DeKalb County Gardener Strives for Organic Certification
By Cecil Gant, Sand Mountain-Lake Guntersville Watershed, Rainsville, AL
(l-r) NRCS Soil Con Drew Wright in Rainsville and producer Sherri Price harvest cucumbers and squash that Price grew organically this gardening season.
Sherri Price is fascinated with organic gardening. That’s why she has set becoming a certified organic grower at the top of her agenda. But exactly what is organic gardening?
Authorities on the subject say that organic gardening means not using synthetic products, including commercial pesticides and fertilizers. It’s also more like feeding depleted soil with composted plants and planting legumes to add nitrogen to an area where plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders are to be grown.
To guide her in making the switch from conventional to organic gardening, Sherri sought and received help from the DeKalb Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS).
According to NRCS Soil Conservationist Drew Wright, the first priority in helping Ms. Price was getting a transition plan developed to guide her through learning the ropes of organic gardening.
“Because we wanted her acclimation to organic to be systematic and effective, we contracted with a professional service that was knowledgeable of organic gardening to develop the transition plan for Ms. Price,” Wright said. “The transition plan details actions for Price to take on her way to becoming a certified organic gardener, a process that is projected to take up to three years.”
“I’m excited about my big experiment,” Price said. She notes that before she implements the practices recommended in her transition plan, she researched and learned as much background information as she can. The plan identifies a host of references for her use.
“I must be an avid student," Sherri says. “It’s all fun, and I like challenges,” the Fyffe gardener beamed.
Sherri says her adventure in organic gardening actually began about two years ago when she purchased a small greenhouse in which she grew vegetable plants from seed to transplant size. Because her “green thumb” and gardening brought her so much satisfaction, when she read a particularly intriguing piece about organic gardening, she contacted NRCS District Conservationist Jerry Wisener about how she could procure “hoop houses,” or tunnel houses, a type of greenhouse, in which Price could grow her vegetable crops.
After being approved for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), Sherri launched her organic operation and is currently beginning to harvest her first organic crop. She is thrilled with her outcomes.
Sherri notes that vegetable plants grow faster in the controlled environment of tunnel houses. She says that her tomato vines have grown beyond the bounds of her stakes and are more heavily loaded with fruit than she ever imagined.
She says a big advantage of tunnel production is fewer insects and diseases, but when she does have insect infestations, she sprays with a mixture of tobacco and natural soap. Routinely she picks insects from her plants by hand.
Price is anxious to learn about marketing organic produce. She envisions selling locally from her home or peddling her produce initially. But when her volume justifies it, she plans to sell through the produce markets near larger cities. Organically grown vegetables command a 15-20% price premium, according to Price.
“Organic gardening is my big experiment,” Price says. Right now her production features tomatoes, peppers, beans, beets, corn, potatoes, squash, and cucumber, plus all kinds of herbs, including oregano, basil, sage, parsley, and cilantro. However, in the future, Price sees herself adjusting crop types to what the market demands.
As fertilizers, Sherri uses plant compost, blood/bone meal, and horse manure. She is irrigating her crops with water from a well, thus eliminating the presence of chlorine.
Hearing and seeing media reports on the dangers of eating vegetables grown with the aid of chemicals confirms to Price that her decision “to go organic” is a good one. For example, she recently saw a report which indicated that peaches, cantaloupes, apples, and lettuce grown with the use of chemical pesticides are high risk foods for human consumption. The report noted that even after cantaloupes and apples, in this particular case, were washed and scrubbed with a brush, they remained contaminated with pesticides.
“As I share my newly acquired knowledge and skills about organic gardening, I hope to help educate my associates and patrons on the many health advantages associated with organically grown crops,” the enthusiastic Price concluded.