By ANGIE CARNATHAN
For owners of Old Well Organics Sarah and Phil Otto, starting an organic farm in Mississippi was the beginning of an ongoing adventure.
The Starkville couple, who moved here in August 2009, said they had grown accustomed to having easy access to organic fruits and vegetables in their former home state of North Carolina. When Sarah accepted a job as an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University, Phil said he decided the change of location might be a good time to change occupations as well.
“I was a very burned out social worker, and I wasn’t happy being part of the system,” Phil said. “Back in North Carolina there was literally a farmer’s market in our backyard, so that kind of got the idea started.”
The couple’s previous experience with local agriculture spurred on the development of their own farm here.
“We were part of a CSA (community supported agriculture) in North Carolina, and when we would go to pick up our vegetables we would sit and talk to the farmer there. He was just like us,” Sarah said. “For me it made it seem like a very natural thing; it didn’t seem outlandish, this idea of having an organic farm. So when Phil asked me what I thought of him being a farmer in Mississippi, I was happy.”
Sarah and Phil operate a booth almost every Saturday at the Starkville Farmer’s Market.
“In North Carolina everybody was already eating organic, so nobody at the farmer’s market was using any kind of chemicals, herbicides or pesticides,” Sarah said. “Here, the expectations can sometimes be very different. I think the social worker in Phil is very aware that you can’t just go up to people and tell them ‘What you’re doing is wrong or bad.’ He’s very good at just presenting it as ‘This is what we’re doing and why we’re doing it’ and then we let them make their own choices.”
The label organic is often used, but the couple says there are still big differences between what they grow and what is sold at the grocery store with an organic sticker on it.
“That is what some call ‘big organic,’ which is similar in structure to industrially grown conventional produce — they just don’t use pesticides or herbicides,” Phil said. “But there are some things that are allowed, such as BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a bacteria used to control insects. And it’s still a very mechanized process — there is a lot of gas and oil around.”
Advantages to shopping locally for vegetables include the freshness provided by the proximity of the product.
“The tomatoes are gonna be picked green and then ripen in the truck on the way here,” Sarah said. “It’s not as fresh as produce that is grown locally.”
Instead of conventional chemicals or pesticides, the Ottos rely on the experiences of other farmers to keep their crops healthy.
“There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge (about farming) that wasn’t lost so much as pushed aside around the time of World War II,” Phil said. “I learn from people from that were growing a hundred years ago, and I learn from people who are growing today.”
Phil uses this information to find natural remedies for his gardening challenges. For instance, the Ottos planted