At Country Pleasures Farm “quality control” is taken very seriously, and to assure high standards, there is a certain unique “golden rule” applied to berry picking. As Lori Rice explained to me, in a very matter-of-fact way, “The rule is that you’re supposed to eat every third berry.”
She wasn’t kidding. As I filtered through the shoulder-high bushes, searching for perfectly plump, navy-colored berries, I found myself repeatedly distracted by the sound of my fellow pickers. “Ooohs” and “aaaahhhs” emerged as they smacked their lips, their heads tilted ever so slightly back towards the sky, their eyes closed, and their faces enveloped by blissful deliciousness. This put my careful, measured, no-nonsense approach to the task of finding the “perfect berry” to shame. Eric sensed my reluctance to renounce my way of doing it and retorted, “You will not know what tastes good until you….taste it.” Seems simple, right?
Eric and Lori Rice own Country Pleasures, a thirty-acre organic farm located about fifty miles northwest of DC. When they started in 1986, it was the first certified organic orchard in the state of Maryland and, after spending the day getting to know Eric and Lori, I gained a new respect for the term “organic.”
As I explained to Eric, when I walk through the produce section of my local grocery store, I am often greeted with two options for any given fruit or vegetable. One is the conventional version, and the other is an organic option, often weighing less, but costing more. How does one justify the more expensive option? All the buzz around organic makes it difficult to decipher what exactly it is that is motivating you to make this choice.
Our discussion of apples and pears was what really put it into perspective for me. Eric told me that when they first started at Country Pleasures Farm, they planted a large number of apple trees along their grounds. Apples though, as Eric explained, are incredibly difficult to grow organically. Without the use of fungicides and petroleum-based commercial fertilizers, the high altitude and moist eastern evenings make for a tricky task in growing apples.
Recently, Eric and Lori had their entire crop of pears wiped out by the stinkbug infestation. As they never spray with pesticide, this issue became something that they needed to simply accept, and move on from, before attempting to find a solution for the next pear season, should stinkbugs present a problem again.
Without herbicides, the blueberry bushes are forced to compete with grass and other plants for water. And, according to Eric, “blueberries do not compete well for water,” while “grass certainly does.” Thus, as for the blueberries, challenges also exist when organic is the practice of choice. The important thing, Eric explains, is to adjust your varieties. This means that they must find those types of berries that are more capable of enduring the grass that will inevitably grow around their trunks, and “weed out” (in Eric’s words!) those that are less likely to survive.
In fact, when Eric and Lori first introduced blueberries onto their farm, they planted about thirty varieties, with twenty-five plants of each. Today, only about eight to ten varieties remain. This has become normal practice for the Rices as they venture into new areas and try out different fruits and vegetables on their farm. Considering they were trailblazers in the practice of solely organic farming in this region, there was, and there still is, a lack of external information sources regarding successful organic farming procedures within their specific climate and weather zone. As with their taste testing to ensure quality control, another method, that of trial and error, has become rather familiar to Eric and Lori.
After hearing of all of the difficulties, and risks, associated with organic farming (pest infestations wiping out entire crops, the painstaking trial and error required to find strong, well-suited varieties for their area, etc.), I was astonished to hear that Eric and Lori Rice do not have crop insurance. In fact, I learned that no organic farm qualifies for crop insurance. To some degree, then, organic farmers take on such a lifestyle choice at their own risk.
They have found other methods of crop protection, rather than resorting to non-organic substances, such as utilizing “trap crops.” A trap crop is a plant that is used to attract the critters or pests. For example, Eric explained that Japanese Beetles are a real problem for them, but that they are first and foremost attracted to rose bushes. So, they plant rose bushes as a trap crop to attract the beetles away from their fruit plants.
After my day of sampling juicy, delicious blueberries, strawberries, cherries, and more, and discussing the merits and challenges of organic farming with Eric and Lori Rice, I headed back to DC with much more than I had had when I arrived. I departed with new knowledge, an enhanced perspective on organic farming, an unwavering respect and adoration for the Rices, and even a generous portion of the blueberries I’d picked myself that day. To go out into the world feeling empowered, to make decisions about what, why, and how, to eat, and to understand exactly what it is to make those choices, is something that I never could have understood before visiting Country Pleasures Farm, and experiencing the hospitality and welcome of Eric and Lori Rice.
Peace, Love, and Organic Blueberries,
Summer 2012 DC Food Warrior
This post is from one of the interns in the Real Time Farms Food Warrior Internship Program. These interns are collecting data, pictures, and video on the growing practices of our nation’s farms, gathering food artisans’ stories, and documenting farmers markets. We all deserve to know where our food comes from! Boring legalese we feel we must include: this was written by a real live person who has their own opinions, which we value, but that do not necessary reflect, though they may (or may not), reflect the values and opinions of Real Time Farms. That is for you to guess and us to know.