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The Planet

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by Peter Smith

November 14, 2008

Ben Dobson is making the 3,000-mile salad a thing of the past.

Ben Dobson has planted 170 acres of salad greens this year, and the 24-year-old farmer is hoping that his budding agricultural enterprise will lead to the next big thing in organics: the salad bowl of the East Coast.Dobson and his business partners are using the efficiency of large-scale farms to provide local buyers with affordable organic salads from their farm in Bowdoinham, Maine. Call them second-generation organic-they're part of a wave of 20-somethings buying tractors on eBay, blogging about field conditions, and investing in automatic salad-cutting equipment-all in an effort to shrink the carbon footprint of clean, healthy food.Dobson's two-year-old produce company, Atlantic Organic, harvests as much as 50,000 pounds of greens each week. Not only does the company promote its local provenance-its five-ounce clamshell-style packages sell in New England under the name of its sister packing company Locally Known-but it is also attempting to rebuild a regional food system. "The East Coast should be feeding itself," Dobson says. "That's really our philosophy."In contrast, the washed, prepackaged, ready-to-eat salad at East Coast supermarkets and natural-foods chains often travels 3,000 miles from California's Salinas Valley, the so-called Salad Bowl of the World. Some of that salad originates from farms that are certified organic but whose size and scale (some are more than 5,000 acres) have nearly replicated what organic-foods proponents set out to oppose. Dobson doesn't expect the nation's long-distance lettuce-organic or not-to hold up in the current market.
"The East Coast should be feeding itself."
"With petroleum prices [this high]," Dobson says, "I see a pretty bright future in regional farms that use less fuel and fertilizer."His efforts to reduce fuel consumption begin near the fertile freshwater delta of midcoast Maine's Merrymeeting Bay. An automated harvest reduces tractor usage; bacteria sprays control insect pests through organic means and diminish the need for polyester row covers; and Maine-based composting, Dobson hopes, will cut back on trucked-in fish meal and peanut-based fertilizer. Coastal rain also trims the energy costs of irrigation-though it does introduce the risk of too much water at the wrong time. With one farm in the Northeast-others are planned for Massachusetts and Florida-Dobson has reduced the average carbon cost of food by cutting the distance produce travels to markets in Boston, New York, and Connecticut, and usually provides food that is three days fresher.There is, of course, a flip side to this proximity to urban areas: Land is expensive. The farm rents state-owned land that can't be developed into housing because it sits too near the coastline. "If we had to buy the land," he says, "that would have put us right out of business before we even started."The scope and ambition of Dobson's farm represents a new step in organic farming. Both his parents farmed and he raised his first vegetable crop in the fields of a community-supported-agriculture farm in Sheffield, Massachusetts, at the age of 16. He ran a subscription-style vegetable farm for two years, but saw bigger profits (and more diverse products) in a larger operation. It wasn't just the small farm he outgrew, but the small-farm philosophy, too. "If that was going to provide a local food supply for everyone," Dobson says, "we'd need one in ten people to become a farmer. And one in ten people are never going to become farmers."
But those old model small farms remain a critical source of local food, and Dobson tries to avoid direct competition with them; he doesn't sell  to restaurants or at farmers' markets. He also envisions a marketing cooperative to assist small organic farms in selling produce to high-volume retailers like Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and Hannaford by offering soil testing, borrowed equipment, and the infrastructure needed to meet stringent federal and retail food-safety standards. "We need small five-acre farms-with horse-drawn plows-just as much as we need 170-acre, even 500-acre, farms."Dobson is bringing young blood to an old man's club. While the average age for farmers in Maine, the state with the fifth-youngest farmers in the nation, is 54, the oldest member of Dobson's team is 28. Despite the demographics, Dobson insists that agriculture is far from old-fashioned and archaic. "There's a future in food," he says. Learn More
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