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America's Organic Boom Spreads to Mississippi

America's Organic Boom Spreads
to Mississippi

July 5, 2001 Mississippi farmers want to put 'organic' label on produce

By JAMES V. WALKER, The Clarion-Ledger

DATELINE: CANTON, Miss.

Before too long, you'll be able to buy certified, Mississippi-grown organic
produce.

Demand for food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers increased
by 20 percent nationwide in the last year, and Mississippi family farmers
want to reap some of the benefits of that growth. That could happen as early
as next spring if federal officials approve the state's organic farming
certification program.

It can't happen soon enough for many owners of small family farms. Although
the day when any Mississippi produce could be called officially "organic" is
still almost a year away, Guy Feltenstein, head of the certification program
at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said he already
has nearly 200 farmers on a mailing list for news on the latest
developments. And nearly 100 potential growers attended a conference last
week to learn more about the industry. The conference was the first meeting
in 20 years for the nearly defunct Mississippi Organic Growers Association.
The revival of the organization and the industry in the Magnolia State is a
byproduct of booming market demand nationwide and a new focus by the
cooperative extension program at Alcorn State University.

Jesse Harness, associate extension administrator at Alcorn, said the
economics of organic farming put family farmers on a more even footing with
the ever-expanding corporate operations by filling a niche that large-scale
farming does not.

"This is an opportunity for small farms to make an income better than what
they can make with non-organic products," Harness said. "We've got to
maintain small farms; so goes small farms, so goes rural America."

Billy Barron's farming operation is about as small as it gets. For the past
decade, he has grown tomatoes, broccoli, corn, cabbage and a cornucopia of
other crops without chemicals on just over seven acres in Holmes County.
He started growing small amounts of so many vegetables because it made his
crop easier to sell, he said. The market was so lean when he began growing
commercially that he had to cut and prepare the vegetables himself and sell
directly to restaurants.

Now he is one of three Mississippi farmers who sell their crops at Rainbow
Whole Foods Cooperative grocery, in Jackson.
It's difficult to get farmers into the organic business because it's very
labor intensive, Barron said.

"You can't get the weeds out of the row without getting out there with a
hoe," he said. "They look at it as an impossibility."
But Blue King, general manager of the Rainbow co-op, said organic farming
practices are nothing new. They are simply a throwback to the way crops were
grown before modern techniques were developed.

"That's the way my grandfather gardened, but he didn't call it organic,"
King said.

Selling organic food can be a challenge in many areas where local farmers
are locked out of distribution points like supermarkets, she said. But local
buying clubs like the one that spawned Rainbow in Jackson would love to buy
locally grown products instead of importing vegetables from other states,
she said.

And many farmers are beginning to have success selling organic food at
farmers' markets in places like Vicksburg, Natchez and Macon.
Jackson resident Ruby Pleasant said she recently started buying organic
vegetables in an effort to improve her diet.

"I'm trying to eat healthier," Pleasant said. "And I think they taste a
whole lot better."

Recent food scares have made people more wary of what they eat, King said.
Although there is no proof food grown without pesticides and chemicals is
healthier, it is at least as healthy, said Alcorn extension agent Ken
Rogers. And growers contend it is better for the environment because it does
not deplete the soil or contribute to the nitrogen-rich fertilizer runoff
that causes a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico each summer.
Conventional farmers argue that modern farming techniques, including
pesticides and chemical fertilizers, allow more food to be grown in less
space, a necessity for feeding the world's expanding population without
clearing vast wilderness areas for farming.


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