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TRIAL BY PEANUTS IT TOOK 12 YEARS FOR THIS LOCAL GROWER TO GET HIS 'ORGANIC' PRODUCT TO MARKET

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As co-owner of Once Again Nut Butter Inc. here in Livingston County, Jeremy Thaler has handled many problems through the years.

He has worked out the ideal times and temperatures for roasting almonds, cashews, hazelnuts and peanuts; he has even wrestled with his customers' arachibutyrophobia (the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth).

But probably the most difficult task he ever faced was getting his company's Valencia Peanut Butter certified organic.

The company is beginning to distribute this peanut butter, which is made from premium Valencia peanuts -- said to be sweeter and more nutritious than the conventional Virginia peanut used in most butters. The seal of the Organic Crop Improvement Association will be proudly emblazoned on the Valencia label.

That label stands for a lot.

The Valencia Peanut Butter is made from nuts grown in fields in New Mexico that are inspected by the organic association, then roasted and ground in the inspected Nunda plant to make what Thaler thinks is the only certified organic Valencia peanut butter in the world.

The process of finally getting it onto co-op and supermarket shelves, however, took 12 years.

Foods labeled "organic" supposedly are grown using rigid (sometimes called "sustainable") agricultural methods involving crop rotation and the elimination of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Some states have set standards for this type of farming.

"Natural" foods, on the other hand, are generally understood to be free of chemical additives, colorings and flavorings. But the word "natural" has been so sadly abused in the United States in recent years that the term really guarantees nothing at all.

The Once Again Nut Butter story is symptomatic of the confusion and red tape that exist in the food world these days. Back in 1979 when Thaler decided to market an organic peanut butter, he was really swimming upstream.

Or treading water, as the case may be. After all, peanuts, like most crops, can be difficult to grow without pesticides. And eliminating herbicides allows weeds to flourish, so yields are smaller.

It's not hard to understand why few farmers were willing to ply their trade in accordance with organic rules at that time.

But Once Again Nut Butter had begun life as a worker's cooperative with strong environmental concerns, so Thaler persisted.

And then the world changed.

Increasing environmental concerns throughout the country and several food safety scares raised consumer consciousness. Farmers got interested.

Says Thaler: "After all, farmers read the paper like everybody else."

He was able to contract for 1,000 acres of organically grown peanuts, only to face another problem -- certification.

"I was only going to sell organic peanut butter if I could get it certified organic," says Thaler. "And that was complicated."

Indeed it was.

Because Once Again Nut Butter distributes its products throughout the eastern United States and Canada, and because the company is hoping to establish some overseas accounts, Thaler felt that New York State certification would not be sufficient.

He threw in his lot with the Organic Crop Improvement Association, a well-respected, international, independent, third-party organization with rigid rules.

The organic association made inspections to be sure that Once Again's peanuts were being grown on "clean" land that had been free of herbicide and pesticide use for at least three years.

It also made sure that only natural soil supplements were used and that no spraying was done in neighboring areas.

It inspected the Nunda plant as well.

And finally, last month, Once Again was granted its stamp of approval.

Now the rollout has begun.

In the Nunda plant, the shelled Valencias are dry-roasted by 400-pound batches in a gas-fired rotating drum. The plant has nine employees.

The peanuts are emptied onto a cooling cart, then fed into the mill. No sugar or stabilizers are added, but red skins are left on for color and flavor.

The final product is pumped into bulk packs and jars.

Prices for the organic Valencia Peanut Butter may be higher than many people are used to. The product certainly will cost more than the company's other peanut butter, which is called Old Fashioned Peanut Butter and is ground from Virginia peanuts.

In fact, organic foods often are more expensive because there is so little around.

But will people buy organic foods anyway? It's beginning to look that way. In a Louis Harris Poll taken in 1989, almost half the respondents said they'd buy organic food even if it cost more.

And the amount of organic produce may increase. Several environmental issues have been proposed for the 1990 Farm Bill.

Among them: the reduction of use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to protect ground water and to improve the safety of the food supply. And substantial expansion of research, educational and technical assistance in developing sustainable agriculture practices.

There also is a call for a revision of our present food-grading standards, because these standards emphasize cosmetic qualities and ignore health and environmental issues -- a big red juicy apple is not always the healthiest (or even best-tasting) in the bin.

But all this will take time. And it may not happen at all.

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