NATURAL WAY TO GROWTH Organic farmers tend thriving market


For Jay Martin, growing tiny tomato, broccoli and watermelon plants from seed is more than a business; it's a way of life.

The 42-year-old former landscape contractor packed up his family six years ago, moved from upstate New York to a tiny spread on the Eastern Shore and took a different approach to farming than most of his neighbors.

Mr. Martin eliminated the use of all chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides in his greenhouse operation.

"It's our philosophy," Mr. Martin says of his family's approach to agriculture. "We believe organic is where it's at, as a business and as a way of life. We see it as a way of healing the planet" of the damage done to the land and food supply by the wholesale use of chemical sprays.

The Martin's Silver Seed Greenhouses, near Bivalve in Wicomico County, is among a handful of farms in Maryland enrolled in a new state program designed to ensure that when apples, pears, carrots, cabbage, corn or other products are labeled "organic," the consumer can be confident the food has made its way from the farm and through the distribution channels without exposure to synthetic chemicals.

The Martin family, like others, has become a member of a small, but growing, fraternity of organic farmers throughout the state.

George Roche, a marketing official with the department, says organic farming, though still tiny, is one of the fastest growing sectors of Maryland's agriculture industry. He estimates that there are more than 200 organic farming operations in the state that have yet to receive certification.

While it's still a tiny part of the farm industry,he says "the 200 or so people in it today" compared with virtually none four years ago.

The new approach can also be found on the other side of the bay, west of Frederick, where Marty and Eric Rice farm 24 acres of rolling farmland just outside of Middletown. Like Jay Martin, they too have elected to use only organic materials to enrich the soil in their vegetable patch and fruit orchard.

Fifty varieties of apples grow in their small orchard, including some antique varieties, like Arkansas Black Twig, that don't normally show up at the supermarket. They also grow table grapes, blackberries, raspberries and a variety of vegetables. While they sell most of their produce to health food stores, they also sell directly to customers from their farm and at a farmer's market in Frederick, Ms. Rice said.

The Martin and Rice farms are among five that have been enrolled in Maryland's certification program,even though it is not yet mandatory for a farmer who labels his crops "organic."

"If you want to grow tomatoes and say they are organic, we don't care," said Suzie Harrison, who oversees the program. "But if you want to use our logo" -- a four-color trademark identifying crops as certified organic by the Maryland Department of Agriculture -- registration is required.

Retailers also are included in the certification program to ensure that fruits and vegetables are not exposed to chemical sprays after they leave the farm. So far, B. Gordon's Market in Rockville is the only retailer in the state program.

Maryland's program became effective last summer as a result of legislation passed by the General Assembly, with the support of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association. Mrs. Harrison said that MOFFA, as the group is called, wanted the standards to assure consumers that produce they are told is organic really is.

The state program also helps prepare growers for a change in federal law that would require organic certification. Mrs. Harrison explained that a provision of the 1990 federal farm bill required all growers with sales of more than $5,000 a year to be certified after Oct. 1, 1993, if they wanted to advertise their crops as organic.

Under Maryland's program, a farm can be certified organic if it can show that growing areas have been free of inorganic substances for at least three years. The state Department of Agriculture also inspects the farm to make certain that a plot of land designated for organic farming is at least 25 feet from a field JTC where chemical sprays are used and is not in an area where chemicals would drain into the organic field.

Agriculture Department chemists also perform a tissue test on plant samplings to confirm the absence of inorganic matter. With this information in hand, Mr. Grove said that the board then votes to approve or reject an application. So far, he added, none have been rejected.

Mr. Roche, the state Agriculture Department marketing specialist, estimated the cost to growers of certification at about a year.

Current state regulations permit the grandfathering of growers into the program this year if they can show the required three-year history of approved farming practices.

Beginning in 1993, it will take farmers three years to obtain certification. In the meantime, they could receive "organic certification pending" status for this period as they free their soil of inorganic substances.

Certified organic farmers

Farms registered with the Maryland Department of Argiculture's Organic Certification Program:

Rose Point Farm, Baptist Church Road, Mardela Springs

Country Pleasures Farm, 6201 Harley Road, Middletown

Chesapeake Center Farm, Route 1, Marion Station

Locust Grove Farm, 2523 Harkins Road, White Hall

Silver Seed Greenhouses, Quantico Road, Bivalve

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