Zea Sonnabend: Playing for the Organic Team

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You could call Zea Sonnabend a fixture of the organic movement if she didn’t move around so much—Zea just can’t resist getting involved. Time and time again, she’s been in a small meeting where a volunteer was needed to carry on the work and she felt the urge to step up. Collaborative, sharp, determined to do the right thing with organic, and known for her tenacity, Zea also knows how to relax as a San Francisco Giants season ticket holder. Perhaps it’s team loyalty that keeps her tied to organic strategizing.

Take CCOF, for example. Before there was even an office and organic farmers stumbled upon each other by chance, she was hitching a ride with Wendy Krupnick and found herself in the right place at the right time to be invited into a meeting in Marin County with Barney Bricmont to hammer out the CCOF bylaws. As an idealistic fruit grower with much to learn in the Chico area, Zea became a part of the North Valley Chapter in their first year of organization. “I was on the CCOF board when we hired the first staff member, Mark Lipson,” she says about her early involvement with CCOF. (Mark famously went on to advise Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan on organic issues for four years in Washington, D.C.)

Today, driving her Gator around one of the sites of Fruitilicious Farm, she points out her blueberries, avocados, lemons, and—of course—the farm’s sought-after apples. “We’re producing ten acres of apples at the other place. Here, there’s a total of four [acres] planted but they’re not ready. By year five, they say a tree has enough production to count it as productive. And by year seven or eight, it will be profitable.” Zea’s long-term outlook inspired her to purchase the farm in Corralitos in 2008, hoping to lease out the land, but the farm was in transition to organic and several deals fell through. Eventually, she teamed up with Terence Welch in 2011, a fruit advisor who was eager to try a wide variety of organic techniques—old and new. Soon after, plans were made to farm organically at two farm locations.

From farming to her early involvement with CCOF, Zea’s reach in the organic community began to spread.

For many years she coordinated the EcoFarm conference, and she still serves on the program committee, a position she describes as creative and fun. “We get to invite people to keynote and offer sessions on the latest trends in organic farming. But I’m glad someone else is hammering out the details now,” she says of the 36-year-old event.

She also became involved with National Organic Standards Board (NOSB, which advises the National Organic Program of the USDA) soon after its formation. “At first I went to the NOSB meetings as an audience member for many, many years before I applied to be a member. So I know what it’s like to be on both sides,” she recounts. “The first meeting I went to was the second meeting they ever had. We were brought in—myself and Lynn Coody and George Siemon—to give them ‘Organic 101’ lessons in spring of 1993. George (livestock), Lynn (inputs), me (crop production).”

A few years later she helped found the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), becoming one of its first board members.

Now midway through her five-year stint filling the scientist position on the NOSB, Zea’s team loyalty is regularly put to the test. This position requires the board to make tough decisions that affect the state of organic standards. Despite sensationalist news stories about those standards becoming less stringent, she supports the democratic process NOSB put in place. “On the NOSB, I think we’re doing a fairly good job of keeping the reins tight and not letting a lot of stuff in,” she says in reference to the work companies are required to do to get inputs approved for organic use.

With a master’s degree in plant breeding from Cornell University, she is qualified for the post, but also brings years of field experience to the position that helps her make balanced decisions. “I’ve learned everything I know by doing,” she says.

When describing the state of the organic community today, Zea says, “Like the rest of the country, it’s polarized. However, I guess I would say the good part about organic today is that we have made the rules and the environment stable enough that it’s easier for more people to convert to organic. After all, organic is predicated on building a healthy plant to withstand all the pressures from pests, and that’s still the fundamental thing that’s really true.”

Besides keeping a healthy sense of perspective, Zea recommends seeking guidance and companionship along the way to become a successful organic farmer. “Developing that network is key,” she advises. “Go to EcoFarm, go to CCOF chapter meetings, go to these Farmers Guild gatherings—any type of event where farmers gather. There [are] a lot of opportunities for organic now.”


This article was written by Ellen Farmer.

Ellen Farmer has a B.A. in journalism from San Jose State University and a Master’s in Public Policy from the Panetta Institute at California State University, Monterey Bay with a specialization in issues in sustainable agriculture, particularly coffee growing. Farmer worked on an interim basis as marketing director for the California Certified Organic Farmers in 2006.