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(Enlarge) Tom Reinhardt tends his crop in his family’s Nev-R-Dun Farm in Westminster. The farm is a community-supported agriculture program, through which each of his 20 customers buy a “share” for the season, and then receive one-twentieth of the farm’s harvest. (staff photo by Nicole Martyn)

It's not just weeds or groundhogs, Mexican bean beetles or cabbage worms that keep Tom Reinhardt busy.

Nor is it just staying ahead of the reams of paperwork required for organic certification that has Reinhardt, proprietor of Nev-R-Dun Farm near Westminster, hopping most days from first light until midnight.

It's a booming demand for organic produce.

These days, Reinhardt sometimes runs out of daylight trying to keep up with demand for the organically-grown corn, beans, fennel, asparagus, broccoli, kale, squash, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, four kinds of lettuce, herbs and flowers he raises in his small, chemical-free garden plots.

And that's quite a contrast from just a few years ago.

"The changes since I started have been amazing," says Reinhardt, a former bartender at the long-gone Westminster Inn who earned a degree in political science and philosophy from Loyola College in Baltimore in 1991.

"I got into this full-time in 2001, and back then there weren't even customers," Reinhardt says. "At this point, I can't even keep up with the demand."

Reinhardt grew up on the same small northern Carroll County farm where he now grows his crops.

Like many of his customers, he was prompted to "go organic" by his increasing uncertainty about the quality or purity of mass-processed supermarket food -- much of which, he says, has been supercharged with steroids, dyes and antibiotics and sweetened with calorie-laden corn syrup and additives.

Also like his customers, he'd grown dissatisfied with mass-produced vegetables that often have taste and nutrition processed right out of it.

And don't even get him started on the threat of residual pesticides and occasional outbreaks of food-borne salmonella and colioform infections.

"I could never get over how everything had become so synthetic in the farming industry," says Reinhardt, who sports long blond hair in a ponytail and is dressed in a white T-shirt, shorts and hiking boots.

He harbored ambitions of opening his own restaurant, but started home-growing "as a little hobby," in 1997.

"I'd be out in the field in the dark with a flashlight, after my bartending shift, planting beans and stuff," he says.

Today, on an overcast mid-summer morning as he harvests a long row of beans, he ponders the course that took him to organic farming.

"I always thought, 'Why can't we grow produce the old-fashioned way, where you don't spray everything and you don't kill anything?' "

Weed ... is good

"One of the first things the state inspectors look for is weeds," Reinhardt says, pausing to wipe his brow and measure his progress in the bean patch against the steady passage overhead of the hazy, mid-morning sun.

"If there are no weeds, it's not organic," he says with a sense of satisfaction.

"I've got plenty of weeds," he continues, "(but) if they go to seed before I get a chance to pull them, then I've lost the battle."

The nature of farming is vigilance, and going organic requires the same trait. Nev-R-Dun applied to the Maryland Department of Agriculture's Organic Certification Program in 2001. It was, and is, a never-ending process.

"I'm usually up 'til midnight doing paperwork," says Reinhardt. "You have to fill out forms and keep records of what you do in each field at all times.

"That gives (the state) a map of your process," he says. "That way, if someone buys a green pepper, they can tell what field it came from and what the process was that went into growing it."

At its most essential, organic farming means growing naturally -- no fertilizers with synthetic ingredients, no pesticides and herbicides or other chemicals to kill insects or weeds or spur the growing process.

"It's very labor intensive," Reinhardt says as he surveys one of the small, fenced-in plots on his family farm, "but I'd rather do it this way than spray chemicals on everything."

Green acres

Nev-R-Dun Farm is based on an economic model called consumer supported agriculture, commonly called CSAs.

Reinhardt's customers pay a little more than $400 at the start of the growing season, and that buys a share of the farm's output.

"I was one of the first ones to buy into (Nev-R-Dun Farm) this year," says Jody Braun of Westminster.

"I love it," she adds. "When you buy vegetables in the supermarket you don't know how long they've been on the shelf, but everything I get from Tom is fresh from the garden."

Luke Howard, outgoing chairman and organic representative on the Maryland Agricultural Commission, says the popularity of both organic farming CSAs is spreading rapidly.

"Organic farming has grown by about 20 percent, give or take a few points, every year since the 1990s," says Howard, who himself grows organic vegetables, grains and hay on a 200-acre farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "Our industry is finally getting to the size where people are starting to take notice of us."

Howard says the principal driver of growth is consumers' desire for a "connection to their food."

"People are realizing that food is important; they want good food that comes from a source that they know and believe in," he adds. "More and more people are saying, 'Hey, why should I buy California lettuce when I can buy lettuce that's grown right here?

"And if it supports a local farmer, people find it even more appealing."

Food for thought

Howard says the economic aspect of CSA organic farms is almost as important as environmental benefits.

"It's a real opportunity for family farmers to make a profit, which is very important in terms of preserving agriculture and open spaces," he says.

It makes economic sense, too, for Reinhardt's 20-plus customers, each of whom gets one-twentieth of his weekly harvest over the 26-week growing season. Each share is harvested and bagged in time for weekly Thursday pickups.

Reinhardt says he has a waiting list of others who'd love to buy in, but as a one-man operation he's running at full capacity now. If all goes well, he hopes to prepare more ground for cultivation by next spring.

"I try to map out what will come in each week during the season, but (due to weather) it never comes out just like that," says Reinhardt. "I just try to make sure everyone is happy with what they get and everyone gets a good portion."

Braun is happy with her weekly haul. She traces her interest in organically-grown food to the book, "Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating," by Jane Goodall.

"The book talked about CSAs, so I looked for one in this area," Braun says. She's convinced organic food does make a difference, health-wise.

"I'm very sensitive to a lot of chemicals they put into (processed) food, and I've found that I've kind of grown into all these adult allergies that I didn't have as a child," she explains. "For instance, I thought I was allergic to strawberries because I always had a reaction to the ones I bought in the store. But then I tried organically-grown strawberries and I was fine."

That doesn't surprise Reinhardt. "One of the big things I hear from my customers is that their doctors (tell) them to eat organic," he says.

Braun splits her weekly Nev-R-Dun haul with her sister, Ruth Lee, who likes the variety she gets from one week to the next.

"Occasionally I'll get things like garlic scapes (stems) or purslane (a green-leafed plant that goes well in salads) that I've never heard of, so I'm constantly learning about and trying new things," Lee says.

"Something else I like is that he (Tom) tries to get his customers to share their e-mail addresses and post comments on the forums on his Web site," Lee adds, noting that customers also share recipes and ideas.

Reinhardt says Nev-R-Dun Farm's approach seems to appeal to people in ways large and small, philosophical and practical.

"People also like it because they know they're supporting the farm and local agriculture and all that good stuff," he says.

More information about Nev-R-Dun Farm can be found at on Nev-R-Dun Farm Community Forums for discussions and discourse on subjects ranging from green tomatoes and purslane to recipes for garlic scape soup and baked beans.

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