Suzanne Vaupel: A Conscientious Capitalist

By Jock O'Connell

This article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Comstock's Business magazine.

Tapping into Suzanne Vaupel's frequent-flier mileage account would be like hitting airline gold. The Sacramento attorney (and agricultural economist) flies to Europe roughly every six weeks, while still managing to squeeze in less routine business trips to Latin America, Africa, and the Far East as Vice President of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements.

Founded in 1972, IFOAM is the worldwide umbrella organization of organic agriculture. Although based largely in Europe, IFOAM has been reaching out in recent years and now includes about 760 member organizations and institutions in some 105 countries all over the world. Its mission is to promote a set of internationally-accepted standards and definitions that will help facilitate the expansion of the global organic food market. Vaupel is only one of two Americans on IFOAM's board of directors.

When she's not in the air as an IFOAM official, she's here in California helping her clients -- farmers, food processors, manufacturers of organic fertilizers and pest controls, and other engaged in organic agriculture -- negotiate the often confusing thicket of laws, regulations and certification standards affecting organic food production. It's a field in which she is one of the few experts. And it's a field that is becoming more and more important to the future of farming and agribusiness in a region like ours where escalating production and land costs are pushing farmers toward high value-added crops.

Not surprisingly, California has long played a key role in organic farming. In 1973, a group of 50 California farmers was the first to address the need to ensure quality. They formed the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), which defined standards for organically grown food and created a certification system. These standards eventually served as the basis for the California Organic Foods Act of 1990, which continues to define the business today in the Golden State.

Karen Klonsky, a UC Davis agricultural economist specializing in the organic farming sector, estimates there are as many as 2,000 organic farms in California today. They grow nearly half of the nation's organic vegetables, with lettuce accounting for the largest share of acreage. The state's farms also led in the production of organic fruits and nuts, including grapes, apples, citrus fruits, and tree nuts. California had the most certified organic rice production, and lead the country in organic poultry production as well as organic cultivated herbs used for culinary and medicinal purposes.

Excuse the obvious pun, but the fact is that organic food is a growth industry both here and overseas. Whether driven by health concerns or lifestyle choices, consumers worldwide are becoming more discerning about what they eat. What's more, they are willing to pay premium prices for food they trust, and it is the assurance of these higher prices that is attracting more and more farmers -- especially small family farmers -- to organic growing practices.

In the United States, consumer demand for organic and natural foods has been exploding at double-digit rates since the early 1990's, reaching an estimated $8 billion this year. On a worldwide basis, organic food sales in 2000 will likely exceed $20 billion, up from $10.5 billion in 1997. Furthermore, average annual growth in organic food sales is expected to continue at a 20-25 percent pace through the end of the current decade.

Once a cozy niche in which local farmers sold fresh produce to consumers in neighboring communities, organic food production is rapidly going global. Even though most California growers have their hands full trying to keep customers here supplied with organic products, there are sizable export opportunities emerging in countries in the Far East and in Europe whose growers are less able to keep pace with growing consumer demand. (Britain's farmers, for example, can meet only one-fifth of their nation's demand for organic food products.) But international trade in organic food items requires common standards and certification practices if consumers are to have any faith that imported food bearing an organic label is truly organic. That's where IFOAM's promotion of international standards comes in, and that's why Vaupel's work is so vital to the future of farming in California.

Vaupel, who hails from Texas, came to her present station in the way typical of many Californians a sense of purpose and sheer happenstance crossed paths. She studied European affairs at Trinity University in San Antonio and at the University of Vienna. After college, she served as a volunteer English teacher in a remote region of Botswana that reminded her of the hard-scrabble farms she knew in Texas. She remembers thinking: "Wouldn't it be great if someday I could come back and help these Botswanan farmers become more productive."

Returning to America, she did some graduate work in foreign relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., before heading west to obtain a law degree from Hastings College in San Francisco. After a stint as a staff counsel at the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, she decided to get a master's degree in agricultural economics from UC Davis. "I'd been interested in both international relations and agricultural development since before college," Vaupel recalled. "My family came from the wheat fields of Kansas, so I think I've finally managed to blend the two fields."

There is no question she is an organic food enthusiast: "Organic farming is the way of the future. Advocates of organic agriculture are a small minority, but they are changing agriculture in the most fundamental ways. IFOAM plays an important role in representing the organic community in the international arena, and I want to help strengthen IFOAM' s international guarantee system which will facilitate international trade. I also want to help develop more resources to assist our members in the Southern Hemisphere and in the Central and Eastern European countries in their effort to develop organic agriculture in their countries."

Vaupel is not the only Central Valley resident playing an influential role in establishing industry standards. Stephen Pavich, a Tulare County grower, and Kim Burton, an organic food processing expert from Chico, sit on the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But her international involvement is unique.

If certain political candidates like to define themselves as compassionate conservatives, Suzanne Vaupel might fairly be described as a conscientious capitalist. As she reflected on her career over a cup of coffee recently: "I like my work because I'm able to help people make money while they care for the environment."

Copyright 2001 By J. A. O'Connell