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Shift to organic growing could help to boost economy

The Baltimore Sun

If you have five acres in the backyard and a Rototiller, you can make a living in organic farming, according to Luke Howard.

Howard is chairman of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 30-member panel made up of a cross-section of farmers that advises the state agriculture secretary on farm issues. He is an organic farmer and also serves as the industry's representative on the commission.

"The organic food industry is growing rapidly and has been growing rapidly for many years," said Howard. "We have been seeing 17 percent to 25 percent growth nationally and in Maryland the past 10 years. Global sales now top $22 billion annually.

"That's tremendous growth," he added. "The industry is doubling its size every five years."

He said this growth is creating new opportunities for people to move into farming at a time when most conventional farms keep getting bigger and bigger to stay profitable.

"Someone can make a living - a good middle-class living - growing organic vegetables on a few acres in their backyard if they are good at marketing," Howard said.

He said marketing involves selling directly to consumers, attending farmers' markets and wholesaling to grocery stores and restaurants.

Another marketing approach used by some organic farmers is called community-supported agriculture. The most common way this works is for consumers to make an investment of about $400 before the crops are planted each year. Then, during the growing season, they come to the farm each week for a box of fresh produce.

Howard is owner of Homestead Farms in the Millington section of Queen Anne's County. In addition to planting five acres of organic vegetables each year, he produces organic grain for the livestock and dairy industries.

He grows about 180 acres of organic corn, soybeans and barley, and the prices he receives for his grain would turn conventional grain farmers green with envy.

While much has been said about the demand for ethanol doubling the price of corn in recent years to about $4 a bushel, that price pales in comparison to the $11 a bushel that Howard gets for his corn.

The market price for organic soybeans is about $21 a bushel. This compares with about $12 for regular soybeans. Organic barley sells for about $8.50 a bushel, compared with $3.75 for regular.

"With the high price of [conventional] corn, this is the perfect time for farmers to transition to organic," Howard said. "If you are getting $4 for your corn now, you can afford to transition to organic."

The demand for organic seems to be just as strong as the price. "I got a call yesterday from an operation in Massachusetts that wanted 250 tons of organic corn for their egg farm," Howard said. "That's 10 or 12 tractor-trailer loads at $11 a bushel. Unfortunately, I couldn't supply it."

He said farms in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin are shipping organic grain to Pennsylvania's big organic poultry industry and other East Coast livestock operations.

"When you're getting $11 for your corn, it is easy for a farmer to pay $1 a bushel to transport it a good distance," he said.

But organic means different things to different people, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

It says that organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.

The department reports that only slightly more than 100 of the 12,000 farms in Maryland are certified organic producers.

With an eye on boosting the state's farm economy, the state has teamed with the U.S. Department or Agriculture, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension service and other farm organizations to host two regional workshops on organic grain production in coming weeks.

The workshops will cover how to transition to organic grain and forage production and how to become certified organic.

They will feature ways to maximize the conservation benefits of organic farming and explore various marketing approaches.

"As the demand continues to grow each year for organic meat and milk, the demand for organic grain and forage continues to increase," said state Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson.

"This is a good opportunity for Maryland farmers to create a sustainable supply of locally grown organic grains and forage for livestock producers," Richardson added.

Speakers will include John Teasdale of the Beltsville Agriculture Research Center and local farmers who have made the transition to organic.

The first of the two workshops will be held Feb. 25 at the Libertytown Volunteer Fire Company in Frederick County. It starts at 8:30 a.m. and is scheduled to conclude at 3 p.m.

The second session will be held at the Queen Anne's County 4-H park on 4-H Park Road, between Queenstown and Centreville. The times are the same.

The workshops are free and include lunch, but pre-registration is requested by Feb. 15. For additional information, contact Kate Mason at the state Department of Agriculture, 410-841-5779.

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