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Posted: May 30, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Organic experience

By Brittany Thomas /

Nicolas Donck is a business owner, but he wouldn’t mind if his competition increased tenfold. In fact, he’d probably help those competitors get started.

The native Belgian owns Crystal Organic Farm in Newborn, and he said the demand for local, organically grown produce is so great he has to routinely turn away commercial and residential buyers.

"We need more people," he said simply. "I’d encourage anybody to do it."

Donck is one of the few semi-large producers of organic vegetables in Newton County and many local residents are disappointed to discover they can’t purchase from him.

The reason is simple — he has no extra produce. Everything he grows is either sold to existing customers or eaten by family and friends. His customers are in Atlanta, but he’s been with them so long they’ve become his trusted friends. He’s grown as they’ve grown.

"The interest was just not there locally when we started 15 years ago. We had to go to Atlanta to find customers. We’re still with the same ones," Donck said. "To sell a head of lettuce to you, I’d have to take one away from my chef friend in Atlanta."

That doesn’t mean Donck will never sell locally — his wife is mad he doesn’t already — but he’d have to significantly increase his production. That just may happen in the next couple of years.

 

Naturally Organic

In some ways the term organic doesn’t mean anything to Donck. He’s never known any other way. When he was a one-year child in Belgium, he became very sick. His mother, Helen Dumba, began corresponding with a Swiss holistic doctor who told her to switch the family’s diet entirely to organic food.

"That’s all we eat now, since I was raised on it. It’s the best for you. That’s what we are," Donck said.

They only owned one acre in Belgium, but Dumba and her husband grew everything they needed for that whole year. They even planned out how much they would need of each vegetable.

While the organic mindset has been in the Donck family for years, it’s been growing in the U.S. for years. When Donck thinks that movement the term takes on more meaning. He thinks of food completely free of pesticides and insecticides. He thinks of healthier, better tasting fruits and vegetables. He thinks of supporting the little guy.

"Larger food companies are seeing the profits of organic, and are taking that word and watering it down. It scares me. I still think of small and still try to shop small," Donck said. "By buying those products, I support the farms like myself, the family farms in the more rural communities, not the stockholders in New York City."

It’s not that Donck doesn’t believe there’s a place for larger organic farms; he hopes that all farmers can eventually farm organically. It’s just that when he buys from a small, local farm he knows the people, he can see the farm, and he knows it’s truly as healthy as it can be.

The biggest thing that’s prevented the organic movement from being even larger is price. The average Joe simply feels he can’t afford it. Donck’s not blind to the truth; his largest customer the Morningside Farmers Market, which he helped found, is located in the affluent Virginia Highlands of Atlanta.

According to a 2006 study by university professors Carl K Winter and Sarah F. Davis, organic products are 10 to 40 percent more expensive.

However, Donck and many others believe that organic food is much cheaper in the long run.

"I believe as people get sicker and sicker they will buy more fresh and organic food," he said. "Quality is expensive. If you want good quality furniture or cars you have to pay for them. At least with the products I grow, you’re not going to find anything better."

It’s been well documented that many types of fruits and vegetables must be picked before they are ripe so they don’t spoil as they’re shipped across the country or around the world. This deprives the produce of nutrients and taste. Donck assures his produce is fresh by making two weekly deliveries into Atlanta. The restaurants that Donck contracts with get their vegetables that day or at worst, the day before.

However, Donck knows that some people will always be hard pressed to spend the extra money. He believes he would change more minds if they could taste the difference.

"People realize how good it tastes and then they have to have it. They get dependent on it," said Donck. "Organic comes with so many different aspects. It’s going to store versus going to the farm. People enjoy cooking it, enjoy eating it. It’s not just for body, but also they enjoy it emotionally.

"We’re creating a sense of community. And people like cooking beautiful foods, versus wilty food. There’s a different sense of ownership when you care about where the food comes from, but not a lot of people care about it. It’s a slow changing trend."

Crystal Clear

Dumba originally chose to live in the Atlanta area because she came to the U.S. during winter. As she and her second husband drove from New York south along the east coast, they got to see a myriad of cultures and climates. She loved Virginia but it was too cold; Georgia, however, was just right.

She had grown a variety of vegetables and flowers in Belgium and wanted to own some land in the U.S. to continue her passion. East of Atlanta seemed to be more beautiful and less developed and land was cheap. However, she never expected to end up with 175 acres in Newborn. The property’s price had been dropped by $50,000 just before their visit and the property had everything they wanted.

It’s the quartz crystals found on a small portion of the property that give Crystal Organic Farm its name. They provide for fun trivia Dumba and her son disagree about whether they provide any benefit to the soil.

However, there’s no doubt that the absence of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers help protect soil fertility. Using organic fertilizer and natural compost add nutrients to the soil instead of killing it. Diligent crop rotation also helps. So does heating the soil. For unhealthy or overly infested soil, Donck places special plastic on top of the soil. The plastic directs heat to the soil and literally bakes out the weeds, diseases and bugs. Four to six weeks later the soil is cleansed and ready for planting.

It’s a good practice for anyone, but it’s especially important for Donck who only farms about 12 acres of the property. Most of the land is open to the sun, but more than one acre underneath high tunnels. The 19 high tunnels on Donck’s property act as a form of greenhouse. They’re basically tunnels of plastic, which again help direct and intensify the sunlight.

The structures don’t totally change the climate like an actual greenhouse building, but they do allow him to temporarily recreate climates in California and other places. They allow him to grow certain African and Asian varieties of produce. Even though the half-cylindrical tunnels are closed off in the winter, the vegetables can still be in danger of freezing, so cold-loving plants remain a necessity.

"The purpose is to grow food year round. We seed something every week of the year," Donck said.

The farm grows about 20 families of vegetables at a time, but perhaps as many as 70 varieties, considering the numerous types of tomatoes and peppers. To find out what’s in season at any given time, visit thelocalfarmstand.com which has a vegetable season calendar. The Local Farm Stand is another Atlanta location which Donck helped found and where he sells around 30 percent of his produce. He partners with another organic farmer, Joe Reynolds, from Love is Love Farm.

One of the keys to producing so many different varieties is to give consumers choice and produce more rare varieties that can’t be found at the average grocery store. These heirloom and hybrid vegetables are popular choices for amateur chefs alike. In fact, both The Local Farmstand and Morningside Market have restaurants attached to them; Rosebud and Star Provisions respectively. These cooperative partnerships fit into the whole lifestyle of the organic movement; it’s not just about buying the produce.

Donck also provides produce for Bacchanalia, Miller Union, Restaurant Eugene and Woodfire Grill as well as a local community supported agriculture operation run by Mary Denton. Any extra he can spare, Donck donates to local churches, feeding non-profits and a women’s shelter.

Local Love

If everything goes as planned, Donck hopes to triple the amount of irrigated land on his property. Although he farms 12 acres, only five of those acres are fed by water lines. However, Donck is planning to take advantage of a 50 percent reimbursement program from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. During the next couple of years he’ll seek to build wells, install irrigation lines and add some greenhouses. He could potentially triple his production.

That kind of jump would allow him to finally sell locally, hopefully, by opening his own farmer’s stand in Newton County. That will allow more people to get a taste of that endive, escarole, frisée and radicchio winter salad the Doncks love so much.

For more information about Crystal Organic Farm or organic farming e-mail Donck at madnic@mindspring.com or visit the farm’s blog at crystalorganicfarm.wordpress.com.

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