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Trailblazing Organic Farm in Maryland, One Straw Farm, Puts Soil and Overall Health of Farm Ahead of Organic Certification

January 20, 2012 |

In 1985, the word “organic” had yet to penetrate consumer consciousness. Joan Norman of One Straw Farm remembers fighting misconceptions of the word’s meaning when using it to classify the produce she and her husband, Drew, were growing on their 82-acre farm in Maryland. “In the beginning, if we said ‘organic’ people thought we were growing marijuana, or they thought they had to be vegetarian to eat our produce,” she said.

That changed in 1989. After a report that Alar, a chemical commonly sprayed on apples and other fruit crops, could increase cancer risk, public outcry led schools to stop serving apple juice and stores to take apple products off the shelves. “Everyone was asking for organic apples. Of course we didn’t have any,” Joan said. But One Straw Farm did have an abundance of other chemical-free food, and a growing base of customers seeking organic produce.

One Straw Farm is currently the largest certified organic vegetable farm in Maryland. In the twenty-seven years since its inception, the farm has grown from 82 acres to 172. Co-owners Drew and Joan Norman sell the farm’s produce through a variety of markets, including wholesale and restaurant venues, farmers markets and a CSA program. The couple has grown the business as they grow their crops: organically. Joan committed to the farm full time in the late ‘90s, and both members of the husband-and-wife team have found a niche that they’re passionate about: Drew grows food; Joan sells it.

For Drew, the concept of organic agriculture just made sense. After working on a conventional dairy farm, he attended the University of Maryland where he was influenced by the study of micronutrients, the organic matter that makes up the living soil. Discovering the complexity of soil ecology led Drew to question the philosophy of nutrient management in conventional farming, in which soil content is amended with chemical inputs.

“He kept thinking that nature has been doing this for a long time, what makes us think that we’re so smart, and better than nature?” said Joan.

On the farm’s website, Mr. Norman shares his passion for soil:

The soil is probably the most complex ecosystem in the universe. It’s also one of the least understood. A teaspoon of native grassland soil contains 600-800 million bacteria of up to 10,000 different species, several miles of fungi of 5,000 species, 10,000 protozoa of 5000 species, and 20-30 beneficial nematodes that are members of up to a 100 different species.

Knowing the roles of this multitude of microscopic creatures is an area of science that we have barely touched upon. I see soil life as a population of communities working together to provide an environment of optimum soil health. This in return provides the plant with all that it needs for its health. Which provides us with all we need for our health.

One Straw Farm has made a commitment to protect the integrity of their soil, and in turn, the larger farm ecosystem. Cover crops are planted annually to restore nutrients to the soil and prevent erosion. Compost made from locally sourced hay, manure and vegetable waste is applied as fertilizer to the fields. Crops are rotated every season to balance soil and plant health. To promote ecological diversity, a portion of land is reserved for native grasses, which provide a habitat for native birds species.

Now, One Straw Farm’s commitment to environmentally responsible farming has taken an unexpected turn: this year, the farm plans to withdraw its Organic Certification issued by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The decision is based on the farm’s use of a product called BioTelo, a biodegradable mulch made from non-GMO cornstarch. BioTelo is an alternative to the black plastic mulch commonly used in large-scale organic farming. Strips of black film are placed over rows before crops are planted. The covering helps the underlying soil conserve water and heat and deters weed growth.

The National Organic Program (NOP) regulates what products Certified Organic farmers are permitted to use. Synthetic mulches, like plastic, are approved, so long as the product is cleaned out of the field after the crop cycle. Though BioTelo is biodegradable, it is classified as a synthetic mulch by NOP and therefore must be removed by the farmer at the end of the growing season. By letting BioTelo biodegrade in their fields, the Normans are breaking compliance with NOP standards.

Corn with BioTelo, the biodregable mulch made from non-GMO cornstarch. 

Plastic mulches offer organic farmers a chemical-free method of weed control, but the practice is not without environmental impact. Joan notes that after a season of using plastic mulch, One Straw Farm would fill four dumpsters with the used plastic. Alternatively, BioTelo breaks down into the soil after 4-6 weeks. Using the product reduces farm’s petroleum consumption, firstly, by eliminating the petroleum-based plastic mulch, and secondly, by reducing tractor use. There is no need to bring heavy equipment back into the field to remove the mulch at the end of the season; by the time the crops are out, the BioTelo has already begun to break down into the soil.

Because the Normans believe that the use of BioTelo is better than plastic for the overall health of their farm, they are willing to give up the organic label that they worked for years to define. Without it, the farm will no longer be able to sell its produce to strictly organic wholesalers. Joan, who advises young farmers to be creative with marketing and to always be equipped with a backup plan, is optimistic about the opportunity to continue to develop local markets.

With no official business plan, Joan has managed to successfully shift marketing strategies according to consumer demand and local opportunities. “After 25 years, it’s more in your head,” she said, “you get into a rhythm.” This readiness to adapt has been part of One Straw Farm’s success. The farm’s initial business model, which generated revenue almost exclusively through wholesale markets, has evolved to serve a range of national and regional markets with a sales model that emulates the diversity found in the farm’s fields.

In 2011, the farm attended six weekly farmers markets, sold produce to several regional restaurants and provided 1,900 weekly vegetable shares for its CSA program. For Joan, these emerging markets offer the opportunity to form a relationship with customers. “It’s a lot more fun growing for a CSA than it is putting produce into a box and shipping it away,” she said.

Drew and Joan Norman of One Straw Farm

The farm ran its first CSA in 1999. That first year, the program provided weekly boxes of produce to a total of eight member families. The small start was by design; Joan emphasizes the importance of meeting customer expectations, especially in a CSA program, where customers make an investment up front. Now, the farm provides weekly boxes for almost 2000 members. For 24 weeks from June to November, members receive eight items – without fail – in their weekly share. According to the season and the weather, boxes might feature watermelon, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, beets or kale.

Joan describes One Straw Farm customers as educated people; educated meaning that they take an active interest in learning how their food is grown – knowledge that she and Drew are willing to share. The farm is openly communicative about its philosophies and growing methods, offering a kind of transparent producer-consumer relationship that a label can’t necessarily provide. While “organic” is now a familiar marker on grocery store shelves, the origin and the practices employed to grow, prepare and ship these products are often just as elusive to shoppers as products without the organic label.

One Straw Farm produce will still come with a third-party stamp of approval, even after withdrawing its Organic Certification. The farm is certified by Food Alliance, an organization that labels food products with what Joan described as a “broader brushstroke for farmers who are sustainable, but not necessarily organic.”

Food Alliance stipulates that certified farms show evidence of a range of environmental and social standards including the safe and fair treatment of farmworkers, a commitment to be GMO-free and to conserve natural resources on the farm. “Most people think that all that stuff comes in organic, but it doesn’t,” said Joan. “This is a way to prove to our customers that we’re doing what we say we’re doing.”

After being one of the first Certified Organic farms in Maryland, the Normans never thought the label was something they would willingly give up, but after years of farming, the couple has learned that coping with the unexpected is part of the business. Joan hopes that One Straw Farm’s withdrawal from the NOP will help draw attention to the BioTelo issue.

In the meantime, One Straw Farm will continue to grow and sell chemical-free produce. After almost thirty years of production, the farm brand is backed by a diversity of crops and market outlets, and the integrity that comes after years of open and honest customer relations. It’s a reputation based on much more than a single world.

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