And that’s the last thing he wants – and not just for his bottom line. What Dove will seek to do is continue to offer clean and natural food but focus on making it more affordable.
The reason organically grown produce costs more relates to yield, Dove said, explaining that untreated pests and disease can reduce a harvest by as much as 40 percent. In order to survive, organic farmers must raise prices to cover their losses.
He also picked potato bugs off his plants by hand more than once and spent an entire week weeding his garden, but strongly feels the extra labor was worth the end result.
“One of the main things I’m looking at is the health of my customers,” he said. “If I can grow produce more efficiently, then they will come and buy fresh, healthy foods and not feel they are overextending themselves financially.”
Love Dove Farms, which Dove runs with help from girlfriend Courtney Costantino, already accepts checks issued by the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) federal program to provide supplemental nutrition to income-eligible pregnant women and new mothers, along with their infants and children under age 5.
“By not paying for healthy foods now, people will be paying the price later” when bad eating habits, such as dining on fast-food meals, cause or exacerbate health issues, he said.
He says he will work to drive home the point that families of all incomes don’t allocate enough of their budgets to purchasing healthy foods.
The average American family works three months to pay for a year’s supply of food, but it takes six months to pay off the tax bill, Zimmerman said.
Despite that disheartening statistic, she said there’s been a recent reawakening of how growing food on less land to lower prices is quickly taking the vitamins and minerals out of the soil.
“We need to get back to growing food without chemicals,” she said.
Making a living
Organic farming is a method Dove learned to appreciate during an internship. In spring 2010, he entered a Beginner Farmer Trainee Program cosponsored by North County Preservation and the Maryland Agricultural Resource Council. He had signed up after graduating in 2009 from Towson University with a degree in environmental science and quickly discovering after working in environmental construction for a year that he missed farming.
He was assigned to Calvert’s Gift Organic Herb and Vegetable Farm in Sparks, a small town in northern Baltimore County. Working on a USDA-certified organic farm, Dove found his niche.
“After the internship ended I thought, ‘I can probably make a living at this,’” he recalled. “There’s enough drive for locally grown food in the market to make it work.”
The basic requirements for certification by the USDA are as much about what can’t be used as what can: no synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation or genetic engineering, according to the USDA website.
So far Dove said he hasn’t had to adhere to all of the regulations because farmers earning less than $5,000 from the sale of organic foods are exempt. Should he expand his garden to increase food production and sales, that exemption would no longer apply if he continues using the organic label, he said.
Given consumers’ escalating interest in knowing where their food comes from and in supporting local farmers, Dove is seizing the opportunity to figure out who he wants to be – restaurant supplier or farmers market regular, or a combination of both.
Just for fun, he recently took fresh pak choi, which is a variety of Chinese cabbage, to a friend who works in a small restaurant. The cook sautéed it with balsamic vinegar and garlic, then finished it off with a sprinkling of feta cheese. The result was mouthwatering, he said.
Still, interacting with the public holds an incredibly strong attraction for Dove.
“The farmers markets are really fun because I represent my own food and customers can ask me questions about it,” he said. He will continue to sell to AIDA Bistro this year as well as appear at the Wednesday farmers market at the newly opened Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City and on Fridays at Howard County General Hospital in Columbia.
“I really want to emphasize that I grow it, and I know the time I put into it,” he explained. “You get to know me, and that cultivates trust in my product.”
Zimmerman says Dove is a real asset to farmers markets because “he’s very likable and humble, and he takes the time to talk to his customers and educate them about agriculture and the processes of growing food.
“He gives the older generation of farmers hope for the future,” she said.
Brown, who is 38, agreed.
“People need to support John because he’s a new farmer, and we have to keep farming alive in this county,” he said. “This is where our roots are and what keeps us going.”
Last summer, Dove ran a customer appreciation promotion on his Facebook page that called for people to say “I looove Love Dove Farms” at the farm’s stand in an exaggerated way in order to receive a discount on their purchases.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said, adding that he will likely rerun that special offer. But for now Dove’s biggest mission is to provide good local food.
“I just have to figure out what makes the most business sense,” he said.