A farm where 'small is beautiful'

A gray mist clings to the hills as farmer Gideon Porth bends down to cut delicate 4- to 5-inch lettuce shoots. The fresh organic greens will fetch a premium price the next day at a farmers' market in the heart of Boston, 100 miles away.

Mr. Porth is in his second year of running Atlas Farm, a patchwork of rented fields in the fertile lands that border the Connecticut River. Organic farms employ sustainable practices such as crop rotation, cover-cropping, and composting to boost soil fertility in lieu of using fertilizer. Small-scale intensive farming practiced by Porth is environmentally friendly but relies heavily on manual labor.

Porth's low-impact "small is beautiful" farm contrasts with high-input industrial organic farms, which burn large amounts of petroleum to grow and transport food. In California, some of these bigger farms use laser-guided land-levelers to create perfectly flat fields. That allows tractors with band-saw harvesters to cut the leaves. The shorn leaves fall on conveyor belts which transport them to mobile packing facilities. Vacuum-toting tractors suck bugs off plants, reducing the need for chemical insecticides.

It will take four or five days and thousands of miles before this mass-produced produce appears in salad bowls across New England. The food must be trucked across the country, adding to its price.

For Porth, there's a big difference between those organic goods and his greens. "There's organic and then there's fresh," he says.

At the farmers' market in Boston's Copley Square, Porth mixes easily with urbanites that pass his stall. Many customers are delighted by his produce. The positive comments make his 16-hour farmers' market days "the highlight of the week."

Each week, Jamaican-born Nicole Reed makes a beeline to the Atlas Farm stall. Although organic is trendy, it's also the original way to grow food, she notes. Her grandfather in Jamaica always grew food naturally. "No chemicals, just sunlight and rain."

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