Challenges Aside, Farm Embraces Organic Transition

9/7/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

They say change isn’t easy, but Doug Mason, owner of Old Ridge Farm and Mason Farms & Farm Market in Williamson, N.Y., is embracing the opportunity to go organic.

The farm has always practiced integrated pest management (IPM) and some organic ideals, but Mason views going certified organic as a means of staying ahead of trends.

“That’s where I need to be,” he said.

He began the journey to organic back in 1993 and purchased more acreage to further the effort; however, he struggled finding buyers of organic produce.

“It wasn’t going anywhere,” Mason said. “We were ready to throw in the towel because we couldn’t get firm commitment from buyers.”

In fact, for the past six to seven years, Mason raised produce as organic but marketed it as conventional, despite the additional overhead that organic intrinsically incurs.

A switch occurred this past season. Buyers want organic now, though Mason isn’t sure why organic has gained in popularity. He’s optimistic about the future of organic and that of his farm.

“The last several months, we’ve felt a lot better about organic than 12 months ago,” he said. “Maybe the consumers are asking retailers for it. I can’t answer 100 percent as to why. I was downsizing and now I have to increase acreage.”

He has rented a few small farms that were fallow for several years and has two more years to go to transition his own acreage to organic.

It’s not easy growing everything organic in New York and image is part of the problem.

“Until the retailer will quit brainwashing consumers on apples having to look all red with no blemishes, we won’t be able to sell organic apples effectively in New York state,” Mason said.

The farm consists of approximately 500- plus acres of vegetables and 100-plus acres of fruit. Mason’s operation grows approximately 60 different seasonal crops. The size of the farm presents another potential hurdle.

“Doing it on this scale, organic may be harder, plus, he has a lot of different production methods going on at the same time: IPM, organic and transitioning towards organic,” said Maryellen Sheehan, fruits and vegetables coordinator for Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, NOFA-NY.

To interest other growers on transitioning to organic farming practices, Mason hosted a field day Aug. 14 as part of a series of three organic workshops presented by NOFA-NY.

Nineteen attended the workshop, which featured a walking tour of the farm and guests ranging from larger growers thinking of transitioning to smaller ones interested in how it works on a larger scale.

“I think people got a lot out of seeing some of the challenges and opportunities as well,” Sheehan said.

Better market prices and sustainable land management are among the positives of transitioning to organic. But, as Mason said, there are many challenges, including weather, managing weeds and pests, and cultivating during wet weather.

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