- The Washington Times - Monday, October 28, 2002

COLONIAL BEACH, Va. (AP) Farmer James W. Wilkerson sprays his young soybeans with a concoction made from garlic to keep deer from eating them.
He recently spread a 40-ton pile of fresh chicken manure on his fields for fertilizer.
But he didn't always farm like this.
He began a transition to organic farming back in 1996, when he started using chicken litter as fertilizer.
The application of the recent 40-ton pile was the first step in a three-year process to certify the 235-acre farm as organic cropland.
"It would blow a buzzard off a gut wagon," said Ed Turley, a neighbor whose home sat 240 feet from the pile.
Mr. Wilkerson said the manure was fresh "and had more odor than normal. If I had known it was that strong in ammonia, I would have dumped it farther away from his house."
The farmer raises crops on 2,400 acres in Westmoreland, King George, Caroline and Spotsylvania counties. On almost half of them, he raises organic corn, barley, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa with no commercial fertilizers, no genetically modified plants, no chemical herbicides and no insecticides.
Mr. Wilkerson isn't the only farmer with these practices. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming is one of the fastest-growing segments of U.S. agriculture. The number of organic farmers is increasing by about 12 percent per year. And the number now stands at about 12,200 nationwide, with most of them small-scale producers.
Retail sales of organic foods also are growing by 20 percent or more each year. According to the USDA, more organic food was sold in conventional supermarkets in 2000 than in the country's 20,000 natural-food stores.
Mr. Wilkerson markets his crops to organic-food producers in the Northeast. His wheat goes to bakers of organic breads, and his alfalfa hay goes to organic dairies.
His interest in organic farming began in 1992, when he attended a meeting on the topic organized by M.R. Fulks, owner of the 652-acre Belvedere Plantation in Spotsylvania.
Mr. Fulks had persistent problems in his irrigated corn crop, and he concluded that commercial fertilizers were the culprit.
"Some commercial fertilizers and farm chemicals destroy the good bacteria in soil that are necessary for the plants to get nutrients from the soil. If the plants can't get nutrients from the soil, they can't produce the nutrients we need," he said.
Commercial fertilizers also leach out of soils and degrade water quality, Mr. Fulks said. He said he believes that increases in cancer and other diseases are "absolutely food-related."
Like Mr. Fulks, Mr. Wilkerson is concerned about water quality. He owns Wilkerson's Seafood Restaurant at Potomac Beach and leases 130 acres of oyster grounds in the creek bordering the farm where he applied the smelly fertilizer.
"My family have always been oyster planters," he said. "In our farming operations, we were looking for ways to cut back on herbicides and farm chemicals that affect water quality. Organic farming seemed like the way to go."
The transition from conventional farming to organic farming is neither quick nor easy, Mr. Wilkerson said.
Farm fields must be free of commercial fertilizers and chemicals for three years before being certified for organic crops. Annual audits by a USDA-certified agent, along with rigorous record-keeping, are required.
Organic farming, Mr. Wilkerson said, "is like we used to farm 50 years ago."
Weeds are controlled by cultivation rather than by chemicals. Seed beds are carefully tilled, and cover crops like clover are planted and plowed in to increase fertility.
What's Mr. Wilkerson's biggest problem as an organic farmer?
"We can't plant soybeans on some farms, because of the deer. They totally destroyed 100 acres on one of our farms in King George," he said.
That's why he sprays his soybeans with organic garlic.


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