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Organic Revolution Takes Root in Louisiana

DERIDDER, La. -- Ted Williams likes thinking differently, and he's hoping he can persuade others to do the same.

The Singer native has worked across the United States as an organic consultant and even helped professors at the University of Minnesota set up the school's organic education program. Now he's planting his knowledge in Harvest Organics Co-op, an organic farm and education resource center that he and wife Louise are opening in Beauregard Parish later this year.

The Williams plan to run the co-op on 330 acres they purchased eight miles south of DeRidder. They're hoping that they, and the community, will reap the health and financial benefits from the co-op in years to come. "If we can just get people to think a little differently, this will work," Williams said. "We can change the whole economy if people just understand." Williams' passion for cleaner and healthier living began years ago, when he was attending college at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. There, he studied under Malcolm Beck, a noted soil expert, author and founder of Garden-Ville, a company that sells organic gardening products. Williams' quest for organic knowledge was fueled by the death of his mother to cancer. He believes exposure to pesticides and food chemicals contributed to the development of her disease.

Williams said Louisiana is "25 years behind" in the organic food movement. He said there are about 57 acres of organic farmland in the state, but he's hoping the co-op will become the premiere site for organic farming in Louisiana.

The co-op will have organically grown vegetables, fruits, herbs and medicinal plants, as well as range fed chickens, turkeys and cattle. Williams has been working with Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based company that makes and sells organic food, which has consented to purchase the co-op's organically grown food.

Williams said for a fair price, the co-op will allow local garden clubs or school groups to use a couple of acres on the farm to use for their own organic crops.

Another function of the co-op will be to educate Louisiana farmers on how to grow crops organically. Williams said he wants local farmers to realize the financial rewards of going organic.

According to the New Farm, an organic resource center operated by The Rodale Institute, 12 4.4 ounce cups of organically grown blueberries sell for $51.50 in Boston and Philadelphia markets.

In Beauregard, blueberries yield about $8 per gallon.

If organically grown, crops like red potatoes can earn a farmer as much as $50 a bushel in out-of-state markets. The nearest markets are in Baton Rouge, Beaumont and Houston, where there are whole food stores. Williams said he has made several trips to the organic market in Houston.

"They can't get it on the shelves fast enough," he said. Research suggests that organic food is becoming increasingly popular with health-conscious American consumers, and Williams is hoping local farmers capitalize on that demand.

Besides organic crops, Williams is hoping to attract tourists to the Harvest Organics Co-op with a corn maze, sunflower field, nature trails, a native wildflower area and a pumpkin patch.

He said there are plans to build a store where locals can purchase high-quality goods for minimal prices. It will also have organically made jellies, jams, pies, syrups, vinegar and infused oils. Specially ventilated greenhouses will allow the farm to grow produce year-round, he said.

"It will take us a while to get everything started," he said. Williams plans to hire six employees initially to help develop the farm and its infrastructure. When the co-op is at the height of its operation, he expects it will employ 10 to 25 employees.

Williams has already started preparing the soil on the farm to grow organic crops. For months, he has sought support from local legislators but has gotten no response. He has also applied for state grants to aid his venture, but he's been denied.

Williams said he's disappointed, particularly because he feels Beauregard  - which has a per capita income of about $15,000 - has been overlooked by the state in its funding of economic development projects.

"It's a shame," he said. "This would help the parish gets back on its feet economically. It's a place where no one else has looked."