Organic farmers find 'better, healthier' life CENTRAL/Union Mills Westminster Sandymount Finksburg

June 01, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Ken and Judy Burger got into organic farming because of their beagle.

When Nellybelle got sick one day after having been outdoors, Mrs. Burger called the veterinarian and described the symptoms. Sounds like chemical poisoning, the doctor said. Is anyone spraying in the area?

Mrs. Burger looked out the window. Yes, there was a farmer spraying the fields that adjoined her brother's farm, where the Burger family was living. And the wind was blowing. But it was so far away. That couldn't be the cause of Nellybelle's illness.

It was. The dog eventually recovered, but she had been Mr. Burger's best hunting beagle, "and she was never right after that," he says.

He looked at the dog and thought, if herbicide sprayed from that distance could make a beagle sick, what might the chemicals on vegetables and fruits that his wife and four children ate be doing to them?

Mr. Burger is not a fanatic. He doesn't criticize other farmers for using chemical sprays. He sees overkill in some of the requirements that organic farming advocates propose as certification standards, such as a ban on using straw for mulch if the straw has been sprayed within the past year.

Mr. and Mrs. Burger brought their children to Silver Run in 1983, after customers of the tavern opposite their home in Baltimore drove once too often into the Burgers' front yard.

They moved into a vacant house on her brother's 300-acre farm. Mr. Burger worked in construction and started a garden to help feed the family.

"We kept getting further and further in the hole," he recalls. "I couldn't afford to live. Not that we're better off now. But we're living better. We're eating healthier."

He initially used herbicides and chemical fertilizers, whatever the supply store advised. But after Nellybelle's illness, he decided that the produce he grew on his 20-by-100-foot plot would not be exposed to chemical fertilizers or herbicides.

They canned from the garden and had enough left to sell to neighbors. They planted bigger gardens.

Five years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Burger decided to start working toward becoming becoming full-time organic farmers. Her brother had sold the farm, so they moved to a farmhouse with eight acres on Old Hanover Road in Union Mills. They lease additional tracts for a total of 44 acres.

Mr. Burger says he still isn't making money. He does some construction work during the off-season, and Mrs. Burger took a job this year to keep a regular paycheck coming in. Mr. and Mrs. Burger manage to pay the bills at the end of the season, but he can't afford the fees to get an organic farm certification, which means he may have to stop calling his produce organic.

The Burgers are not alone, says Tom Ford, agricultural adviser and consultant with the county extension service.

Certification fees charged by the state Department of Agriculture are high enough to discourage small organic farmers, Mr. Ford says. Of the 10 organic farmers in Carroll County, none has state certification.

"A lot of producers are not seeing a big differential between organically produced and nonorganically produced" fruits and vegetables, Mr. Ford says.

To become an organic farmer, Mr. Burger went back to working the way he had on the farm near Harrisburg, Pa., where he grew up. He uses fish emulsion fertilizer that he says makes the plants jump out of the ground, supplemented with chicken manure from a farm near Taneytown where no sprays are used. Keeping down weeds means putting muscles to the hand cultivator and going up one row and down the next.

The fields lie in rows of lettuce, cucumbers, green beans, spinach, squash, cherry tomatoes, tomatoes, beets, radishes, watermelons, cantaloupes and strawberries. Scarlet tanagers, orioles and bluebirds have moved in since he leased the land and began farming without chemicals, Mr. Burger says.

Poles strung with aluminum foil and plastic bags that make a popping sound scare deer away from the lettuce. Bugs and beetles get a dose of pyrethrum or rotenone, natural insecticides produced by plants.

The Burger children are the regular farmhands. Amanda, 12; Kyle, 11; Jonathan, 10; and Nicholas, 9, run tractors and cultivators, pick strawberries and beans, and work behind the counter at the farmers markets. The summer schedule: Rockville on Wednesday and Saturday, Towson on Thursday, Takoma Park on Sunday.

The children all have bank accounts for college from their work.

"They gripe and complain like other kids, and out in the field you think they're not learning anything," Mr. Burger says. "But then you have strangers come and ask a question, and [the children] give such an in-depth answer, it makes you proud."

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