conversion organic land.
Despite this, only 1.3 per cent of total farmland in Canada is organic.
In an analysis published by Modern Agriculture, Lloyd said the Canadian organic sector in 2015/16 is positive, with accelerated growth in both consumption and production.
One of the key reasons for the growth is the push toward labelling for GMOs. Consumers concerned about the use of the technology will see organic as providing greater assurance of being GMO-free compared with other labels.
For Ciachurski, organic farming promises a bountiful harvest for years to come:
“It’s all about healthy foods for healthy profits,” he said.
THE NUMBERS BEHIND NORTH AMERICA’S ORGANIC FOOD INDUSTRY
$3.7b: Value in sales of the total Canadian organic market. Food and beverages (including alcohol) account for roughly 96 per cent, with the remainder in smaller categories such as fibre and textiles, personal care, supplements and pet foods.
In the U.S., consumer sales of organic products is expected to exceed $39 billion in 2015.
3,713: According to Statistics Canada, Canada is home to 3,713 certified organic operations. Saskatchewan was home to the largest number, followed by Quebec.
While the total number of farms in Canada declined by 17 per cent from 2001 to 2013, the number of organic operations grew by 66.5 per cent. In the U.S., California continues to lead in certified organic cropland, with over 405,000 acres, nearly half of which is used for fruit and vegetable production.
2 miilion: The number of certified organic farmers worldwide in 2015 was two million (up five per cent from 2014), and globally 43 million hectares is farmed organically. In 2013, Canada ranked 10th in terms of the total area of organic and in-conversion organic land. Australia was No. 1, followed by Argentina, then the U.S.
500: B.C. is home to approximately 500 certified organic producers on 61,000 acres, as well as 110 organic processors and handlers (representing about 13 per cent of all Canadian organic operators).
While B.C. represents 13 per cent of the Canadian population, the province accounts for 22 per cent of organic food and beverage sales (over $662 million in 2012).
98 per cent: When asked in a recent survey about their buying intentions over the next year, 98 per cent of B.C. respondents indicated they planned to maintain or increase their purchases of organic fruit and vegetables.
Fresh fruit and vegetables make up more than 40 per cent of all organic sales at mainstream retailers. Sixty-six per cent of British Columbians buy organic groceries on a weekly basis, making B.C. the province with the most weekly organic grocery purchases per capita in the country.
B.C. consumers of organics spend $19 more per week on average than conventional shoppers. In the U.S., 51 per cent of families are buying more organic products than a year ago.
75 per cent: The Canada Organic Trade Association estimates that about 75 per cent of all organic retail sales consist of imported products, mostly from the U.S.
$72 billion: Global retail sales of organic food are estimated at $72 billion US, according to the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture and International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements.
North America represents 48 per cent of this global demand. As a result of equivalency trade agreements, Canada has access to 96 per cent of the current global market for organic products.
Canada has the fifth largest market for organic food globally (valued at $63 billion US annually) after the U.S., Germany, France and China.
$58: An organic grower keeps $58 of every $100 generated, compared to $31 for a conventional farmer, according to a document titled Organic Advantage: Transition to Higher Profits.
12 per cent: 12 per cent of organic farmers in Canada are under 35 years old, compared to eight per cent in the farm industry overall. Organic farms create jobs at twice the rate of conventional farms. Although organic farms represent 1.8 per cent of farms in Canada, the organic sector employs 3.75 per cent of the total farm workforce.