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Organic farmers return to their roots

BERNE -- Mark Hoffmann and Susan Walter raise beef cows, pigs, chickens, goats and llamas. They plant vegetables, berries and medicinal herbs. They grow everything without chemical fertilizers or pesticides and are even limiting the number of cows they raise in order to reduce the impact on their 140-acre farm on Switzkill Road.

The couple is farming organically, but if you buy meat or produce you won't find that distinctive "USDA Organic" sticker. Morning Fog Farm is not officially organic, partly because certification is costly and time-consuming.

Hoffmann and Walter are also making a statement: They are among a growing number of farmers and consumers questioning the value of the label millions now rely on. They're watching with alarm as an alternative movement they helped found goes corporate.

These days, naturally grown products are available everywhere, from Wal-Mart to McDonald's. Massive organic farms in California and elsewhere are churning out produce and dairy products that are shipped around the country. It discomforts some champions of organic agriculture, who see the movement as an opportunity to rethink how food is grown and raised, emphasizing locally grown food from small family farms.

"It comes down to who you trust," said Hoffmann. "Do you trust the label? Or do you trust the farmer, who you can actually visit?"

Sales of organic foods have grown at least 20 percent a year for more than a decade. In 2004, they surged above $15 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 1997.

People who pay a premium for organic foods cite many reasons: taste and quality, the safety of the food, the environmental impact of agricultural chemicals and support for small farms over "factory-farming."

The explosive growth of organic agriculture has brought that last precept into question. Organic food has become big business. The most popular brands in supermarkets, grocery stores and natural food co-ops are owned by big companies: Kraft owns the popular meat alternative line Boca Foods; Kashi and Morningstar Farms are brands of Kellogg; Cascadian Farm and Sunrise Organic belong to General Mils.

The farms that supply wheat, soy and milk to those burger- and cereal-makers run the gamut, from small family farms to giant organic producers, some of which grow thousands of acres of produce or milk thousands of cows.

Al DeSalvo and his wife buy much of their food at the Honest Weight Food Co-op on Central Avenue in Albany, which offers produce from local farmers. The couple, who live in the city, also shop for fresh local produce at the farmers' market in Troy and frequent local farm stands.

The main reason, said DeSalvo, is to support the local economy. He believes the region will be better off if consumers' dollars stay here, supporting area farms and fighting sprawl and the spread of big-box stores.

"They drain the ability of regions to stay economically viable," he said.

Billie Best is the executive director of the Regional Farm and Food Project, which sponsors the Troy Farmers Market and works to help local farms sell to restaurants, stores and consumers.

Despite that mission, Best doesn't see the growth of big business organics as a bad thing. "We want the broadest possible buy-in, the deepest possible penetration, with organic products," she said. "We want the world to go organic."

The challenge, however, is to encourage customers to also buy local food whenever possible. Best mentioned a concept called "food-miles," a bid by some, primarily in the United Kingdom, to encourage people to think about how far their food travels.

"We need to reduce the distance from farm to table," she said.

Some buyers will make buying food that is grown without chemicals their priority, regardless of where it comes from.

Research confirms that organic fruits and vegetables have far less pesticide residue than produce grown conventionally. Organic produce can have some residues, studies show, from chemicals that drift from other fields or because of past pesticide use on the land where the food was grown.

There's little doubt a person who eats mostly organic fruits and vegetables will ingest fewer pesticides than a person who doesn't. But a fierce debate rages over whether the quantity of pesticides a typical consumer ingests is sufficient to cause health problems.

The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank that characterizes organic agriculture as a scam, has argued that the dose of pesticides taken in by a typical individual is so low -- less than one one-hundredth of the federal safety level -- as to be perfectly safe.

Backers of eating organics point to a burgeoning field of research that suggests even minute quantities of certain chemicals can trigger problems, especially in small children or pregnant women.

Rebecca Fitting of Albany is admittedly "chemical-phobic." But she struggles with the question of when to buy organic, given the premium price for many such products. She tends to prioritize spending extra for organic dairy products and fresh produce. But she is less likely to buy organic coffee, for example.

"If it's grown from the ground and you're eating it fresh, that's the distinction," she said.

Like many people, Hoffmann and Walter became interested in organic agriculture when they had their first child 15 years ago. They wanted their son to eat only the purest, safest foods.

They met organic farmers in New Jersey, where they then lived, and were soon raising their own chickens for eggs, supplying a local farm stand. New Jersey's cost of living was high, so seven years ago they moved to Berne.

Morning Fog Farm is a diverse operation: The couple sells beef and hot dogs to the Yellow Rock Cafe at Indian Ladder Farms in Altamont. Once a week, they also sell their farm's products directly to customers at Indian Ladder, a popular destination for families. They also sell herbs to a company in New Jersey.

But Hoffmann and Walter are happiest when people come to their place, which has a farm stand open three days a week.

"We want to share the experience of growing food directly with our customers," said Hoffmann.


Matt Pacenza can be reached at 454-5533 or by e-mail at mpacenza@timesunion.com.

 All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2006, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.