Guest Commentary: Betrayal of an Organic Promise

By Greg House

This coming Tuesday January 24th the City of Davis is set to pass without comment consent calendar item 4B “Lease with Center for Land-Based Learning for Cannery Farm.”

This proposed lease would allow the proposed tenant, the Center for Land Based Learning (CLBL) the option to spray the herbicide glyphosate (most widely sold under the trade name Roundup) within the urban farm area. Glyphosate is a prohibited material under the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) which regulates the legal use of the word “organic” as it applies to the advertising and sale of food in the USA.

This problem has been brewing for some time. To my chagrin as an organic farmer, I recommended CLBL to New Home Company way back in 2011 or 2012 when “The Cannery” was a twinkle in the eye of New Home Company lawyers, telling them that CLBL might give them some insight on what an urban farm is all about. But there was a disconnect somewhere down the line.

In April 2013 New Home Company and CLBL gave a presentation to the Open Space and Habitat Commission (OSH) of the City of Davis, stating at that time, “The City and CLBL intend to seek organic certification for the Cannery Farm” (from page 2 of the April 4, 2013 staff report on The Cannery Draft Environmental Impact Report).

New Home Company, The Cannery’s master developer, in its Information Packet (rev 9/9/13) presented to the Davis City Council in September 2013. stated “Organic certification planned for urban farm operations.” You can look at it yourself … see:

Now CLBL refuses to become certified organic at The Cannery urban farm and wants to use pesticides prohibited by law in organic production. CLBL claims organic certification is too expensive. I have an organic farm just outside of Davis that is five times as big as this urban farm and my certification cost is approximately $800 per year, and this cost has been nearly totally offset by the state of California for the past decade or so under a well publicized cost-share program (see

So what’s the problem? Does CLBL not know how to farm organically? I recently gave a presentation to the OSH in which I illustrated 25 different things an organic farmer can legally do to control weeds rather than spray glyphosate.  In a meeting at the urban farm with a CLBL representative in November my pro-bono offer to help CLBL develop its organic program was refused, and I was told organic weed control is too expensive, and CLBL doesn’t have the employees to do that. Yet CLBL has received $100,000 as a start-up bonus from New Home Company to establish the urban farm, and is set to receive another $200,000 in the next two years!

Not only that, but for proposed lease CLBL will pay the City just $1 per year for the next three years … and tie up the land for the next 10 years. What comes next? More subsidies from Davis to CLBL?

Looking back, the problem began with the way the relationship developed between CLBL, New Home Company and the City staff. New Home brought in CLBL at the beginning as a kind of advisor and CLBL quickly became the anointed, entitled occupant of the urban farm land, with there never being a fair and open process of competitive bidding by prospective tenants.  Where is the RFP? Where are the lease bids? There is only now before the City Council this one proposal, shrouded in the consent calendar. It’s a betrayal of a promised organic farm, and another bungled city process rearing its ugly head.

This lease proposal is a high priced boondoggle for the City of Davis. The process by which it has come before the City Council is seriously flawed. Join me Tuesday night in decrying this process and this proposal.  Let’s push re-start and get it right before proceeding with a tenant at The Cannery urban farm.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Tia Will


    Thanks for bringing this issue to our attention. I have not followed this issue at all. If all is accurate as presented this is most certainly not a consent calendar item and I would hope that one of our council members would pull it from the consent agenda for thorough evaluation and discussion.

    1. Roberta Millstein

      As a member of the Open Space and Habitat Commission (but speaking for myself), I can confirm the facts that Greg presented.  Two other things to add: 1) I emailed all five members of Council asking for the item to be pulled from the consent calendar, and two councilmembers have assured me that it will be.  So please show up to comment if this issue is of importance to you.  2) The OSHC unanimously voted to require in the lease that the farm be certified organic.  So, the staff recommendation is 180 degrees opposing to what the relevant commission has recommended.

      1. Roberta Millstein

        In case anyone is interested, here is the email that I sent to the members of the Council:

        I am writing to request that Item B, “Lease with Center for Land-Based Learning for Cannery Farm,” be pulled from the consent calendar for this Tuesday’s meeting and put on the regular agenda.  I do not believe that this item is “routine and non-controversial,” and I do believe that it requires discussion with respect to the question of the use of non-organic pesticides on the Cannery Farm.  First, the staff report on this issue overturns the unanimous recommendation of the Open Space and Habitat Commission, who recommended that the farm be certified organic.  Second, the OSHC was not actually involved in forging or discussing the compromise that the staff report refers to as being between the OSHC and the CLBL.  Third, it became apparent at the last OSHC meeting that there was confusion about the legal use of the term “organic,” and I believe that the current lease language might face legal problems.  Fourth, I believe that Davis citizens have an interest in the question of whether the food sold from this farm is organic or not, and I think they will want to weigh in on this topic.  Fifth and finally, there is the question of the promises and advertising that the farm would be organic that need to be taken into consideration.

  2. Alan Pryor

    I was at the meeting at which the OSH Commission voted unanimously to recommend that the City require the 3 net farmable acres to be farmed organically as planned. Not only was CLBL proposing to use glyphosate but they also wanted to use another even more toxic herbicide, 2,4-D. To use those chemicals to save a little money to grow food that will supposedly be sold to the Cannery residents is absurd.

    I manage an 18 acre organic family almond orchard which requires a fairly weed-free environment for managing the sweeping and pick-up of the nuts for hulling and shelling after being knocked from the trees at harvest time, We manage quite well with mowing and flaming and using weed-eaters and manual hoeing. But if they only are trying to keep 3 acres sufficiently free of weeds to grow crops, that can easily be done with just one worker with a weed-eater and a hula hoe with probably no more time than a half day a week – at most.

    If CLBL cannot due the job organically because they don’t know how or are to cheap to use some of that $300,000 they are getting , then the City of Davis should reject this lease in its entirety and demand a fair and open bidding process to ensure the land is equitably and organically farmed. CLBL should not be given a sweetheart lease if they are incapable of delivering a certified organic farms as was expected by the City and promised to New Home Company and Cannery residents.

  3. Anya McCann

    I agree-this needs further discussion. This is not what was presented to the public or the Council all along. With a quick google search one can find multiple references to the farm being planned as organic over the past three years.

    An April 2013 Supplemental Information for Open Space and Habitat Commission Urban Farm at the Cannery Project report says: “Organic Farming. The City and CLBL intend to seek organic certification for the Cannery Farm. In order to promote the health of the land, the Cannery Farm will emphasize soil and nutrient conservation and do not use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.” This is followed by several paragraphs describing organic farming practices. (This appears to be a legally binding document.)

    In July 2015, Civil Eats interviewed Mary Kimball for an article entitled Northern California’s First Agrihood Will Bring Organic Veggies to Former Industrial Land and says “CLBL, which will receive $100,000 a year for three years from the New Home Company as seed money, plans to make it a working commercial farm specializing in organic vegetables.”

    In April 2016, the Cannery’s marketing staff ( published: “If the idea of living in an solar-powered community with access to organic food grown in your own backyard sounds like paradise, you’ll love The Cannery, California’s first farm-to-table housing development located in Davis. ….a planned development integrated with agriculture—features its own 7.4-acre organic working farm that grows and sells food to its residents.”

    In August 2016 UCFoodObserver said “The Cannery’s 5.5-acre Urban Farm includes 4 acres of farmable land with organic vegetables, poultry and orchard fruit, according to Mary Kimball, executive director, Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL).”

    This has been the plan presented to the public and City to be an organic farm. The organic fees are not onerous (and include significant rebates) and the land is small enough that handling weed control using a multitude of well-documented organic practices would not take that much extra labor to stay well within their $300,000 3-year start up funding.

    The City should stick to the plan or put lease and operations of this City owned farm property out to bid.

    1. Mark West

      This toy farm has been a boondoggle from the start and should never have been approved. It is a complete waste of the City’s scarce resources (and development fees).  We should lease the property at market rates or turn it into a park.

    2. Roberta Millstein

      Greg and Anya both mention the  Supplemental Information for Open Space and Habitat Commission Urban Farm at the Cannery Project report, presented to the OSHC in April 2013, wherein we see the City and the CLBL state their intention to have the Cannery farm be certified as organic.  I just wanted to let people know that this document is online here.

  4. Alan Miller

    A non-profit being used as a tool for a corporation or government entity?  Say it ain’t so!

    Actually, it is so, all the damn time.  A healthy change of thought is to not deify non-profits.  They are often tools for evil, or get co-opted that way when money appears.

  5. David Greenwald

    Looks like Mr. House’s piece has had some impact:

    Consent Agenda Item 4b – Lease with Center for Land-Based Learning for Cannery Farm – scheduled for the January 24th City Council meeting has been removed from the agenda.  The item will be re-scheduled to the February 7th agenda as a regular item.  This adjustment is being made at the suggestion of staff and with the concurrence of the Center for Land-Based Learning.  

    A revised staff report will be posted for the February 7th meeting.


  6. Hope Sippola

    As the  Incubator farmers who run a farming business and farm the 3 acres at the cannery I can tell you that this article is not 100% accurate. Please attend the meeting or stop in and talk to us about our farming practices to find out what we are all about.


    Hope &Shayne

    1. Howard P

      At what % accurate?   Agree with Tia (below)… please consider saying your piece here, but also to the CC in the public record… am open…

      One question I have… for an initial “kill” of weeds, by say, Roundup chemicals, how long would it take to be certified organic?

      And I assume that everyone knows that a weed is a plant that doesn’t belong in the space… so an apple tree in a field of alfalfa, is technically a weed…

  7. Tia Will

    Hope and Shayne,

    I am at a loss of time at present for attending meetings or stopping anywhere for on one conversations until after March. I am wondering if you would consider writing a very brief post or article with the corrections to the article as you see them ?


    1. Roberta Millstein

      I too would be interested in hearing the explanation from your side.  The explanation we were giving in the OSHC was that the farmers would follow organic practices with exceptions (as outlined in the proposed lease – I won’t repeat them here).  But I do not believe that that is something that you can legally say.  “Organic” is a protected legal term; it is not like the term “natural” which has a very loose meaning and is not legally regulated.  One cannot say that your practices are “organic” or “almost organic” or “sort of organic” – either your practices are certified organic or they are not.

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