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All natural

Some farmers choose organic methods for growing crops

Some farmers choose organic methods for growing crops

February 24, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Old MacDonald has a farm, and his crops are choked by weeds.

So, he whips out a sprayer brimming with herbicides and - presto! - no more nuisance.

Or, cucumber beetles are ravaging his crop. So, out comes a trusty batch of pesticide and - ala-kazaam! - smooth sailing ahead for raising cukes fit for market.

His crops are hale and hearty, perhaps aided by an industrial-strength fertilizer. Yep, Old MacDonald is a happy man.

But, just for kicks, take away his herbicides and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Suddenly, Old MacDonald has a significantly harder row to hoe.

E-i-e-i-oh-no.

Yet this is the exact scenario playing out for farmers willingly subjecting themselves to an organic way of life. Forsaking conventional methods for a more environmentally-conscious way of life, organic farming requires an intensive commitment to raising crops or livestock by investing in Mother Earth rather than a quick fix.

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For 42-year-old David Forcino, the effort has been worth it. Making the decision to go organic when he bought land in Smithsburg in 1997 was simple.

"Well, I just don't like a lot of spray and stuff on my vegetables," he says. "I'm not a member of any environmental agencies and all, but it just seems a shame to throw all that trash on the ground. You can really tell a difference in the vegetables and fruits up here. When you see this stuff, you can tell."

On 25 acres Forcino, also the used car manager at Younger Toyota in Hagerstown, grows asparagus, raspberries, strawberries and an assortment of vegetables. Certified organic by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, he usually sells his homegrown treats from a roadside stand.

The biggest wrench in the process, for any organic crop farmer is the time required.

"I think it's a far more management intensive farming method," says Valerie Frances, director of the Maryland Department of Agriculture Organic Certification Program. "You really have to know what's happening in the fields. You have to know about pests and pest cycles. You just can't go out and spray a magic bullet."

It is an enigmatic process. For starters, 36 months must pass since the last date of prohibited materials use for land to be certified as organic.

And while accurate, the typical view of organic as farming without chemicals or pesticides contains a few holes.

Chris Fullerton is manager of Tuscarora Organic Growers, a South Central Pennsylvania-based cooperative of 19 farms that sell in-season produce wholesale. He says organic is as much about building healthy soil as avoiding synthetic farming aids.

"Look at it for what it is, a huge, complex ecosystem," he says. "You're going to have problems. You try to work with more ecologically or natural ways of getting around them instead of spreading a pesticide."

As an example, Organic Farmer X has 1,000 acres of cropland. Instead of planting all cucumbers, Fullerton says, the farmer may sow the seeds of five or six crops to mitigate pest infestation.

Crop rotation from year to year also keeps soil fresh and farm more viable.

To combat a nasty intruder, organic growers can unleash beneficial insects to serve as predators of the pests. Or, they can use row covers to protect crops.

Forcino doesn't have a pest problem on his land. If he does, he'll pick the interlopers from his crops. Weeds that can sprout unimpeded, though, are a common threat. To root out the problem, he uses a hay mulch in his gardens.

The result is much like the grass clippings left behind by a lawnmower that kill patches of lawn. In his case, the mulch stifle weeds, with a twist.

"Hay has a tremendous amount of nitrogen in it," Forcino says. "That nitrogen just leeches into the soil when it rains. It just makes a a tremendous source of nutrients for the plants."

Farmers must learn about the land to work the land. It is a symbiotic relationship requiring patience, curiosity, ingenuity and, more often than not, time.

"One of the big problems is a lot of those chemicals have been developed as labor-saving devices," Fullerton says. "Instead of laying down a spray of herbicides just once or twice a season, you may have to come through and cultivate several times."

As a result, the process is not for everyone.

U.S. acreage devoted to organic operations remains minuscule. In 2001, 0.3 percent of all U.S. cropland was certified organic.

Overall growth in organic farming is roughly 20 percent each year, with organic vegetable production increasing 12 percent per year nationally. Frances says the University of Maryland is embarking on a study of organic farming to determine supply and demand within the state, and how best to proceed with the organic movement locally.

Maryland, she adds, is one of the few states able to certify farms as organic. Pennsylvania Certified Organic is a nonprofit group providing certification and support to organic producers in that state.

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