Eleven days after the government unveiled the first national standards for growing organic foods, the Horizon Organic Dairy farm in Gambrills closed for the season. And when the 875-acre former Naval Academy farm reopens in April, visitors will notice that the company has been cultivating more than rye and soybeans.
Horizon, the nation's largest organic dairy farmer, is adding a conference center, an animal barn and a food concession.
Those are in addition to the dairy's store and the 3,000-square-foot Organic Discovery Barn, where young visitors learn the life cycle of cows and trace worm travel through soil.
Though farming will continue, the farm decided late this month to close its store and education center today and re- open April 1 because business slows in the winter, said Clark Driftmier, vice president of marketing for Horizon, which is based in Colorado.
The closing is typical for seasonal businesses. Eight part-time employees will lose their jobs for the winter, Driftmier said, but all will be invited back when the farm reopens.
The hiatus comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture declaration of national standards for organic farming, which have been in the works for more than a decade and which Horizon hopes will give customers renewed confidence in organic products - those grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.
Citing customer confusion over the issue, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, adopted as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, requiring the USDA to pass standards for organic products to replace a hodge-podge of state and independent association guidelines.
The idea was to assure consumers that the nation's growers and marketers were following the same criteria when labeling something as organic.
In 1997, the USDA released its proposed rules. Its intention to allow genetically modified food and crops grown with sewage sludge fertilizer to be considered organic prompted an outcry.
Horizon was part of that outcry and printed on its milk cartons an appeal to customers to write letters of protest. On Dec. 20, it was one of several organic companies applauding the USDA's stricter standards. Among the changes:
An increase - from 50 percent to 70 percent - in the minimum percentage of organic ingredients in products labeled "Made with Organic Ingredients."
A redesign of the USDA organic seal.
An adjustment of the organic feed requirements for dairy herds when a producer converts the entire herd to organic production as a single, one-time event.
A change in composting standards to minimize the burden on small farmers.
A peer review process to evaluate accreditation decisions each year.
The rules become effective in February.
Driftmier called the new standard a victory for consumers - one that comes at a time when interest in organic farming is growing.
Since the Gambrills farm opened in October, about 3,000 schoolchildren have visited, said Bart Rapkin, the site's interim manager. School groups make up the bulk of the farm's traffic, though it has also become popular for birthday parties.
"It has grown so much. It just boggles my mind," Driftmier said. "When I go to parties and I mention I work for an organic company, no one thinks I'm some sort of weirdo anymore."
The farm was established in 1911 to provide midshipmen with a safe source of milk. The Navy farmed the Gambrills land until 1998. But with cheaper, commercially produced milk available, the dairy farm seemed far from the Navy's modern mission. In July 1999, the academy leased the land to Horizon.
Because the soil in which certified-organic products are grown is required to have been pesticide-free for at least three years, the crops grown at the farm will not be eligible for the organic seal until 2002.