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Going and Growing Green

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced that the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is now one of only 54 licensed certifiers of organic products nationwide.

Campus gardens.

Berea College has been growing organic food products since 1998, when Dr. Sean Clark came to the College. At that time, the U.S.D.A. did not run a certification program for organic products, so Berea College had to be certified by an independent licenser. As you might imagine, standards were different from agency to agency – and the opportunities for producers to “cheat” were more readily available.

Berea College, though, has not changed itsoperation since 1998, and while they have been certified by the U.S.D.A as organic products in the past few years by an agency in Ohio, next year will mark their first being certified by the state of Kentucky.

Dr. Clark, professor of Agriculture and Natural Resources and faculty advisor of the college’s gardens, says that the switch from an Ohio based certifier to the K.D.A won’t affect Berea’s programs much at all – aside from the $125 certification fee charged by the K.D.A., in contrast to the $300- $400 fee that the college pays now.

“We’ve been managing this greenhouse and the gardens area the same way since 1998,” Clark explained. “We haven’t used any synthetic chemical pesticides, including insecticides or herbicides, no synthetic fertilizers. The greenhouses were built with non-treated lumber. All of our fertility comes from cover crops or composted waste from Food Service. And all of our potting soil is produced by the same compost.”

The goal of Berea’s farm is educational. Dr. Clark describes it as one of the most “highly diversified farms” in the area. There are hog, cattle, sheep and goat operations, as well as field crops and horticulture (the greenhouse/gardens). This diversification is to give students a greater opportunity to learn the many facets of farming.

As of now, the horticulture operation is the only that is certified organic. The college has been experimenting with trying to grow field corn with no herbicides, Clark said. If the college could successfully grow the corn organically, then the transition to a more completely organic enterprise would be plausible.

“Of all the crops we grow, [corn is] probably the most challenging to grow without chemical input,” Clark said. “It requires a lot of nitrogen and it has wide rows in the beginning, providing a lot of space for weeds to come in. In the future it’s possible that we will have more organic grounds, but I don’t see it happening in the next four to five years.”

The college’s organic production is beneficial both environmentally and economically. The use of natural fertilizers and sustainable growing methods will benefit the producer – no more exposure to potentially harmful chemicals – and the area’s water supply. Consumers will benefit by ingesting fewer synthetic chemicals. But, Clark says, the U.S.D.A. doesn’t want people thinking they can’t eat the food that’s not produced organically.

The college also has very real economic incentives for producing and selling organic products. Demand for organic products is increasing, and prices are higher. Berea College can get a premium price for their organic products.

The certified organic products that are currently being grown and sold at Berea College, according to Clark, are greens and spinach – produced in the spring and fall when students are back – as well as fruits such as blueberries, raspberries and blackberries during the summer. The college also produces certified organic culinary herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and chives, which are often sold to the Boone Tavern to be used in its dining facilities.

Berea’s certified organic products can be found at Happy Meadow health food store in Berea, local farmer’s markets, Boone Tavern and occasionally at Main Street Café and Good Foods Co-Op in Lexington.

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