Central Indiana farmers turn to organic growing

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Carol Roberts' father was a traditional industrial farmer in Howard County for 39 years. Like most row-crop operations, he sprayed pesticides, herbicides and other high-potency chemicals on his fields to kill bugs and keep weeds at bay.

Then he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and that changed everything.

"After getting cancer, he started thinking, 'We need to do a better job of safely growing produce,'" Roberts said.

She said she believes her father's cancer likely was caused by his daily exposure to farming chemicals, and he decided to start growing food without using potentially hazardous sprays.

So he went organic.

"I didn't like it when he was messing around with all those chemicals in the fields, but he had to," Roberts said. "That was his livelihood. I'm just glad he started researching it and decided to grow organic."

That's a decision more and more local farmers and gardeners are making in the county and across the country as consumers seek healthier, more nutritious food.

As of 2011, organic products accounted for a little more than 4 percent of all U.S. food sales, according to a national study. That's a relatively small figure, but consider this: The organic food sector grew by $2.5 billion during 2011, and it keeps growing.

To meet the demand for local, chemical-free produce, more and more organic farms are sprouting up all across the U.S. and around Kokomo.

In 2011, the number of certified organic farms, ranches and processing facilities totaled more than 17,000 nationally—a 240-percent increase since 2002.

"In Kokomo, I think we've got a strong movement here towards organic, and a great group of people providing local produce," said Mandy Wright-Jarrett, who oversees the Kokomo Farmers' Market. "People aren't looking for the best deal anymore. They're looking for quality."

With more consumers buying organic food, there's money to be made from going green. But for local organic farmers, it's not just about the money.

For them, it's about something bigger.

Jay Martin said he was stunned when his doctor told him he had high blood pressure. He exercised all the time, and made it a point to stay in shape.

To get his blood pressure under control, Martin started taking prescription drugs, but he didn't like some of the side effects of the pills.

He decided to start an investigation to get to the root of the issue.

"Against the advice of my doctor, I decided to go on a crusade to find out why this was happening," he said.

That ultimately led Martin to take a closer look at what he was eating.

He made this conclusion: "If it has a list of ingredients that I don't understand, then I'm not eating it," he said.

So Martin and his wife, Gena, decided to start an organic garden and begin raising grass-fed cattle without the use of any hormones, antibiotics or steroids.

Last year, they founded EarthPros LLC and started selling beef and produce from their 30-acre farm about 16 miles west of Kokomo.

"We'd been growing for ourselves for years, so we decided since we liked doing it so much, we might as well try to make a business out of it," Gena said.

Now, the two have more than 30 regular customers who buy beef, chicken, eggs and produce from the farm.

Ask just about any organic farmer why they do what they do, and they'll say the same thing: It's about knowing what's in your food and staying healthy.

That's what motivates Carol Roberts, who's kept her father's business—Steiner's Naturally Grown Plants and Produce—up and running since he passed away.

"I'm afraid of cancer. Dad died of cancer," she said. "I like growing my own stuff, so I know what I'm eating."

Of course, organic businesses try to sell their products, but running an all-natural farm is also a way to ensure they have the freshest fruits, vegetables and meat on their own tables, too.

"The real benefit is that we eat well every day," said Rob North, who runs EarthCure Farms and sells produce at the Kokomo Farmers' Market. "We're eating like the top 1 percent. We don't have to be afraid to pick something right out of the field and eat it, because you don't have to wash off all the toxic chemicals."

Most organic farmers in the area run face-to-face operations, selling their produce directly to customers.

It's a system that works well. Consumers know exactly what's going into their food and who's growing it, and farmers build a personal relationship with their clients.

But for growers who want to break into a bigger market, face-to-face sales won't cut it.

To get their products into grocery chains, farmers need to receive certification proving their veggies, fruits, milk and other food products meet federal organic guidelines.

That can be a difficult—and expensive—undertaking.

Steve Daily, chancellor of the Ivy Tech Kokomo region, knows something about that. He owns a 130-acre farm west of Kokomo and has worked for years to get his soil in shape for federal certification.

By doing that, he said, he hopes to get a better price on his organic produce and gain a competitive edge against other farming operations.

Gaining that edge through a federal organic certification takes time and money.

"It's a cumbersome and complicated process," Daily said. "It's very, very record intensive, and it requires a lot of time."

For starters, farmers have to show their soil has been free of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals for at least three years. They also have to submit a written plan describing the organic practices and substances they'll use.

Once that's completed, growers have to bring in an accredited certifying agent who will scrutinize the farm to ensure it meets federal requirements.

Depending on the size and complexity of the operation, that could cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Then there's the application fee, annual renewal fee, assessment on yearly sales and annual inspection fees.

For most organic farmers, the effort and price tag just aren't worth it.

"Getting certified to me is really only necessary if you plan on selling to a third party," Rob North said. "Personally, I don't really feel like filling out all the extra paperwork."

Daily said he knows it will be tough and pricey to keep up an organic certification on his farm, and that makes him nervous. But he said it's something he still wants to try.

"You look at all the weeds, and you realize there's no spray you can put on these," he said. "It's going to be you out there with a hoe.

"But the fact is, there's a lot of people out there who do get certified, and they do it successfully," Daily said. "Even if I don't get certified, I'm still going to be a natural grower. I just believe organic produce is better and healthier for me and my family."

Carol Roberts said she worries about farm chemicals washing into rivers and streams and polluting the water system.

Rob North said growing the same crop on vast stretches of land leads to more insect problems, which means more chemicals have to be used to combat bug infestations.

Jay Martin said it seems counterintuitive to consume food coated with chemicals that kill bugs. What else does it kill? he asked.

They say organic farming isn't just healthier, but better for the environment.

"We love our fellow farmers. All of them," Martin said. "We just want all of us to consider if we're being good stewards of the land."

Although more and more people are switching to organic food, most customers still buy food produced with herbicides and genetically modified seeds.

North said that's a choice consumers have to make. For now, however, he said organic farmers provide an alternative to what a growing number of people see as a dysfunctional agriculture system.

"I think there's big problems with industrial farming, but it still comes down to personal choice," he said. "If people want their food that way, that's fine. But I see more and more people realizing that something must be wrong with the food system since so many people are getting sick."

And Gena Martin said more people are realizing something else—organic food just tastes better.

"Nothing's as good or as fresh as buying local food," she said. "There's nothing better than pulling it straight from the garden."

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