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Sun, soil and water; It takes a resolute farmer to produce organic foods.

Byline: Jean Laquidara Hill

Organic food labels conjure images of crops and meat raised without synthetic pesticides or injected hormones.

"It's far more wonderful than that," said Don T. Franczyk, executive director and certification administrator for Bay State Organic Certifiers of Winchendon, an agency that certifies organic farms and processes for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Franczyk describes organic farming as an expression of love and respect for nature that produces healthy, fresh food.

And, he said, organic farming is growing.

But becoming a certified organic food producer requires following a detailed, documented process of rotating soil use, crop maps, soil histories, feed logs, harvest dates, records of crops sold and more.

To legally sell their food as "organic," farmers and processors who sell more than $5,000 in products are required under the federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 to have their operations certified by the USDA.

The certification requirement, for which the USDA contracts with private certification agencies, began in October 2002.

This year, Bay State Organic Certifiers certified 95 farms, both new and renewals, compared to about 70 in 2002, Mr. Franczyk said.

In addition, Mr. Franczyk estimates that other agencies certified another 25 Massachusetts farms under USDA specifications, for a rough total of 120 certified organic farms. He said farms that sell less than $5,000 worth of organically grown food annually are too small to be certified, and a whole host of farms use organic practices but decline to undergo the certification process because of paperwork or other reasons.

The requirement that farms be USDA-certified to legally sell or market their produce as organic means that fruit, vegetables, herbs, legumes, meat, eggs and grains marketed as organic must be produced on land that has been maintained in accordance with USDA certification standards for at least three years before certified organic seed is planted in the ground, according to Ben T. Grosscup of Amherst, who works for the Northeast Organic Farming Association.

"We have lots of members who are certified organic and lots of members who aren't certified but grow organic food," Mr. Grosscup said. "Really organic is a way of life."

Organic farming, he said, is all about the soil.

"The basic idea is, you employ strategies on the farm that enhance the soil fertility. You want to work with nature rather than against it."

USDA provides a set of processes called the National Standards for Organic Production that growers and processors must follow, and lists of acceptable and unacceptable substances that can be added to soil or put on plants as fertilizers and to protect plants.

Farmers are required to keep detailed records of their processes, as well as plot plans showing the land being used in accordance with National Organic Program, which regulates the standards for farms that sell products as "organically produced."

"There is a lot of paperwork - no question about that," said Jack Kittredge, editor of NOFA publications and owner of Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre with his wife, Julie Rawson, executive director of NOFA.

"You have to have maps of every field, histories of the field, your crop histories and what you've used there. You have to do soil tests. You have to report what you're planning to grow that year and if you make changes during the year ... you have to report that," Mr. Kittredge said.

Many Hands Organic Farm has been USDA certified as organic since 2002. Before that, Mr. Kittredge said, the farm was certified by a private agency.

While the law and documentation are relatively modern, the organic process is as old as farming itself.

"You take all the manure from your (farm) animals, if you have animals, and all the weeds from your garden and put that in a compost pile, so all that biological material turns into a fertile substance called compost that's very beneficial to soil health. It promotes the growth of healthy soil bacteria and soil funguses, and you have this healthy combination of organisms in the soil that makes for healthy plants," Mr. Grosscup said.

Glenn S. Stillman of Stillman's Farm in New Braintree said he learned organic farming from Italian farmers decades ago who called it "farming." Crop rotation, manure, compost and knowing the timetables for helpful and destructive insects are a way of life at Stillman's Farm.

Mr. Stillman and his wife, Genevieve, who farm more than 100 acres of vegetables and grass-fed beef, are in the process of getting 6 acres certified as organic for growing mostly leafy greens. Documentation requirements make the certification process unappealing and too time-consuming for the rest of their acreage, they said.

As it is, Mr. Stillman said, they plant certain crops after particular insect seasons have passed and use light-colored crop covers to keep extended-season insects off their vegetables without getting the plants too hot.

They do not give their cattle hormones or spray the grass they eat with herbicides or pesticides.

Calling their products "conscientiously grown," Mrs. Stillman said they lose some crops in exchange for not using products that would eliminate a fungus or insect but could harm the soil or environment and ultimately the consumer.

As an organic farm grossing less than $5,000 annually, the Carraig Farm in Ashby is exempt from USDA certification. Still, Tamara Buckley Leclerc is committed to organic farming.

A producer of lamb, eggs, vegetables and fiber, Ms. Leclerc works the farm while her husband, Scott Leclerc, works in the computer field. They have three children who know their meals come from the fields and barns.

Sheep, goats, chickens and a guard llama all have their jobs on the farm producing organically grown and raised food, and producing manure for fertilizer.

Like Stillman's Farm and Many Hands Organic Farm, the Carraig Farm sells products through Community Supported Agriculture, which invites people to buy a share in the crops a farm produces for a set period of time. Stillman's Farm also sells in other venues.

Community Supported Agriculture participants pick up their groceries at the farm where the food is produced or at pickup sites. At Many Hands Organic Farm, some participants work at the farm to pay for their fresh food, an exchange Mr. Kittredge finds satisfying because it provides him with help and gives non-farming people new experiences.

The market for freshly grown organic food is growing along with organic farming practices.

As many as 83 percent of shoppers buy organic products occasionally and 16 percent, or about 22.2 million adults, buy organic food primarily, according to Barbara Haumann, press secretary for the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield.

"It's the only part of agriculture that's growing," Mr. Franczyk said. "It's a very dynamic part of agriculture because there's such a demand for organic produce."

"If you've got it, somebody will buy it."

Contact reporter Jean Laquidara Hill by e-mail at jhill@telegram.com.

Organic farming and food

By the numbers

120 No. of Massachusetts farms certified organic*

8,445 No. of U.S. certified organic farms, 2005

4 million Acres of farmland certified organic, 2005

499 No. of acres in Massachusetts growing certified organic vegetables, 2005

407 No. of acres in Massachusetts growing certified organic fruit, 2005

$13.8 billion U.S. sales of organic food, 2005

100 No. of countries where organic farming is practiced

*Estimated by Bay State Organic Certifiers; to legally sell food as organic, farmers and processors that sell more than $5,000 of products are required under the federal Organic Foods Production Act to have their operations certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture; Organic Trade Association

T&G Staff

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) Genevieve Stillman is shown in the tomato hoop house at Stillman's Farm in New Braintree. The farm is in the process of getting 6 acres certified as organic for growing mostly leafy greens. (2) Tamara Buckley Leclerc feeds hay to sheep at her Carraig Farm in Ashby. The small operation is exempt from USDA certification, but Ms. Leclerc is committed to organic farming. (3) Tamara Buckley Leclerc cleans a horse stall during her morning work at Carraig Farm in Ashby.

PHOTOG: (1) T&G Staff/CHRISTINE PETERSON (2, 3) T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jun 19, 2007
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