Beyond organic: Local farmer Michael Clark’s produce thrives despite growing pains

Red Russian kale. Photo: John Robinson
Red Russian kale. Photo: John Robinson

Growth of the soil

I asked Clark what the most gratifying thing about the job was nowadays.

“Being outside every day,” he said. “Leslie will say, ‘Look at the soil here.’ Everywhere you see a new farm starting, it’s bright red clay. Go around our place, it’s all dark chocolate brown soil. That’s from 20, 30 years of constantly putting organic matter into the soil. That’s what VABF was about. You’re building soil. You’re growing crops on it but the focus is on building soil. Part of the proof of your success is that your soil is improving every year.”

So Clark toils on. Every year, every season comes with its own set of challenges. Last summer Clark was badly burned when a puddle of gasoline that had leaked from a sputtering generator ignited in his face. He grabbed an aloe leaf from one of the greenhouses, rubbed it on his face and tried to keep working but ended up in the emergency room because of the potential respiratory damage caused by inhaling the fire ball of an explosion at point blank range. PED has since eradicated all gasoline generators (they sold quickly to Hurricane Sandy victims) from the farm and everything now runs on bio-diesel and recycled fuels.

He and Leslie also lost all of their tomatoes this year to an early spring cold snap that drove the temperature in the tomato hot house down into the ’30s.

But Clark’s commitment to delivering excellence to the network of loyal clients he has built over 30 years is steadfast.

“It’s not about who dies with the biggest bank account; it’s the quality of life you have and how you interact with other people. How you affect other people,” he said.

When Clark looks back over what he views as a steady decline in the value our society places on excellence and commitment in the business world—both to customers and to employees—the FSMA and its potential danger to hands-on farming looks like just another component of that same entropy.

The decay comes from the same expediency of companies like Sperry, which started seeing the pension money promised to long-term employees as a commodity they could trade up with by buying out their corporate family members’ futures at a lower price and unburdening the corporation’s future of the pesky obligations of taking care of their human resources after they were no longer useful. It’s the same decay that corrodes ideals like biologically beneficial farming practices that got co-opted, compromised, and perverted under the guise of the “organic” marketing scheme.

Clark believes that there were more people looking for and expecting high-quality goods when he first started selling his produce in the ’70s. What is perceived as a recent growing general awareness of the importance of a greener, more organic world isn’t real, he said. It’s all headed the other direction, toward a world where the average consumer can’t distinguish between the copy and the original, between the authentic and the synthetic.

Harrison Keevil bought some PED tomatoes, pesto, and Thai basil leaves at the City Market, which he took back to Brookville Restaurant and made into pork belly slider specials later that night. Photo: Preston Long
Harrison Keevil bought some PED tomatoes, pesto, and Thai basil leaves at the City Market, which he took back to Brookville Restaurant and made into pork belly slider specials later that night. Photo: Preston Long

“When we [Americans] were settlers moving west,” said Clark, “you counted on the Cartwright to make a good wheel. You didn’t buy the cheap wheel. You needed a wheel to get you to California.”

Clark’s father was an engineer for the petroleum industry and worked on ways to clean up huge oil spills from the ocean. The techniques they were using, such as skimming the oil from the surface and removing it, had none of the same philosophy of the methods used by BP after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, where they mostly employed oil dispersants that not so much removed the oil as made it invisible in the ecosystem.

Clark said his father and his colleagues would have never considered devising clean-up methods that didn’t involve getting the oil out of the environment. And our modern world’s tolerance for taking the fast, easy, cheap option—so counter to the mystical eastern values placed on universal communal responsibility that Clark espouses—will perpetually produce inferior results.

“We’re losing our guts to something important,” said Clark. “And that’s not very Jeffersonian.”