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Organic Farming in Suburbia

by Keith Richards
Southern Sustainable Farming, March 1996

While touring the five-acre market garden at DeSoto Lakes Organics, I was struck by the serenity of the place. Songbirds sang from tall pines on the edge of the property as owner Bill Pischer and two employees quietly prepared garden beds and transplanted seedlings. Even though a subdivision of houses looms across the street to the north and a golf course lies 300 yards to the east, sounds were muffled in the middle of this oasis.

Bill, who is the certification chairman for the Florida Organic Growers, began raising fruit and vegetables organically on this land in 1978. Since that time, his garden has been swallowed up by the city of Sarasota. Yet he says, "I don't consider being in this location any more stressful than being in the country. It's all a state of mind."

In fact, the location is an asset when it comes to hiring the labor a French-intensive market garden requires and providing easy access to customers for his produce.

Bill and his wife, Pam, employ five full time and five part time employees. They found that it was easier to pay a few good employees $8-10 per hour than to get by with employees who would work for $5 per hour. "I like to get someone who has done roofing or hung dry-wall for 10 years," Bill says. "They don't need to know anything about organics. I can teach them that, but I can't teach the work ethic and body movement."

A strong work ethic is needed to produce the lettuce, spinach, chard and arugula that the Pischers specialize in growing nearly year round. They harvest about 400 boxes of lettuce and greens per week in peak season--October through November and March through May. From December to February they only produce half as much because the plants simply take longer to grow.

Beets, onions, tomatoes, and several cole crops are also grown on a smaller scale.

Intensive Management Creates High Quality

During the summer--their off-season--the Pischers plant a cover crop of sorghum Sudan grass mostly to protect the soil from heat, wind, and hard rains. They cut the Sudan before it seeds and till it in along with aged chicken or cow manure brought in from local farms. Their tiller is a 5' Maletti rotovator that can be pulled by a small Kubota tractor. Bill really likes the Maletti, a heavy duty, gear-driven tiller. Once the beds are prepared at the beginning of the season, they don't add any more fertility in the field.

All their plants are started from seed in styrofoam flats. Since Bill believes proper pH is crucial to getting seedlings the right start, they buy a commercial potting soil that is pH balanced. The flats are set on waist-high racks under corrugated fiberglass or shade cloth and foliar fed with Fertrell fish emulsion during watering. "These plants won't hardly do anything without the fish emulsion," he says. "They'll only get so big without it."

Seedlings are transplanted directly into straw mulch on 5' beds. Spacing is tight and exact to help the plants suppress weeds by shading them out. The beds are created by laying a piece of pvc pipe marked with the appropriate row spacing on each end of the short rows. String is then pulled over the pipe and secured by a stake. As they plant, each person lays another stick along the string that is marked with the desired distance between plants. This way, workers can plant right next to the string with perfect spacing of plants.

By paying attention to the details, the Pischers rely on healthy plants and healthy, fertile soil for pest and disease control. Continual crop rotations also discourage many problems. They spray the tomatoes every 5-6 days with Bt, but seldom spray anything else.

In this climate, under an intensive system, water is the key. "Too much water will cause root rot and aphids, and too little, even for an afternoon will cause wilt," Bill says. "I find it necessary to watch the weather closely because when it gets too wet, that's when I see the aphid populations growing out there."

Diverse Markets Lessen Risk

About 60 percent of their crop is sold direct to local retailers, at a local farmers' market, and to three buying clubs in the state. Bill has found it worthwhile to work with small retailers to reduce their risk of bad accounts and low market prices. "The more you work with local retailers, the more you are insulated from price fluctuations in the market," he says.

About five percent of their crop is sold at their on-farm stand, named "Jessica's Stand" after their daughter, on Saturday mornings. He says, "The farm stand sales are important because it makes a connection with the neighbors. Because they buy from me and know me, they don't complain when I spread chicken manure. There are still a few hard core complainers, but they can't get anyone else to go along."

The balance of sales are to an out-of-state wholesaler. They use this market as a last resort for surpluses they can't move locally. All customers pick up at the farm except for one local warehouse a mile away.

In a good year their five-acre farm provides a decent living, although profits vary widely depending on markets and the weather. Bill says that they net between $0 and $75,000 per year.

All in all, farming in the suburbs works well for the Pischers. In the middle of winter when crops are growing slowly, Bill wishes they had more land, but because of their location they haven't had to invest in refrigeration or trucking. And it can be peaceful in the city--it's all a state of mind.

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