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Organic produce makes the most of Mother Nature

Chemicals are dirty words at Cal Poly’s Organic Farm.

“Modern farming has made it less labor intensive and convenient, but at the expense of the environment,” student Victor Kowalenko said. “You destroy your soil with those chemicals.”

At the farm, garlic spray is used in place of chemical pesticides, according to crop science professor John Phillips. And campus-made compost is used instead of chemical fertilizers.

The campus farm, located on two plots, spreads over two and a third acres, having grown ninefold since 1995, Phillips said. Only one acre of it, however, has been certified organic by the industry group California Certified Organic Farmers. The remainder, while being organically cultivated, has only been converted to organic farming for one year – two years short of the requirement for certification.

The farm is the root of a produce-sales program run by students, in which restaurants, grocery stores and individuals can receive weekly boxfuls of organic and locally grown produce during the 22-week-long harvest season.

In order to maintain the “organic” certification, students use an arsenal of natural weapons and cultivation tactics to deal with pests. Different types of crops are intermixed to prevent large outbreaks of pests that attack one specific crop. Organic fertilizers such as composted livestock manure – from the university’s own cows – and fish fertilizer help strengthen the plants’ resistance to pests. Instead of chemical pesticides, a bacteria extract is used to kill caterpillars.

Green leguminous crops such as peas are grown as green manure during winter. They are allowed to flourish for several months before being plowed under at their peak. This allows the nitrogen, which legumes are adept at acquiring from the atmosphere, to enter and enrich the soil.

“What you look at as dirt is a living organism,” said Kowalenko, who until four years ago co-owned an organic farm near Redding, Calif. Chemical fertilizers disrupt the soil’s chemical, nutritional and bacterial balance, he said.

“Nature does it better than anybody,” he said.

As part of a class, students farm, harvest and market the crops. Last year, the farm produced an estimated six and a half tons of produce for sale, Phillips said.

Three-quarters of the harvest went to a subscription program, now going into its third year. The remainder supplied Campus Market and several restaurants, supermarkets and grocery stores on a regular basis, with students making connections and deliveries. Students also sell the produce at San Luis Obispo’s Farmers Market.

Subscribers to the produce subscription program pay $365 for 22 weeks for a weekly box of organically grown fruits and vegetables rarely found in the supermarkets. Most subscribers are people who cook at home, Phillips said.

Each box – measuring 18 inches long, a foot deep and a foot wide – can feed a family of four for a week. The produce varies from week to week depending on crop maturity, from brandywine tomatoes to lemon cucumbers.

“(Subscribers) are in it for the benefits and pitfalls,” Kowalenko said. “Agriculture is very unpredictable.”

When the program started in 2000, the 25 subscriptions available were quickly filled with another 25 people on the waiting list, Phillips said. This year, he hopes to fill 50 subscriptions.