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Looking for organic produce? It's better to know your local farmer, than the label

Stephanie Thomas, of Spring Creek Farm, takes a small break from putting compost on her garden on Wednesday, March 17. Although Thomas grows produce organically, she has not become certified because it is too costly. First, she will need to grow the business, which requires machinery and more workers. Right now, she plants and picks everything on approximately three acres by hand.

Stephanie Thomas, of Spring Creek Farm, takes a small break from putting compost on her garden on Wednesday, March 17. Although Thomas grows produce organically, she has not become certified because it is too costly. First, she will need to grow the business, which requires machinery and more workers. Right now, she plants and picks everything on approximately three acres by hand. by Jon Goering

Stephanie Thomas, a small Baldwin City farmer, has been weighing whether to become organic certified.

Thomas has been growing produce organically — without pesticides and fertilizers — for five years.

She grows about 80 varieties of produce on three acres, just a couple miles south of Baldwin City. Her specialties are tomatoes, melons, peppers and sweet potatoes.

The first three years she sold produce at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence, it was labeled and sold as organic. Thomas didn’t have to go through the organic certification process because her profits were less than $5,000. She just signed an affidavit saying she followed national organic standards.

Last year, she no longer qualified for the $5,000 exemption and she hadn’t become certified, so her produce was labeled conventional, although she hadn’t changed her growing practices.

“I noticed the same produce that was flying off the rack as organic was not moving as fast, and I was going to have to look at taking a pay cut for the same produce,” Thomas said.

Stephanie Thomas, center, co-owner of Spring Creek Farm near Baldwin City, works with Audrey Coleman, left, and Marc Laning, right, to put compost on a garden area Wednesday, March 17. Thomas plans to plant 7,000 onions and 1,200 garlic bulbs this season. Coleman and Laning are working for her this season.

Stephanie Thomas, center, co-owner of Spring Creek Farm near Baldwin City, works with Audrey Coleman, left, and Marc Laning, right, to put compost on a garden area Wednesday, March 17. Thomas plans to plant 7,000 onions and 1,200 garlic bulbs this season. Coleman and Laning are working for her this season. by Jon Goering

To help, Linda Cowden, produce manager at The Merc, put up a sign next to her produce. The sign had information about Thomas and her growing practices. Cowden displays signs for all of the local farmers, so customers can make informed choices.

Cowden said her customers prefer organic products and are willing to pay more. For tomatoes, a conventional farmer may get $1.25 per pound compared to between $1.50 and $1.75 for organic.

Costs of certification

The prices are higher because there are more costs, labor and paperwork involved in becoming certified, and that’s why it’s tough for small farmers, like Thomas, to get certified.

Farmers have to pay between $750 and $900 per year to have their farm inspected. Thomas said the costs would eat up about 15 percent of her profits.

“You can’t be a small local grower and afford certification. You have to take it to the next level of operation and that excludes a lot of people,” she said.

Stephanie Thomas, of Spring Creek Farm, right, and Audrey Coleman, Lawrence, get ready for gardening season Wednesday, March 17, 2010.

Stephanie Thomas, of Spring Creek Farm, right, and Audrey Coleman, Lawrence, get ready for gardening season Wednesday, March 17, 2010. by Jon Goering

Thomas estimated she needs to make at least $20,000 annually to justify the costs of certification and to do that she needs to expand. That requires more workers and machinery. Her and her husband, Tom Maiorana, own Spring Creek Farm and they have two part-time employees. Everything is planted and picked by hand.

“Right now, I am kind of between a rock and hard place. My produce is organic, but if it says organic, I can actually be fined,” Thomas said.

This year, she decided to work on expanding her business and lean toward certification in 2011. Once again, her produce will be labeled conventional.

‘Know your farmer’

Fortunately for her, the demand for locally-grown produce is larger than what farmers can supply. Thomas is turning down customers despite not being certified.

She also believes more shoppers are figuring out she grows organic, despite what the labels say.

“If you want organic food, know your farmer,” she advised.

Spring Creek Farm worker Audrey Coleman, foreground, waits for owner Stephanie Thomas. The two were putting down compost Wednesday, March 17, before planting thousands of onions. Thomas has been growing organic produce for five years. She sells her products at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence and at the Lawrence Farmers' Market, among other places.

Spring Creek Farm worker Audrey Coleman, foreground, waits for owner Stephanie Thomas. The two were putting down compost Wednesday, March 17, before planting thousands of onions. Thomas has been growing organic produce for five years. She sells her products at The Community Mercantile in Lawrence and at the Lawrence Farmers' Market, among other places. by Jon Goering

That’s likely why Bob Lominska, of Hoyland Farm, didn’t lose sales when he dropped his certification in 2008. He’s been farming organic for more than 30 years just north of Lawrence and people have grown to know him. His farm had been certified since 1994.

“The integrity of the farmer is really, really important,” he said.

He described the certification process as time-consuming with lots of paperwork, but he also learned a lot along the way. He said growing organic isn’t just about being chemical-free, but proper crop rotations, soil conversation and entomology, among other things.

“I wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of going through the process,” he said.

Bob Lominska, owner of Hoyland Farm near Lawrence, listens as Satoko Miyoshi translates for Yoshinori Kaneko, right, in June 2009. Kaneko is explaining how he grows strawberries in this tunnel.

Bob Lominska, owner of Hoyland Farm near Lawrence, listens as Satoko Miyoshi translates for Yoshinori Kaneko, right, in June 2009. Kaneko is explaining how he grows strawberries in this tunnel.

He said the main reason he dropped the certification was because his family is acquiring more land and he couldn’t verify that it had met organic standards for the past few years. Therefore, they would have to separate the produce and implement measures to make sure the conventional products did not touch the organic products. He would need separate tools and coolers.

“It’s like the cooties would jump from one box to the other,” he said, laughing. “So, that was the real tipping point for us.”

Lominska said he is still keeping meticulous records in case he applies for re-certification.

However, justifying the costs is tough. He said he could pay $750 to one person for a one-time certification inspection. Or, he could pay someone $7.50 an hour for 100 hours of labor.

“That’s a lot of weeding and work that could be done,” he said.

Dan Nagengast, director of the Kansas Rural Center, dropped his organic certification during the past few years. He said he hasn’t had a problem selling his products —mostly fresh cut flowers — either.

He thinks certification is more important for those with large farms, but wouldn’t discourage anyone from becoming certified.

Lynn Byczynski and her husband. Dan Nagengast, load up for a delivery of flowers from their 20-acre farm south of Lawrence, in 2008.

Lynn Byczynski and her husband. Dan Nagengast, load up for a delivery of flowers from their 20-acre farm south of Lawrence, in 2008. by Richard Gwin

“If you are larger and you want your food to carry the connotation and understanding of how it was grown without using synthetic pesticides then I think it’s way more important,” he said.

Cowden, of The Merc, said she has 30 local farmers signed up to provide produce this year. Seven of them don’t use any chemicals, but only four are organic certified.