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Organic farmers yield success at Farmer’s Market

By Staff | Jan 7, 2010

Chris and Eva Worden turn out strong, healthy organic produce on their Punta Gorda farm. They are vendors at the Sanibel Farmer’s Market held on Sunday mornings in the Tahitian Gardens shopping center.

When I first started growing vegetables there was a lot of discussion in the press about organic gardening and whether organic farmers and their healthier produce could compete with farmers using chemicals for picture-perfect but less desirable – vegetables.

J. I. Rodale, founder of Organic Gardening magazine, based in Emmaus, Penn., was often ridiculed for his belief that farmers could garden without chemical fertilizers (using compost) and without chemical pesticides (using natural controls). A standing joke of the time was “Turn over an organic gardener and you will find a nut.” J. I. Rodale passed away of a heart attack while conducting a television interview with Dick Cavett in which he predicted a wider acceptance of organic gardening for health reasons. J. I. Rodale’s son, Robert continued to take the magazine and publishing business to greater success.

Robert and I became friends as a result of our passion for gardening, and I remember him giving me a personal tour of his own garden near Emmaus, and a new research facility in Trumbaursville, Penn. where I observed experiments into fish farming and growing potatoes in different beds to determine whether various mulching methods produced greater yields. He was impressed with my report of a trip I had taken to Taiwan where one of the agricultural institutions had collected together every known tomato variety (3,000 varieties at that time) for breeding purposes, and we planned a trip together to see other initiatives by Chinese plant and soil scientists. Before we could make the trip, however, Robert was killed in a car accident in Moscow.

Recently, as a result of researching a book about my own vegetable gardening methods, I realized that organic gardeners are no longer considered nuts. Indeed, anyone who gardens with chemicals is now considered the nut.

The revelation of how strong the organic gardening movement has become hit home when I attended the Sanibel Island Farmers’ Market, held Sunday mornings in the parking lot of the Tahitian Gardens shopping center. I saw that one of the vendors had customers three abreast lined up across the parking lot to purchase vegetables labeled organic, with a USDA seal of approval prominently displayed above the name of their enterprise, Worden Farm. The farm itself is located a few miles inland from Punta Gorda. Actually, I didn’t need to be told the produce was organic; I could see it in the color and vitality of the produce and I could taste it when I took it home to eat. I questioned one of the clerks manning the table, and he explained that the farm was owned by a husband-and-wife team a pair of Yale graduates, Chris and Eva Worden, who had taken over a cow pasture of 60 acres and turned it into a viable organic growing operation. After only six years in operation they have 30 acres in production and a thriving business growing organic vegetables.

Several days later I visited Worden Farm and interviewed the youthful owners, both still in their late 30’s. Eva graduated in Eco System Management and Chris in Soil Science and Nutrition. Eva is a bright, cheerful, vivacious brunette who likes nothing better than teaching organic gardening principles, and ways to use vegetables creatively. Chris is tanned, athletic-looking modest and fully focused on the farming operation. At the core of their financial success is a co-operative whereby they agree to grow under contract sufficient vegetables to supply individuals for an entire season (basically October through May.) They have 300 subscribers who pay $600 for the season, and who have the choice of picking up produce at the farm one day a week, or at various drop-off points in the area. The Wordens attend five local farmers’ markets.

As I turned off Bermont Road that runs straight as a gun-barrel through citrus orchards, cow pastures and horse farms, I turned off onto a sandy driveway and parked on the grass verge in front of a barn where fresh vegetables were displayed in wooden bins for customers to pick up their weekly supply. Eva showed me around and I was amazed to see how healthy everything looked rows upon rows of cabbage and kale and lettuce and broccoli and cauliflower and arugula in neat rows that disappeared into infinity. Every plant exuded health and vitality, and hardly a bug bite could be seen.

Most of the crops were grown in raised rows, 3 ft. wide and 6 inches high, covered with a white plastic mulch to keep the fields weed free. The white also reflects heat. On certain crops (such as melons) they will use black plastic to warm the soil. A tractor cultivator hoes between the rows. Drip irrigation hose runs the length of each bed, providing moisture on an as-needed basis. Eva explained it is a system perfected in Israel.

For fertilizing, the Wordens use mostly compost made from horse bedding (they buy 150 tons a year from local horse farms), which they mix with landscape debris such as wood chips. To supplement the nutrient content in the compost they also add an organic fertilizer, Microstart 60, which mostly provides added phosphorus and potash. To help control diseases, they practice crop rotation, ensuring that a particular plant family like cabbage and root crops are not grown in the same place for four years. In between plantings they also grow a cover crop (such as Sudan grass and cowpeas) and plow it under to help raise the nitrogen level and to provide what Eva calls ‘spatial diversity.’

Chris Worden believes the key to their success in keeping down insect pests is the health of the soil so Worden’s vegetables can resist insects and disease, also the application of a fish emulsion fertilizer that deters insects. Occasionally, if aphids or a beetle pest looks like it might become a problem, Chris will use an insecticide approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute, a non-profit institution that approves organic products. This may be a biological control like BT to reduce caterpillar populations, or pyrethrum or insecticidal soap, both of which work well on aphids and other soft-bodied insects.

Another key to the Worden’s success is variety selection. Their favorite seed source is Johnny’s Seeds, located in Maine, a breeder and prime producer of vegetable seeds raised organically. They test for performance and stick with the earlier or higher yielding varieties, some of which may be hybrids. They raise their own seedlings under poly structures.

Chris grew up in Maryland on a farm, and Eva grew up in Homestead, Fla., a big farming community. She taught horticulture at the University of Florida, Coral Cables and got to know the area well enough to realize it was the perfect location to fulfill their love of the land by farming responsibly. Today, the crowds that converge on their stalls at the local farmers’ markets are a testimony to their success. To learn more about the Worden farm co-op growing system go to www.wordenfarm.com.