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Organic farming catching on in Georgia

October 8, 1997

WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (AP) _ Pete Cimino moved to rural Georgia four years ago to get out of the city and into farming organic vegetables. Now some of his best customers are big-city restaurants.

``He likes what he’s getting, I guess,″ Cimino said of one of his big-city clients.

Cimino’s 80-acre farm in Macon County is Georgia’s biggest certified organic farm and an example of the growth in the fledgling industry, which uses no herbicides, pesticides or other chemicals.

The state’s lone cooperative for organic farmers, called Georgia Grown, has seen its membership double in three years to 18.

``There is just enormous demand,″ said Anne Brewer, manager of Georgia Grown. ``It really comes from the upscale restaurants in Atlanta. The chefs are passionate about produce.″

Despite the growth, Georgia still has fewer organic farmers than Florida, California and some other states where a premium is paid for the crops, said Sharad Phatak, a horticulture professor at the University of Georgia.

To be certified as organic, a farm must go without chemicals for three years before the first organic crop is planted.

``In the conventional system, we destroy the soil’s organic matter,″ said Phatak. ``It’s not just dirt. Soil is a living entity. It has a lot of living organisms in it. Constant tilling of the soil (and chemicals) destroys the organic matter in the soil.″

Organic farmland is much like land that has been used for pasture for several years and is then converted to farming, Phatak said. The first few years after the conversion, farmers have to put very little into the land.

The biggest difference between conventional and organic farmers is the use of herbicides. Conventional farmland usually looks like a well-kept yard, while organic farmland resembles a yard that is full of weeds and hasn’t been mowed.

Organic farmers also do not use commercial fertilizers, composted manure or popular pesticides. Instead, they allow natural diseases to kill harmful insects.

When Walter Williams Jr. took over the tiny farm his family has owned for 28 years in north Houston County, he decided chemicals were unhealthful and opted for organic farming. Williams now produces chemical-free tomatoes, herbs, sweet potatoes and blueberries on the farm near Warner Robins.

``I enjoy the farming,″ said Williams, 53. ``I like to grow stuff that I can eat that’s not full of chemicals.″

``Chemicals are put on food to kill things _ to kill pests. It’s a poison,″ said Macon dietitian Janie Sokol.

While there is a boom in sales of organic fruits and vegetables, the market is still too small for conventional farmers, Phatak said.

``There will be a steady increase in organic farms. But it is still comparatively in its infancy stage,″ he said.

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