- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

COLUMBIA, Md. — When Mexican bean beetles launch an assault on Dave Shaw's bean plants, he reaches for parasitic wasps instead of a can of insecticide.
As one of the growing number of certified organic farmers in Maryland, Mr. Shaw avoids pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers. He relies on natural pest controls, and that's where the wasps come in.
On a sunny, pleasant July morning, a delivery truck arrives at Mr. Shaw's 6-acre farm with a shipment of about 10,000 tiny wasps from New Hampshire.
"They are no bigger than the point of a pencil," Mr. Shaw says.
They pack a big wallop, though, when it comes to Mexican bean beetles. The wasps lay their eggs in the beetle's yellow larvae, then the eggs hatch and feast on the beetle.
Parasitic wasps are an exotic weapon in Mr. Shaw's never-ending battle against pests and weeds. Mostly he uses simple, old-fashioned gardening methods to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Shaw's Farm is one of 70 farming operations certified as organic by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. The number of acres in certified farms more than doubled, from 1,670 in 1997 to 3,449 last year, says state program director Valerie Frances.
Acreage has been increasing about 20 percent a year, and "we'll be seeing a 20 percent growth again this year," she says.
Ms. Frances is responsible for certifying organic farms and making sure farmers comply with strict regulations governing what they can and cannot put on their crops.
Before the state certifies a farm as organic, farmers must prove that no prohibited pesticides or herbicides have been used on fields for at least three years. They also have to agree to comply with 27 pages of regulations and rules on how to run their agricultural operations.
Ms. Frances is responsible for ensuring, with the aid of a contract employee, that farms certified as organic follow organic practices.
"I go out and walk the fields," she says.
Ms. Frances examines records, inspects the labels farmers are required to keep on the products they buy and walks buffer zones that must be maintained between organic and regular fields.
She also looks for visual signs that farmers might be using prohibited chemicals. One possible tip-off: "Do the crops just look too good?"
With the state's 2 million acres of farmland decreasing by about 20,000 acres a year, Ms. Frances says organic farming is a bright spot because more consumers want to buy food that has not been exposed to chemicals.
She counts herself among that group and pulls out her lunch to prove her point.
"Everything in my lunch is organic. Organic bread with organic jelly and organic peanut butter. Organic yogurt. Organic soy milk."
Lisa Farley, a mother of two daughters who lives not far from Mr. Shaw's farm, makes a point of buying organic produce, meat and packaged foods whenever possible.
"It's a commitment we have both to the health of our family and to the health of the earth," Mrs. Farley says. "In the long term, we are damaging our health" with food grown by conventional farmers.
"Also, organic food tastes better, and it has a higher nutrient value," she says.
Mrs. Farley gets organic food from three major sources.
She belongs to a food cooperative, which provides much of her organic produce and grains. She drives to Annapolis to shop at a Fresh Fields supermarket to buy meat, soy milk and other items that might be on sale. She also shops the farmers market in Columbia, where she has bought produce from Mr. Shaw and enjoyed chats with his father, John.
"They have wonderful red peppers. They have wonderful tomatoes and zucchini," Mrs. Farley says.
Like most Maryland organic farmers, Mr. Shaw does not produce the quantity of produce required to sell vegetables and herbs at a profit to supermarket chains, which slowly have been increasing their offerings of organic foods.
He relies heavily on sales at farmers markets two days a week in Columbia and on Saturdays in Baltimore.
He also sells some produce to a nearby restaurant and gets some important early income through what is called Community Supported Agriculture.
Customers sign an agreement with the farmer and come by on designated days to pick up bags of whatever produce is in season.
Mr. Shaw, who has a degree in horticulture from the University of Maryland, is firmly committed to organic farming, which he believes is important for the health of people and the environment.
He rotates crops frequently to avoid pest buildup, encourages growth "of a lot of beneficial insects" and counts on hungry birds to hold down the pest population.
Compost and beans provide the necessary soil nutrients.
Then there are the weeds, which seem to spring up everywhere when herbicides aren't used.
"We do a lot of mowing and hand weeding," Mr. Shaw says, pausing occasionally during an informal tour to pluck an offending weed.
He seems to enjoy showing off his cherry tomatoes, his almost-ripe raspberries, summer squash, winter squash, scarlet runner beans, five types of basil, three kinds of garlic and Asian pear trees loaded with fruit.
Mr. Shaw also is pleased with the increased public interest in organic foods and hopes it will help him and other farmers like him survive in a difficult market.
"Our expenses are high. Our labor costs are high," he says. "We are kind of a dying breed."

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