Organic farming showing growth


Standing on his farm in dirt-covered jeans and blue suspenders, John Shaw pointed out the lettuce and sunflowers that grow in his greenhouse and the eggplant and cucumbers that sprout from the land outside - all of them made with a lot of hard work and without any chemicals.

Shaw and his family own an organic farm in Columbia, which means their farm must be pesticide-free and they may not use chemical fertilizers. Farmers say that often translates into more time and more attention to details.

"Organic farming in particular is so labor intensive," Shaw said from beneath the rim of his baseball cap that bears a red tomato and the words "Shaw Farms."

Yet the Shaws pursue it - mirroring a national trend that is making organic an extremely fast-growing farming niche. In Maryland, the number of state-certified organic farms went from 65 last year to 74 this year, according to Valerie Frances, organic certification program manager for Maryland's Department of Agriculture.

There are two state-certified organic farms in Howard County, according to Frances. But there may be even more organic farms in the county because some farmers have been producing organic fruits and vegetables since before the state certification program was formed 10 years ago, and others aren't certified or are certified through a private agency instead of through the state.

Farmers and officials agree that the number of organic farmers and the acres they are farming are rising. But Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in California, said the question is: How much is it increasing and how profitable is it given its high labor costs and low crop prices?

State officials say the organic farming business is increasing at a rate of about 20 percent a year nationwide, but Scowcroft said that's too generous an estimate. "We're clearly a multibillion-dollar industry; we're clearly growing by very significant percentages that might be close to double digits," he said.

Many farmers, he said, face challenges unknown to the traditional farmer. Several local agricultural extension offices across the country, for example, don't know how to deal with pests on crops without spraying pesticides - something organic farmers are not allowed to do.

Jack Gurley, president-elect of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Association, a nonprofit growers organization, said the organic industry in Maryland is "treading water."

While there are several organic farms in the region, Gurley said, some are run part time by farmers who have other full-time jobs. Many of them, added Baltimore County organic farmer Drew Norman, are also small farms. And Gurley said Maryland farmers who want to make the transition to organic need more support and guidance from the government.

But Jim Duffy, chief of domestic marketing with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said organic is like any other industry: It has to be constantly monitored to see how it can be improved.

"I think the organic industry is a small-growth industry at this point," he said, "but it does offer an opportunity for farmers who want to get into a niche-type market that offers a high profitability."

Craig Muckle, public affairs manager for Safeway's eastern division, said organic produce is only a small percentage of Safeway's business because it's more expensive and may not look as robust or colorful as traditional produce.

It is, however, a growing part of Safeway's business.

Two or three years ago, organic produce was about one-tenth of 1 percent of the store's business in the eastern division, Muckle said. Now, it's about 1 percent.

Jason Cox, produce manger at Roots, an organic food market that opened in Clarksville this summer, said he often meets customers who choose organic because they want to avoid chemicals and pesticides on their produce.

"Customers come in every single day commenting on the fact that they are switching to organic produce and they're not going to buy conventional produce anymore," Cox said.

And many farmers in the region, including Gurley, have had success in the organic industry.

Gurley, 34, and his wife, Rebecca, have been organic farmers for about seven years in Baltimore County. Though Gurley still works about six hours a week for an environmental consulting firm, the farm is gradually expanding, and for now earns them enough to rear two children.

Sales at Shaw's farm have grown at a rate of 15 percent a year for the past five years, its owners estimate. It has, however, been five years of hard work.

One volunteer and six workers, plus the family, labor in the dusty fields. Everyone has a different job: Mom, Dorothy Shaw, makes the floral arrangements; son Dave Shaw manages the farm; his brother and sister, Mike Shaw and Sue Ongert, work in the field, the greenhouse and the markets.

As for Dad, "I do mostly weeding, because it's not very popular and I have a strong back," said John Shaw, 73.

This is the Shaws' fifth year in organic farming. The family chose organic over traditional farming because "we all thought it was better, not only for your health, but for the environment," John Shaw said.

They also thought organic farming was an unfilled niche that could be profitable. "We did think that the market for organic would increase," Ongert said. "And it is - slowly."

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