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Eat Their Vegetables

Sam Holden
The Good Earth: A young organic lettuce sprout raised on Beckie And Jack Gurley's Calvert's Gift Farm.

By Michael Yockel | Posted 2/26/2003

Back in the fall of 1994, Beckie and Jack Gurley made what appeared to be their breakthrough sale as fledgling organic farmers. "We had a big lettuce garden," recalls Beckie, sitting with her husband at the kitchen table of their home at Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks. "Beautiful heads of lettuce," Jack adds ruefully.

A phone call had come in from a friend. "He said, 'Hey, I found this restaurant in Baltimore that'll buy all the stuff you have,'" Beckie continues. "So Jack said, 'All right,' and then he went out to harvest it, and [discovered] that the horse had leaned over the fence and eaten it all."

Almost a decade later, the Gurleys' five-acre organic farm has expanded from lettuce to more than 60 different vegetables and herbs, everything from the somewhat exotic--tat soi (gourmet lettuce with dark green, spoon-shaped leaves), mizuna (a Japanese green with a delicate, mild mustard taste), and celeriac (celery root)--to the decidedly conventional--onions, potatoes, and broccoli. Plus napa cabbage, fava beans, haricot vert, pak choy (baby bok choy), three different kind of beets, six different kinds of summer squash, seven different kinds of winter squash, 10 to 12 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and on and on. "About the only thing we don't do," notes Beckie, "is sweet corn." Along the way, Beckie, 42, and Jack, 37, have learned to keep a watchful eye on the horse.

Their operation kicks into high gear at the beginning of March with various greens--arugula, spinach, and spring mix--grown in their modified, unheated greenhouse, where they grow the produce directly from the ground. "That gives us a jump in the season," Beckie says, "so we're able to go into restaurants."

Steady Baltimore clients include Bicycle, Charleston, Common Ground, Roy's, and the Maryland Club. Restaurants account for approximately one-third of sales, while another third occurs at the Hunt Valley and Bel Air farmers' markets, and the final third as part of a Community Supported Agriculture program. With the latter, customers pay an upfront $400 annual fee, then receive 25 weeks of produce--whatever the Gurleys harvest--that they pick up at the farm. "We put a set value in the box each week," Beckie says, "plus lots of extra stuff."

According to Jack, the Community Supported Agriculture money functions as "a production loan. We don't have to go to a bank. Our customers are supporting us when we don't have any production."

With the advent of warm weather, production moves out of the greenhouse and into the fields. The Gurleys, aided only by one part-time helper, handpick everything themselves. "We're moving up the equipment scale," Beckie says wryly. "We just got a tractor." And they continue harvesting right up until the first snowfall, counting salad greens, winter squash, baby turnips, parsnips, radishes, and kale among the late bloomers.

Certified organic by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Calvert's Gift Farm "uses no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides," Beckie says. Also, no genetically modified seeds, plants, or other materials. When pesky bugs such as the Mexican bean beetle occasionally infest a crop, the Gurleys counter with "beneficial insects" (ladybugs, for example) to deal with the invaders. Beckie points out that they also take what amounts to an organic approach to cope with hungry local deer: "The dog chases them away."

The Gurleys credit their success and continued existence to their farm's diversity. "We couldn't make a living selling corn and cantaloupes," says Beckie. "We're too small. And we can't sell wholesale because we find we get the best price selling directly to the consumer."

"If there was one particular product that predominated, we probably wouldn't be in business anymore," Jack adds. "Sometimes a restaurant client will call and suggest that we plant the whole farm with one thing--say, salad mix--and they'll buy it all. While that's real tempting, the secret for us--and for the small farmer--has been to be as diverse as possible, to have diversity of product and diversity of sales outlets."

"Every year we have something that fails," Beckie continues, picking up the thread. "And that's OK, because we also have something that does better than usual."

This year they hope that "something" will be a new crop: melons. "We've got an article by Martha," Beckie says, referring to lifestyle doyenne Martha Stewart with a hint of mischief in her voice. "Martha talked about melons. We're on the upside of the learning curve."

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