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|June 12-18, 2008
• Continental shifts
Bimbamboo reinterprets Pan-Asian cuisine
by Clay Fong
• Food Bites
Food happenings around town
Past meets present
Amish farmers face high demand for organic foods
by Lisa Abraham
The 110-member Green Field Farms cooperative in central Ohio is an old and new idea. The horse-and-buggy users offer the outside world locally produced organic cheese, eggs, vegetables and other items that are environmentally friendly. Leaders view the return to chemical-free processes as a way to stay competitive while keeping families together.
At the spot where the past meets the present in the trend to eat locally grown, organically produced food, the Amish have parked their buggies.
More than 110 Amish farmers have formed Green Field Farms, a nonprofit organic food cooperative, and are finding their niche as U.S.D.A.-certified organic farmers.
The move has helped to revitalize the Amish farming community and leaders see it as their future.
“There are two reasons why farms fail,” said David Raber, a co-op member who owns a small farm in Fredericksburg, Ohio. “They have a good product and not a good market, or they have a good market and not a good product. Green Field Farms is both,” he said. The co-op produces organic eggs, cheese, fruits, vegetables and maple tree distillate — an energy drink made from distilling the steam let off during the process of boiling maple tree sap into maple syrup.
Its members must be Amish or conservative Mennonites who use a horse and buggy as their mode of transportation. Most members are in Ohio, but there are a few in Pennsylvania.
Raber grows cabbage, peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, potatoes, pumpkins and onions for the co-op. As two of his young sons watched from beneath their straw hats, Raber, 34, explained how he had spent several years working in construction, before moving back to his family farm in 2000 with his wife and children, who now number six.
The move to become a certified organic farmer has given him hope that one day he will be able to turn his farm over to one of his boys.
Central Ohio is home to the world’s largest Amish community. For the past 100 years, its population has doubled every 20 years to its current 30,000.
To many, the words Amish and farming may seem synonymous. But that’s hardly the case today.
Amish farmers, who often have fewer than 100 acres, have felt the pinch of large corporate farming in the same way that non-Amish
small-family farmers have. They simply could not compete.
Consider this statistic: 40 years ago, 90 percent of the Amish in Wayne and Holmes counties in Ohio made their living from farming, while 10 percent worked in businesses such as furniture making or building trades.
Today, those numbers have reversed themselves with only 10 percent of Amish farming for a living, and 90 percent in business.
As surprising as those statistics may be to the outside world, they were a cause for alarm in the Amish community, said Wayne Wengerd of Dalton, Ohio, an Amish leader who serves as chief executive officer of the co-op.
Working away from the farm means working apart from the family unit and poses a real threat to the Amish way of life that is centered on family and faith.
When the Amish go off to work each day in an outside business, they fall prey to the same social ills that are problems for the outside world, he said. Amish children, in particular, who weren’t raised in farming were adopting an attitude that, “the world owes me something,” Wengerd said.
The farm keeps the family together with Amish values intact, a point that Wengerd said illustrates with the example of his younger brother, Henry “Junior” Wengerd, who operates a dairy farm in Dalton with his wife and four children. “They are the farm. The farm is them,” he said.
About five years ago, growing concerns about the future of their community brought together a group of about 20 Amish elders, including Wengerd, to discuss how they would deal with the problem. They knew they wanted to do something to help return their members to farming, but they weren’t sure what.
Their meeting resulted in the start of Green Field Farms in 2003. For the first few years, co-op members were stymied about how to move forward, but federal organic certification proved to be the key to their success.
For the past few years, members have begun the work of transitioning their farms from conventional agriculture to organic, using no chemicals, no antibiotics, no growth hormones and no genetically modified organisms. Their herds graze freely in their fields, eating only organically grown grasses and grains.
They have opened their barn doors and their fields to U.S.D.A. inspectors to obtain their organic certification.
The co-op is overseen by a board of 20 Amish members, but has hired non-Amish staff, including sales representative Rhonda Troyer, to find shelves for their products.
Troyer said Green Field Farms products currently are sold in 10 states.
Green Field Farms organic eggs retail for $3.19 a dozen, about a dollar more than conventionally farmed eggs.
But Wengerd is keenly aware that even with rising grocery costs, there is a growing concern about the wholesomeness of food and a growing market of people who are willing to pay a premium for local organic quality.
Grass-fed organic beef is on the list of products the co-op hopes to one day produce. Wengerd is encouraged by the growing number of chefs who will seek out organic, local sources for the foods they serve in their restaurants, which could open up additional markets for Green Field Farms products.
Organic farming is a return to practices that even the Wengerd’s father had abandoned when he bought the family farm in Dalton, Ohio, in 1964.
Wengerd said his father’s generation welcomed the use of pesticides as a way of keeping pace with automated farmers and escalating land costs.
But going organic makes sense to many of these Amish farmers whose horse-drawn plow practices seem to be a natural fit with small, organic production.
“A John Deere can do in a day what it takes me a week to do,” said Junior Wengerd, 42, who talked as he took a break from planting a field with feed corn.
Being part of the co-op has enabled him to reap a premium price for premium goods. “It pays for us to farm this way,” Junior Wengerd said, “We’re not competing with conventional farming anymore.”
His herd of 38 Holsteins is producing about 2,000 pounds of milk each day, most of which is turned into Green Field Farms cheese at Steiner Cheese in Baltic or Middlefield Cheese in Geauga County, Ohio.
Raber is attending seminars in soil management to learn what organic products to use to provide his soil with the proper nutrients so that his plants will be strong enough to defend themselves against insects and disease without chemical protection.
He farms about half of his land organically. The remainder of the land is farmed conventionally while he transitions it to organic methods.
Raber feels confident that the organic movement already is taking root with his children, assuring a future for their Amish way of life.
One night not long ago after he lit a fire, Raber overheard one of his sons say to the other, “Do you think that’s organic fire?”
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