Dirt, Sweat and Love

Dirt, Sweat and Love (May 1, 2012)

As a supplier of organic produce to AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar last summer, John Dove felt no pressure to stick to a rigid deliveryschedule.

The Columbia restaurant was happy to accept whatever crop the young farmer had to offer whenever he had it to give without boxing him in to a predetermined harvest week after week, he said.

That bond of trust led to a nice symbiotic relationship in which Dove delivered such freshly picked foods as Asian salad greens, radishes and garlic – all organically grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers – from his newly minted Love Dove Farms in western Howard County. The kitchen made the most of the deal by creating dishes to showcase the seasonal bounty.

While the arrangement was pleasing to both parties it was especially beneficial to Dove, who had just struck out on his own and had no previous growing seasons under his belt on which to base expectations.

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“I’m a farmer at heart,” said Dove, 27, who launched his organic operation by carving out 2 of the 200 acres where hay is normally grown on the Woodbine farm owned by his grandmother Georgia Dove.

“I’ve always had a garden, since I was around 14 years old,” said the fourth-generation farmer. “I decided last year that I’d give organic farming a shot and see where it goes.”

For food to be advertised as organically grown, chemicals cannot have been applied to the land for the three previous years, among other guidelines outlined by the USDA’s National Organic Program, he said.

Growing dozens of varieties of vegetables and a few kinds of fruit is Dove’s way of diversifying the family’s farming operation to keep it afloat, a common practice in today’s difficult economy. He helps his father, Bill, grow hay on the majority of the family’s land, which was a dairy farm until 1986, he said. Dove’s dad also works fulltime in diesel fuel delivery.

Since he is the youngest of four siblings and the only one interested in carrying on the farming tradition, he believes diversification holds the key to the future.

“John is thinking outside the box to make his family’s farm profitable without selling it for development,” observed Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural marketing specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority. “He wants to keep it economically viable and in the family.”

 Finding a niche

Jamie Brown, who works on his family’s TLV Tree Farm in Glenelg and is a friend of John’s, agrees that there’s an opening for a niche market in organic farming.

“When John looked around to see what he could do to diversify, he picked the right thing and he took the right steps,” said Brown, who has helped his parents branch out at their 100-year-old, 100-acre farm into Christmas tree sales, fresh meats and pick-your-own produce.

“I think John will capture that niche market and be successful,” he said. “But it can be expensive to grow organic because it takes more labor, and your time is worth a lot of money.”

The only certified organic operation in Howard County – a designation bestowed on farms that meet specific criteria developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – is Breezy Willow Farm in West Friendship, Zimmerman said.

“We’ll probably see a few more organic farms in the county, but not in great numbers,” she predicted. “There is some controversy over whether it’s worth the extra cost and extra work.”

Despite a satisfactory inaugural season last year selling to AIDA Bistro and to two farmers markets on Fridays and Saturdays, Dove has been mulling over the use of the term “organic” in his second year of production.

“It’s not that I won’t be growing the produce organically,” he said, emphasizing that his commitment to natural methods won’t change even as he prepares to double the size of his garden to 4 acres.

Instead he’s considering another designation – “certified naturally grown” – which is a way for farmers to certify each other’s methods.

“I may drop the word ‘organic’ because customers think it translates into ‘expensive’ and that scares them off,” he said.