Monday, October 14, 2013

Beginning with the Basics

Northridge Organic Farm

I have a confession to make: Seeing the circular USDA ORGANIC seal atop food at the grocery store has made me a little skeptical. It’s kind of like when something is described as being “green”. It is so overused and watered down that although it began with the best of intentions, it somehow lost its transparency and has become all muddy and confusing. I remember the first time I saw the word organic in conjunction with food while I was living in Chicago. I have to admit I was puzzled. If this food is tagged as “organic” what on earth have I been consuming all these years? Why doesn’t the food I normally purchase bear this fancy label? Is buying food from someone who says they follow organic principles the same as buying from a certified organic farm? Is it really worth the extra money? I decided it was finally time to get some clarity regarding this topic, and rumor had it that Mike and Laura Laughlin of Northridge Organic Farm were just the folks to help me sort it all out.

Long before meeting Mike and Laura, I tasted the fruits of their labor. I was introduced to their farm’s butternut squash during a Sunday Supper at Jorgensen Farms (unfortunately, no longer held because of the farms busy wedding calendar). For my previous blog posts, I have discovered a farm or producer, and unless they had a signature crop or product, I would wait until my visit to find out what ingredient I could use to create my recipe. This case was a little different. I sought out Northridge Organic Farm because I knew they grew delicious organic butternut squash and I had to get my hands on this local veggie for a recipe I couldn’t wait to share. I headed to the farm and began my conversation with the Laughlin’s on the property where they have been growing organic produce since 1995. Ironically, Laura explained how both she and Mike retired from public service positions in their early 50s’, and this “retirement” allowed them to focus on the full time demands of the farm. While neither of them had a background in agriculture, Mike’s father along with Laura’s grandfather and father grew their own food. Although their family started out growing their crops sustainably, like most of American farms after the WWII, they were quickly sold on the benefits of using fertilizers. As Laura explained, her and her husband had a different plan in mind. They wanted to revert back to a sustainable method of growing, and although their relatives motivated them to start Northridge Organic Farm, Laura said it was her and Mike’s sustainable stance that encouraged her father to also revisit his roots and grow food they way he did pre-war. Laura noted, “They inspired us and I feel we inspired them again”.

As we began our tour, the three of us jumped into a 4-wheeler and headed over the river and through the woods to twenty acres that made up the Northridge Organic Farm. Ever since the environmentally conscious couple started growing food they have been doing so organically. Laura said in the beginning there wasn’t a lot of information available about organic farming. Mike stumbled upon the local organization OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association) and decided to check out their annual conference. He described the people he met at OEFFA as one big family, sharing similar interests and goals regarding farming. Soon after becoming a member, they asked Mike to chair the Organic Certification Program; a volunteer position which he gladly accepted. The first year he helped certify 12 farms in Ohio, and today there are over 700 certified organic farms in the state. Being a certified organic farm has its challenges and advantages. Mike went on to discuss that because certified farms are limited on the products they can use, the two biggest challenges of growing organically are disease and weed control. Mike didn’t try to hide the fact that holding this certification is a commitment. Every year the farms need to be re-certified, and despite the fact that the list of standards have grown, it all starts (as it did years ago), with filing out paperwork. Many grumble about the extra expense (hence why organic food is more costly) and added work it takes to become certified, but according to the Laughlin’s, the majority of effort has to do with record keeping. If detailed record keeping is not your thing, running a certified farm will change your ways in that it forces you to be organized in a manner which ultimately makes your business more viable through the monitoring of yields and costs of producing certain crops. Mike’s stated if you are considering becoming certified organic you should know if it will increase your bottom line. He was happy to share that at farm markets customers seek out Northridge’s stand because of the farm’s certification. I asked him about other farms that are not certified, but still follow organic principles. His answer was that you can say you are organic, but what does that actually mean? Being a certified organic farm is verification for the consumer and peace of mind that the food they are purchasing meets a specific set of standards.

Sadly, 2013 marks the last season Mike and Laura will maintain a full farm at Northridge Organic. Next year, they will be dividing up the farm and will keep winter squash and sweet potatoes as their main focus. This will allow them to plant in the spring, harvest in the fall, and have their summers free to spend with family. Val of Jorgensen Farm will be taking on some of their more than 60 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and their squash and potatoes will still be sold to local restaurants such as Northstar CafĂ©, The Worthington Inn, J. Alexander’s, Heirloom, and Thai Grille, just to name a few! As they look forward to the new chapter of Northridge Organic Farm, Mike and Laura both agree the people they have met and the connections they have made over the years are what they cherish and will miss the most. Mike echoed that they don’t look at those who buy their produce as customers; he said “they are all friends, and I get to visit them twice a week”. As I left, I couldn’t help but think that this visit marked a bittersweet end of a long successful chapter for Northridge Organic Farm. Once you meet Mike and Laura it is easy to see why they have had such a strong presence in our Central Ohio local food movement and although I am happy that they are finally semi-retiring, I’m also sad that I won’t be seeing them around as often, and yet somehow I have a feeling that they will still be involved educating others of the benefits of growing organically.

Butternut Squash

The Northridge Organic Farm butternut squash (pictured left) traveled 34 miles to Columbus. The butternut squash (pictured right) traveled 259 miles to Columbus.



Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

I know, I know, if you google search “butternut squash soup recipe” it generates over 7 million results! Regardless, of what you have tasted, you need to give this recipe a try (friends who have eaten it, this is where you chime in and comment) and I promise it will make it to the top of your list.

Click on the recipe cards to print your copy:


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