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Organic farming plants in Bulloch

Big profits attracting area farmers to new field

            For different reasons, two Bulloch County farm families have come to the same conclusion, growing produce organically is the future for them. Al Clark, owner of Clark & Sons Organics in Portal, recently received state certification to grow organic produce on eight of his 100 acres. Jim and Connie Hayes, owners of Healthy Hollow Farm near Stilson, are awaiting certification this fall of 20 acres within their 600 acre farm.

            Clark said his move to organic was financially motivated for the most part while the Hayes have changed course for health reasons.

            "To be honest, money was a big part of my decision to go organic," Clark said. "There is a huge demand for organic produce. However, the more I have learned about it, the more I believe that we will be producing a better food than is produced with regular farming that uses chemicals. We are going to grow strawberries, squash, sweet corn, water melons, honey dews, and tomatoes."

            Clark said he learned about organic farming from fellow organic farmer, Relinda Walker, owner of Walker Farms in Screven County. Considered by many to be a local "guru" in the field, Walker has been farming organically since 2005. She has 40 acres certified for organic production.

            "I spent a few years being a missionary, trying to get people involved in organic food production and consumption," Walker said. "Now there are such huge market pressures that things have really taken off. There is so much demand that you can get a significant premium for just about everything that you can grow."

            Georgia commissioner of agriculture Tommy Irvin said the demand for organic produce is increasing every day.

            "The consumer now is looking for a good organic product so the market for it is growing and the presence of it is growing, therefore there is room for expansion," Irvin said. "It is going to continue to grow and, and I don't think it is a fad that is going to disappear. People like different choices and I, as any other consumer, like the same opportunity to have a choice."

            There are currently 53 registered organic farmers in the state of Georgia and 1570 acres certified for organic farming. According to state regulations, a plot of land must not have been farmed with chemicals for at least three years before it can be certified organic.           It is the job of independent companies or certifiers, as they are referred to in the industry, to visit the farms and approve acreage for organic production. It is an arduous process involving "mounds" of paperwork according to organic farmers, but the wait is well worth it.

            "Next year, we will have 30 more acres certified," Clark said. "At some point in the near future we hope to have all 100 acres certified. We think we can move all of organic crop that we can produce."

            Jim and Connie Hayes are as excited as Clark about their future in organic farming, but their motivation resulted from an illness that Connie Hayes developed over ten years ago.

            "My health began to deteriorate and we couldn't figure out why," Connie Hayes said. "I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and it had gotten to the point where I could not even get out of the bed by myself. Blood tests finally revealed that I had a very high level of toxicity in my blood."

            "The only thing that Jim and I could figure out was that I had been exposed to a high level of chemicals because of the farming going on next to our home," she said. "We had leased out the farm land around us. We quit leasing it, and starting buying groceries that were organic, and gradually I got better and am fine today."

            Hayes said the more she and her husband learned about the food supply, the greater their desire became to farm their land organically.

            "The more we looked into the food we were buying, we just decided that we wanted to grow something with more nutrient density, and we wanted to make the soil nutrient dense," Jim Hayes said. "It is all about sustainable farming in which you integrate a number of things that help sustain each other."

            What may be a surprise to many local residents is the amount of organic Vidalia onions that are being grown locally.

            Dr. George Boyhan, an associate professor with the University of Georgia and an extension vegetable specialist with the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, said over 200 acres of Vidalia onions were grown organically in this area this spring.

            "The production of organic Vidalia onions was market driven," he said. "Produce buyers were requesting it and the market responded."

            Boyhan said even though labor costs are significantly higher in the production of those onions, the profit made by farmers is higher than the profit made on onions grown conventionally.

            Like Irvin, Boyhan feels there is substantial room for expansion in the organic produce industry.

            "Three to four percent of Europe's produce is grown organically," he said. "We are way, way behind that. That is why I feel there is a lot of room for growth in this industry."

            Irvin said organic farming is entirely different from the normal concept and you are going to see some difference in the appearance of product because of lack of chemicals. That difference in appearance does not bother local resident Debra Chester.

            "The reward in producing and buying natural foods is measured in the knowledge that you are doing something good for your self and for the land too." she said. "I get a lot of pleasure from knowing that I do have a little control over the quality of what I put on my table.

            "We have so many resources in our community to help even the most inexperienced novice get started on the road to a hobby or even a lifestyle change in the way one thinks about food," Chester said. "Some resources that I have used include the local staff at the Federal Department of Agriculture, county agents, staff of the GSU Botanical Gardens, farmers and backyard horticulturist and knowledgeable agri-business folks who are more than willing to share information."

            Many people, including Irvin, think that organic farming is simply a return to the past when pesticides and chemicals were not available.

            "When I was a boy and we lived on our farm and plowed with a mule, we had a barn lot, we had stables, we would take our stable manure and throw it into the hill where we were planting the crop," Irvin said. "We were really carrying on organic farming and didn't know what it was."

            More information on organic farming in Georgia and where to purchase organically grown food is available on the website of Georgia Organics, a nonprofit membership organization advocating for the organic food industry. The organization's website is www.georgiaorganics.org.

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