Return to story
Among items Blenheim Farm
Becky Latane checks on the garlic that's hanging and drying in the shed.
Cameron Latane and Carley McCrady dig organic carrots at Blenheim Farm to take to a farmers market.
Becky and Lawrence Latane harvest peppers on their 15 acres of certified organic land.
BY EMILY BATTLE
Organic produce has gained recognition and space on grocery store shelves in recent years, but for Lawrence and Becky Latane it's not something trendy.
It's the way they've always grown things at their home on Blenheim Farm, a 400-acre Westmoreland County farm whose ties to the Latane family go back to the 1700s. Lawrence Latane splits the property with his sister.
What has changed is whom they're growing for.
Gardening has been part of the Latanes' lives throughout their 25-year marriage. Becky said Lawrence came to their June wedding at George Washington's Birthplace straight from hoeing cantaloupes.
At that time, the Latanes were producing fruits and vegetables only for themselves. Every year, they'd pull a little more land into their garden.
When Lawrence Latane looks out today at the 15 acres of certified organic farmland he and Becky are growing produce on--plus the 5 additional acres that are in transition toward becoming certified--he calls it "a gardening hobby that got out of control."
The couple, whose business is called Blenheim Organic Gardens, began selling their produce in 1999, through a friend who had experience selling to restaurants in Washington.
Early on, the Latanes sold to Good Eats Cafe in Kinsale and Jake and Mike's in Fredericksburg.
Then one day somebody asked if they'd be interested in selling at the Irvington farmers market, which at the time happened only once a month.
They started to get the hang of regular marketing right around the time they got their USDA organic certification, in July 2000.
Two years later, the Latanes got a call from Libbey Oliver, who was putting together a farmers market in Williamsburg.
Although it's a two-hour early morning drive from their home every Saturday, they've been selling for seven years at that market, where Blenheim is now one of two organic produce vendors.
"We ran into them just as they were getting going," Oliver said. "We've been very fortunate in having them. They are well-respected at our market."
In the meantime, Becky worked with her sister to set up a community-supported-agriculture group, where individuals pay a set amount at the beginning of the season for a "share" of the farm's produce for the year.
Each week, Becky drives to Falls Church to deliver boxes of produce to Blenheim's CSA customers. Customers who are more local can pick theirs up at the farm.
The Latanes' gardening hobby has now become a full-time business, with sales stalls at two farmers markets--they started coming to Fredericksburg this year--and about 70 CSA customers. Lawrence Latane took early retirement from his full-time job as a reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in September.
During the peak summer growing season, the Latanes get help from their son, Cameron, and his girlfriend, and an intern.
Fredericksburg's market doesn't have a set list of regular vendors, but the Latanes are typically the only certified organic produce vendor there.
Spotsylvania County's Gordon Road farmers market has had organic produce growers in the past, but currently has none, although it does have organic cheese from Marshall Farms in Orange County.
Market manager Andy Fraser said they'd like to have at least three organic produce vendors selling there.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is trying to nail down the exact number of certified organic farms in the state, but Catherine Cash, the state's organic marketing specialist, estimates that it's somewhere in the range of 150, and growing.
"We're getting more and more calls every day, more and more inquiries into what it takes to be certified," she said.
Those calls come not just from farms, but from meat producers and people who want to market processed food products.
Cash said some inquiries come from family farms that may have been growing organically in essence but want to take the next step to be able to use the federal government's organic seal.
The term "organic" is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To be certified as organic, farmland must be chemical-free for three straight years.
Farmers must document the history of what has been applied to their land, and each year they must file detailed documentation of their production, including everything they added to their soil or applied to their plants.
For the Latanes, that wasn't too tall an order.
When they set out to certify their first 15 acres, they were looking at using land that Lawrence Latane's father had put into the Conservation Reserve Program through the federal government, which took it out of farm production.
"All of the land we were considering using hadn't had any chemicals on it for 15 years," he said.
From their early days as gardeners, the Latanes had eschewed pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, so getting certified didn't necessitate a change in their methods.
Even for conventional farmers who are making the switch, Cash said the paperwork doesn't have to be as daunting as it may seem.
"I hear afterward a lot of producers say, 'I should have done this a long time ago,'" she said. "It kind of forces you to look at your history of what you've done on your farm for the last three years. A lot of farmers find that once they start doing that they can really improve production levels on their farm."
The state offers some assistance with the costs of transitioning to organic certification, through two different grant programs.
The incentive for making the switch is often the premium prices organic goods fetch at farmers markets and retail outlets.
At the Fredericksburg market, Blenheim's tomatoes and eggplant were selling last Saturday for $2.75 a pound, compared with $1.50 a pound at conventional stalls.
The Latanes say the higher price reflects the different kinds of work that go into organic growing, including hand-pulling weeds instead of spraying them, and hand-scraping insect eggs off the backs of leaves, since pesticides aren't allowed.
Their efforts have won them some loyal customers.
Lawrence Latane said a customer from Springfield visited Blenheim's Williamsburg stand one week while she was on vacation.
The next Saturday, she drove from Springfield to Fredericksburg's market to buy from Blenheim again.
Emily Battle: 540/374-5413