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Growers consider range of organic, naturally-grown options

When he was in high school, Charlie Munford developed a love of the land. “I went to high school at St. Andrews, but I also spent time in a farm school program in Vermont. It was an academically-based school, with a farming and agriculture component. That really had a profound influence on me.”

After a couple of years at Deep Springs College in California, Munford went on to graduate from Yale in 2006. Asked what his major was, he laughed and said “English.” But his original plan was to go on to graduate school and study forestry. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research for a few years, and I just felt the call of farming. My family had some land that belonged to my grandfather, and with the money my grandmother gave me for graduate school, I took a big leap of faith and decided to give it a go.”

Munford has a business that has two components. One is organic farming, while the other is raising grass-fed beef and lamb. “The two really complement each other.” Because he follows politics and the world economy, Munford is also concerned about sustainability, energy and food issues. “Growing organic produce seemed to be the best way to address all of those issues.”

Running a working farm has been a challenge for Munford, but one that he’s handled well. “While some farmers can grow anything, and farming comes naturally to them, they aren’t as good at selling their produce. I‘m actually better on the selling end. I looked at the farmer’s market model and decided there was a lot of waste in that system. Farmers load up their trucks and take it to market, and they may sell half of it. Then they have to pack up what they didn’t sell and haul it back home.”

Instead of selling his produce at a traditional farmer’s market, he has set up a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) system. “They are becoming more popular around the country,” explained Munford. “Basically, it’s a produce buying club. People sign up at the beginning of the season to get regular vegetable deliveries. “It’s pre-sold produce, and it’s a much more efficient system of selling what I grow.”

People pay $20 a week to pick up a basket of fresh produce from Munford each week at the Belhaven Market. “I have a spring club and a fall club. My spring club has been full for a couple of months, and we haven’t even gotten into the growing season yet.”

While he waits for members to pick up produce at the Belhaven Market each week, he sells extra produce as well as his grass-fed beef and lamb. “Both are totally grass finished. I pre-sell that, as well. I sell shares in the beef, which amounts to 12 shares per cow. That way, everyone can get several good cuts of beef.” Munford raises Belted Gallaways, a rare, old-fashioned breed of beef that does really well on grass.

Because the vegetables need to be harvested more than once a week, Munford makes trips from his Flying M Farm in Benton to Jackson to deliver vegetables to Schimmel’s and Rainbow grocery. “I had to be creative when I decided that I wanted to be a farmer. I have 30 acres of land I can farm. Most row crop farms are around 2,000 acres. But I can make roughly $1,000 an acre annually on my livestock. And my research has shown me that what’s profitable at this small scale may not be as profitable on a larger scale due to the added expenses involved.”

Certification process

Kevin Riggin is the organic coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce. “The Extension Service is the education arm and we serve as the certification arm.”

Riggin explained that organically produce is grown without fertilizers and pesticides. “Farmers use a lot of mulch and manure in the place of fertilizers and old-time mixtures of lemon oil and such for pest control. It’s a little more work for the farmers, but it pays off, too.”

Riggin said that for a farmer to be qualified as an organic grower, they must prove they haven’t used any fertilizers or pesticides on their farm land for the past 36 months. “They must also use certified organic seed.”

Different path

Joseph Pettit farms naturally on his Chinquapin Farm in Crystal Springs, but he can’t claim the organic title. “It’s become very political, because the state has gotten involved with the organics program. In order to say something is organic, you have to get the certification of the state, and I’m not going to do that.”

Instead, Pettit’s farm is Certified Naturally Grown. “It’s a program run by farmers for farmers. We follow the national organic guidelines, which are very stringent.”

The former chef got into farming in the early 1990s. “I went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco in 1991, then had to battle cancer. After that, I decided to get into farming.” Pettit sells his produce at the Belhaven Market, as well. “Being in Crystal Springs, the ‘Tomatopolis Capital of the World,’ I grow primarily tomatoes. But I also grow lettuce, potatoes, sugar snap peas, Swiss chard and beets.” In addition to his produce, Pettit sells his free-range Araucana chicken eggs as well as his handmade tamales and flourless chocolate tortes.

“People who already have a farm may have a difficult time changing to organic or grass fed,” said Munford. “But for people like me who are just starting out, it’s really not hard to do. A lot of people are interested in growing organic produce or raising grass-fed livestock, but they aren’t at the right place in their life to jump into it. I was young enough and had just enough experience to give it a go, and I’m glad I did.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer S.J. Anderson at andersonwrites@yahoo.com .

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