Working the land, nature's way

October 29, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,Special to The Sun

With their shiny black and red shells, harlequin beetles look a lot like ladybugs, but when Beckie Gurley sees them on the leaves of the broccoli she's growing at Calvert's Gift Farm, she quickly smashes them between her fingers.

Because Calvert's Gift is an organic farm, she and her husband, Jack, don't use any pesticides to keep creatures like the beetles at bay. They just pick them off with their hands, one at a time.

The 5-acre parcel, nestled in rolling countryside in Sparks, produces heirloom tomatoes with mouthwatering names - Brandywine, Persimmon and Pineapple - as well as radishes, turnips, squash, beets, lettuce, broccoli and many other vegetables.

The produce is sold at farmers' markets in Catonsville, Bel Air and Takoma Park, as well as through community-supported agriculture programs, in which customers pay a fee for weekly boxes of produce from several farms.

In the past, they've sold to restaurants, but not this year, Beckie Gurley said.

One reason the business works so well, she said, is that her husband is the better farmer and she's more the saleswoman. Standing behind a table at a farmers' market on a warm summer morning, she'll show off the unusual shapes and colors of the heirloom tomatoes and describe their flavors.

These are not supermarket-shiny orbs of perfection but, she said, customers understand that the fruit from an organic farm won't look pristine. "We're able to explain to our customers why we have a bug mark on our tomatoes," she said.

Gurley speaks passionately about the need to shorten the food chain, so that produce isn't traveling long distances and languishing for long periods between the farm and the table. Bagged greens, such as the spinach that was recently contaminated with E. coli, might sit in those bags for a month, she said, giving bacteria plenty of time to grow.

Started in 1994, Calvert's Gift is one of the first organic farms in Maryland, said Deanna Baldwin, program manager for food quality assurance with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Baldwin said 95 farms in Maryland are currently certified organic or becoming organic.

The certification process that Baldwin oversees is rigorous and takes into account all materials and practices used, as well as proof that the farmers are improving the soil, she said.

Still, more and more farms in Maryland are going organic, she said: "We've had a 22 percent increase since 2003 in the number that we certified." One reason is that organic produce commands higher prices, giving small farmers a competitive leg up, she said.

The Gurleys didn't set out to be organic farmers. They both worked for an environmental consulting firm, she as a chemist, he as a biologist. She had purchased the farm before she even met Jack, she said.

But one day, as she tells it, Jack Gurley stuck his shovel in the ground and decided he needed to be an organic farmer.

"It just made sense to us not to use all those chemicals," his wife said. "We're exposed to so many chemicals throughout the day. Why would you put them in your food?"

Lacking a conventional farming background has worked in their favor, she said, because they didn't start out with existing ideas about the way farming should be. Every year has been an adventure as the couple continues to learn new ways to farm efficiently.

"We started out very slowly and we sort of expanded every year," Beckie Gurley said. Even though they have some part-time help, she said she never wants the farm to be so big that their labor costs go up, forcing them to increase productivity by planting fruits and vegetables that are abundant and hearty, but don't taste as good.

She noted that Americans, in general, are interested in buying food that is very inexpensive, but that cost-consciousness comes at a price. She calls it "the high cost of cheap food."

"We are the richest country in the world," she said. "And we have the cheapest food. And all anybody wants is for it to be cheaper. We have no food culture. When people think of a tomato, they think it's supposed to be round and red and taste like plastic because that's what they get at the supermarket. We've lost our food culture."

As organic farmers, the Gurleys are doing their part to get that culture back. But it's not easy. They fight against produce-killers such as the harlequin beetle, but they're fighting without the weapons available to conventional farmers. "We don't have an arsenal of chemicals," she said. "We try to follow a natural cycle."

To fight a certain bean-eating beetle that arrives every year, the Gurleys let loose predator wasps, but only after the beetles have already started damaging the crop. If the wasps arrive before the beetles, the wasps will fly away, looking for something else to eat, she explained. "We lose some beans every year," she said.

Weeds are another serious problem. And as organic farmers, the Gurleys constantly toy with crop rotation to make sure their soil is nutrient-dense.

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