"I wish you didn't have to do that!" I was standing by the
kitchen door, several months pregnant with our second child,
as I watched my husband, Klaas, leave the house dressed for
battle in his white Tyvek 'zoot suit' and special green plastic
gloves, ready to attack and subdue the enemy.
"Me too, but what choice do we have?" It was 1991, the first
year after we split up the farm partnership with Klaas' two
brothers. It was not easy farming over 600 acres, just the
two of us. Farm prices are never good, weather is always risky,
but at least we had one advantage over many of our neighbors.
Weed control was rarely a problem since Klaas was very good
at planning herbicide combinations and schedules. In fact,
many people called him for advice in his unofficial role of
neighborhood pesticide advisor. In my job in the grape breeding
program at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station,
I was also responsible for planning the vineyard spray program,
so Klaas and I spent numerous romantic hours of our courtship
discussing the relative merits of this chemical and that.
Later, after a long and successful day of spraying, Klaas
would invariably come in the house with clothes reeking of
pesticide despite the Tyvek suit, his head aching and a queasy
stomach. We wanted to believe that it was due to 'just a germ'
since he had been working such long hours, but we knew better.
My husband was slowly being poisoned.
How do two people so apparently committed to the agribusiness
ideal of American farming end up operating over 1300 acres
organically just 10 years later? We truly believe that we
were like many conventional farmers, using the chemical fertilizers
and pesticides simply because we saw no other alternatives,
but hating what it might be doing to us, our family, our land,
and our environment. We farmed conventionally because we had
been told so often that it was the only way to survive in
One evening later that year, we read a small classified advertisement
in a regional farm paper looking for organic wheat. Immediately
Klaas was on the telephone and we were excited - was there
really a market for organic field crops? We quickly decided
that we would leap at this new challenge. If there was a way
to grow our crops organically, we were going to figure it
LEARNING FROM OTHERS AND BUILDING NEW YORK
Since then, our education has gone into overdrive. Our greatest
resource has been other people. We discovered a few farmers
in our area who had been farming organically for years and
they have been of invaluable help with advice, patience, and
encouragement. We also have benefited greatly from the knowledge
of older farmers in the area who remember how they farmed
before the advent of chemicals. One neighbor, Cliff Peterson,
is a true master at setting and running the cultivator. Without
his patient help, our weed control would be much less successful.
Transition is a frustrating period for many people and without
the examples of other organic farmers who are successful,
we might have concluded that organic farming would not work.
We are active in a local group of organic farmers, called
New York Certified Organic, which provides an inclusive haven
of educational programs, support and information for both
new and experienced organic farmers in our area. Frequent
meetings offer opportunities for us to share and learn from
each other and from other experts on many important topics
relating to organic farming. Many NYCO members are FVO certified,
as we are, but we also include members who are certified by
other organic certifiers or who are not yet certified.