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.
"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.
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.