Organic goodness

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CADIZ, Ohio – Instead of asking Mick Luber what he grows at Bluebird Farm, it might be easier to ask him what he doesn’t grow.
This organic farmer produces everything from arugula to zinnias, but his specialties are lettuce and garlic. Besides 30 varieties of lettuce and six varieties of garlic, Luber also grows onions, peas, beets, carrots, cosmos, gladiolas, statice, pears and apples.
And that’s just for starters. There’s also potatoes, cucumbers, fava beans, cabbages, broccoli, pachoi, mizuma, tatsoi, spinach, shallots, leeks, rhubarb, black raspberries, asparagus, cilantro, basil, parsley and strawberries.

The plan

When Luber purchased his 61-acre farm in Harrison County 23 years ago, he knew he wanted to farm organically. Today, he serves a growing population of organically-oriented consumers at farmers’ markets in Pittsburgh, Wheeling and Washington, Pa.
The production process at Bluebird Farm begins in a solar collector, or greenhouse. Depending on the type of plant, they are generally transferred to the field after about one month, Luber said.
He plants his produce in succession so his tables can be full throughout the farmers’ market season, which runs from late spring through early fall.
All of the produce at Bluebird Farm is grown on about 2 acres and much of it is planted by hand. For weed control, Luber uses field cultivators, hand cultivators and good, old-fashioned hoes.

Keyline system

Luber uses a water conserving, keyline system on his farm, which uses the natural topography of the earth to allow the ground to soak up more water than normal, even during a hard rain. With the system, he doesn’t have to irrigate.
He also uses a subsoiler to loosen the dirt without turning it over, which he said helps keep the looser dirt near the top, where the plants’ roots will grow.
Luber’s experience with growing plants started young, as his father always kept a garden to help feed the family. His interest in organics began after college, when he moved to Chicago and met a man who sold fresh produce. Luber noticed the man’s hands were covered with painful cracks and after talking with him, Luber concluded the cracks were an allergic reaction to the fungicides on the produce.
“That gave me the impetus to start getting organic food,” Luber said.
Upon his return to Ohio, Luber assumed management of his father’s garden.
“When I took over my dad’s garden, I did it organically,” he said. Unfortunately, clay in the soil made it hard for plants to survive.

Compost

But instead of giving up and moving to better ground, Luber decided to work with what he had. He started making compost piles and using them to fertilize the soil. With time, the ground got looser and the plants improved.
When Luber moved to his own farm, he faced the same problem he’d seen in his dad’s garden. Once again, he turned to compost as a way to nurture the impervious earth.
The farmer started spotting compost, which means any place he put a plant in the ground, he also put compost.
“Within four years, it was producing great stuff,” said Luber, who is also a state inspector for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.
“In this system, the soil is alive,” Luber said. “There’s beneficials in it doing good things for you.”
Now, Luber goes through three tons of compost every year, produced from the manure of about 100 free-range hens that also live on the farm. Luber builds the piles himself and said he gets his winter exercise from turning the piles by hand.
Like most farmers, Luber is quick to admit his love for nature and growing, but for him there’s another factor in the equation.
“I do this so I can read in the winter,” he said with a smile.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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