The Accidental Organic Farmer
Georgia blueberry grower Dick Byne finds success with “traditional” growing methods and an eye for future trends.
By Richard Banks | Photos By Brian Francis and David Stembridge
“You’ve got to listen to what the future is telling you,” says Dick Byne while standing in the thick of his organic blueberry farm near Waynesboro, Georgia. He speaks with the energy of a minister preaching the gospel and a farmer offering his years of experience to any willing ears. He smiles, grabs some richly black soil from where he stands, and continues, “Sometimes, you just need to take a moment to look around and try to understand how things are changing. I did that and took what I had learned from school and my family, and applied those lessons to this farm. It hasn’t always been easy, but I think it’s put us right where we need to be, right now.”
Right now, Dick, who operates Byne Blueberry Farms with his wife and four daughters, is one of Georgia’s leading small blueberry growers and one of the state’s most outspoken advocates for organic farming methods. In 1980, Dick, his wife Linda, and his brother Ed (a doctor and part owner of the farm), decided to plant blueberries, “because we knew eating habits were changing. People were getting healthier, eating more salads and fruits.
“Sure we took chances,” continues Dick, a third-generation farmer. “We were sort of ahead of the curve, but in many ways it just seemed so obvious, what we did.”
Now, 30 years later, Dick and his products are award winners—Dick having won the 2009 Master Farmer Award from his alma mater, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, and his blueberry salsa winning an award in the inaugural Flavor of Georgia contest in 2007. (His blueberry pecan glaze was named runner up last year.) His fresh blueberries, grown on 21 of his 250 acres, are prized, too. Selling to retailers, such as Whole Foods and Earth Fare, who are known for their demanding standards for the organic produce sold in their stores, the Byne’s have sold out their fresh crop every season since 2001.
What also seems obvious, and perhaps a bit risky, is Dick’s latest endeavor: allowing the city of Waynesboro to dump its nutrient-rich yard clippings on his farm. The clippings themselves are not the hazard, says Dick, it’s the novelty of the initiative—it’s never been done before in Georgia.
“I’m pretty sure this will work out fine, but the EPD [Georgia Environmental Protection Division] has a job to do to make sure this is safe,” Dick says, explaining that approval for an additional pilot program could come as early as this year and, if authorized, could allow other farmers to participate. “I believe this is the beginning of something big. When and if this is approved, it’ll be a huge win for everybody.” That’s because the city won’t have to pay to dispose of the clippings, there will be that much less waste going to the dump, and farmers will have access to an inexpensive, natural, and effective fertilizer, says Dick.
Backing Into It
Dick should know; he’s used clippings to fertilize much of his blueberry acreage. “I’ve got very healthy soil out there because I feed it like nature would,” he says.
In the early days of his farming, he operated this way because to him it seemed best. In fact, Dick and Linda claim they sort of backed into organic farming. “You know, organic farming is nothing new,” says Dick. “That’s how most farms were managed before World War II. We started growing [organically] because it was what I had learned in school and it made sense economically, and again, it fit into what we thought would be a trend of people wanting to eat healthier, without chemicals in their food.”
“We just didn’t know what to call it,” says Linda about their growing methods. Nor did they know they could receive special recognition that could open doors to additional retailers. “I talked to a 4H representative, telling him what we were doing, and he suggested we get certified as organic,” Linda continues. The process took 3 years of inspections by the Quality Certification Services (QCS), a private testing firm that took soil samples to ensure there were no significant synthetic chemical inputs during that time period.
The testing started in 1997. “We weren’t sure at the time if it would pay off directly,” Dick adds, “but we figured it couldn’t hurt.” What it did was open a new market for Byne Blueberries. Dick now sells the vast majority of his produce to Asheville, N.C.–based Earth Fare and Austin, Texas–based Whole Foods. “Being in those stores,” notes Dick, “allows us to get in the hands of customers who seek out organically grown foods. It’s been a real boon for us.”
Not a Fruitcake
One of the myths about organic farming is that it costs more than conventional. “It’s really about the same for a small farm,” says Dick. There is, however, a learning curve for many growers and a transitional period of about 3 years between the time a farmer stops using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and when the organic methods get established. As a result, it can cost more in the beginning, but there’s more help for growers today making the change than when he was getting started, including QCS, the USDA, state agencies, and other farmers who have experience in the practice.
One thing any farmer, but especially organic farmers, should do is keep records of methods used to fertilize and of annual soil sample information, says Dick. Responding to a question about how he was accepted among other farmers for his pioneering organic efforts, Dick says, “I have a reputation for not being a fruitcake, because I’ve kept good records. I can tell you what I’ve produced and what I’ve used to fertilize from one year to the next.
“I want to share my experience with other farmers. We can all learn from each other. That’s one of the great things about farming, is that help,” he continues. “That is one of the reasons I’m hoping this project with the city works out,” he says of the yard clippings being dumped on his land.
“I believe in keeping the solution simple, which is what this little experiment is,” Dick explains. “I also believe I have to maximize every acre where I’m growing, and part of the way I do that is by making sure that we have the highest quality crop possible.” But, he continues, it’s not just about growing the best blueberries this season, it’s also about quality the next year, the one after that, and so on.
“I’m doing that with organic farming, because I’m taking care of this land, not just what I happen to be growing this year. And if you take care of the land, it takes care of you.”
For more about organic farming methods and how to get certified, visit USDA’s overview of organic certification. Quality Certification Services also provides information at www.qcsinfo.org. For more about Whole Foods “Locally Grown” initiative, see www.wholefoodsmarket.com.