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Social Issues

Ohio's organic farmers opt for biology over chemistry
Increasing concern about food safety leads to a growth in consumer demand for food grown and raised without a lot of chemicals
This story is part of a special series.

Vivian Goodman
Mike Storer of DNO Produce is in search of Ohio organic farmers.
Courtesy of Vivian Goodman
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In The Region:

Having a bite to eat could get scary… very soon.

Among potential impacts of the sequester: reduced food safety when federal inspectors are sent home.

But food worries are nothing new.  Consumers learning about the harmful effects of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms have long been demanding healthier, seasonal and local food. To meet that demand, many of our region’s small farmers use biological rather than chemical methods to keep crops healthy and bug-free. For today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman looks at the future for organic farming.

growing organically from the grass roots

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When the federal government first set national standards for organic farms in 1990, there wasn’t all that much consumer demand for fruits, vegetables and grains grown without synthetic fertilizers and insecticides, and meat from animals that don’t do hormones. 

Finding new non-chemical methods
Today organic farmers are rotating crops, composting, finding new ways to make pesticides passé, and doing about $55 billion in annual business.

But big agribusiness still rules. Only 1 percent of America’s cropland is organically farmed.

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s annual conference drew about 1,100 participants last month, about 100 more than last year’s event. They came on a snowy mid- February weekend from all over Ohio and neighboring states and included farmers, research scientists, food producers, distributors, backyard gardeners and foodies of all kinds.

The root of the matter
Kitty Leathem led a workshop on root vegetables.

“I’m known around here as the green chef.”    

That’s what they call her at Granville’s farmers market, where it’s easy to find her. Just follow the bee-line to her turnip and rutabaga pies.

The Green Chef calls her workshop “Out of the Dirt and On to Your Plate”

"Because where do root vegetables live?"

In the dirt.

“And of course if you put chemicals on, where’s it going to go?"

Into the plants.

“Right into the plants. Try and eat organic root vegetables.”  

There are 90 workshops at the conference; 10 have the word “organic” in the title.

Willing to pay for healthier choices
On average, eating organic costs about 20 percent more. But consumers who have read the works of Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin and seen the movie Food, Inc. don’t mind paying the difference.

“There’s a better environment for organic foods, which is a big part of it,” says George Siemon. He runs the largest organic farm cooperative in the nation. Organic Valley represents farmers in 31 states including 174 in Ohio.

A food system that needs organics
Siemon’s keynote speech at the ecological food conference is titled, "Organic: Changing a Broken System.”

 “Part of the broken food system is the amount of control that certain parties have in D.C. So I don’t feel the farm bill is really an honest process that serves our bigger community. ... Organics just got hurt badly in the recent farm bill. Anything that was extra, like research on organic farming and other things. got cut to zero.

"Of course we get very little anyway, but that’s the beauty of organics. It’s been very self-starting. ... It’s a grass-roots movement, and we’ve done well without the government’s help.”  

Siemon’s organic cooperative is in its 25th year. It recently reached $1 billion in annual sales.

Improving but still needs fixing
But he says the system remains broken.

 “We have a lot of food-related illnesses and environmental issues and cultural issues that are related to our agricultural practices, and I think it needs to have a better conversation than we have. Organic farming is a wonderful answer for financial viability and care for the land and producing healthy food, ... so it’s a real solution.”

But Stanford University came out in September with a report that said organic doesn’t make a real health difference.

“I could challenge that study all day long," says Siemon. “And of course, we have people who are opposed to us.”

More funding in the pipeline for organic farmers
He believes more financial organizations are willing now to fund organic farms, because of demand from consumers.

“And one of the things our coop has taken great pride in is trying to  provide a stable price to farmers and a stable marketplace and bankers recognize that there’s a future here.”  

Mike Storer of Columbus-based DNO Distributors couldn’t agree more. He’s in the food conference’s exhibit hall because the grocers and restaurants he serves want more organic food.

In search of Ohio organic farmers
 “At this show, what we’re trying to do ... is we’re trying to locate some more farmers, specifically Ohio organic farmers. We have a lot more demand than supply right now. It’s really picked up in the last three years."

Three years ago, he says, "We would ... get maybe one or two calls. Last year we started to get dozens and dozens, and this year (there's) so much demand for organic that we’ve exhausted almost everybody who currently grows for us.”    

Another hopeful sign for the future of organic farming: OEFFA last year launched a “farmer’s bank” to provide capital for sustainable agriculture in Ohio. It now has $500,000 going to build the supply of farm-fresh local food for our tables.

And that’s this week’s Quick Bite. Next Friday, we’ll learn the business secrets of a veteran quality grocer. 

Related Links & Resources
Organic Valley Farmers Cooperative website

Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association website

Listener Comments:

We have a farm to rent to a young farmer who would like to farm organically.

Posted by: Pam Doouce (Caledonia, Ohio) on April 2, 2013 1:04AM
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