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How to Start an Organic Farm with Joe Johnston of Agritopia

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Joe Johnston's Arizona roots run deep. His parents planted the seed in 1960 with the purchase of a 160-acre farm in rural Gilbert, and Johnston's mark on the East Valley has been flourishing ever since.

See also: How to Make Bourbon with Arizona Distilling Co.

As Johnston walks visitors through the much-transformed property, an urban farm nestled inside a housing development known as Agritopia, he notes the repurposed remnants of the farm's past: the tractor shed turned coffee shop and childhood home that's been turned into Joe's Farm Grill. (Johnston also owns Joe's Real BBQ and Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert.)

Outside of these repurposed artifacts, Agritopia is an almost-unrecognizable evolution of its former self, a byproduct of Johnston's business-minded innovation and his openness to community ideas.

In this green development, the urban farm isn't just the focal point of the community, it's the fuel. In addition to providing communal plots for residents to grow their own organic produce, Johnston, his head farmer Erich Schultz, and their staff also use their year round harvest to supply CSAs, farmers markets, breweries, and other local establishments.

Of course, that harvest also is organic, because Johnston really wouldn't have it any other way. "The sin of greed has negatively impacted the food system. The desire to make things cheaper and make a little more money doing it has a bad effect in people's health and society, and if we can redeem it I'm all for it."

But growing organic and being labeled as organic are two separate things. While Johnston and his team have been using the same techniques since 2000, it wasn't until they received their USDA certification years later that they could truly call themselves "organic."

It started from the ground up because "healthy soil is foundational to organic gardening," says Johnston. "After that, the plants will really take care of themselves." To create healthy soil, Agritopia uses its own organic compost, which puts organic matter back into the soil. Johnston notes that this is particularly important in Arizona, as hot weather tends to deplete matter in the soil.

Those who don't have the time or resources to produce their own mulch or compost should use bags labeled "OMRI-certified," which stands for Organic Material Research Institute and can be found at basic gardening retailers. As a general rule for organic certification, farmers should use OMRI-certified products across the board,;this includes fertilizers and pesticides.

After the soil come the seeds. "You have to use organic seeds -- at least you have to try your hardest to find them." If organic seeds simply can not be found, which Johnston indicates hardly is the case for anyone willing to put forth the effort, farmers must prove that they have tried at least three sources before settling for conventional seeds.

As for the inevitable bugs and weeds, there's a short list of products approved by the USDA in organic farming -- pesticides extracted from plants and bacteria rather than straightforward chemicals. Johnston prefers to remain "a minimal interventionist." In this way, Agritopia is even more restrictive in its methods than the government, using only hands, hoes, and diligence to keep the produce-eating pests at bay.

When it comes time for inspection, the government leaves it up to the applicant to arrange a qualified third-party evaluation, choosing from a list of accredited organizations available online, then downloading and submitting their required paperwork.

These forms seek information about what pieces of land the applicant wants verified, what materials will be used, what crops will be grown, what seed sources will be used, what growing practices will be implemented, how the crops will be handled post-harvest, and how the farm plans on tracking all its distributed produce in the case that someone gets sick.

After that, representatives are dispatched to verify the information in person and examine the entire operation, from the seeds in the soil to what's on the shelves in the barn. Should an applicant's property offer both organic and conventional farming, appropriate boundaries between the two operations must be laid out and maintained.

Even after a farm becomes certified, it receives regular inspections. And should applicants want to take the next step by selling prepared organic foods, such as jams and salsa (which Agritopia hopes to do in the future), they must undergo an entirely different certification process.

For now, Johnston and the Agritopia farm staff are certified to label only the ingredients in their products as organic. Still, it's a lot healthier than the mainstream alternative. "Basically," Johnston says, "organic is just trying to get back to the way it was always done."

Which is kind of funny when you consider how hard it is to do.

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