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KIDS LEARN TO GROW FOOD ORGANICALLY

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Mary, Mary might not be so contrary if she had learned to garden at Little Farm Research as Ty Sweat and 12 other Utah County children have.

The experimental farm in Pleasant Grove is teaching children to grow pesticide-free foods.Children ages 8 to 16 learn to make compost, use organic fertilizer and grow lettuce and other vegetables without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

"With all the chemicals it doesn't taste as good as organically grown food," said apprentice Sweat, 10. "We don't use chemicals."

Sweat and the other 12 apprentices weed crops and then use the weeds and farm manure to make compost. The farm raises goats, turkeys and chickens that produce manure.

"We layer weeds and manure, then water them so they decompose," Sweat said. "It's better to use weeds for you rather than against you."

The 13 apprentices work 15 hours a week during the summer and earn a cash bonus for the lettuce they grow and sell to a Salt Lake restaurant, said Lutie Larsen, the program's director and owner of Little Farm Research.

Larsen's farm also develops and sells organic fertilizers, seeds and soil additives to help those interested in organic gardening.

Organic is defined as food grown without synthetic or chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

Farming without chemicals creates healthy soil and safe produce without the potential risks from pesticides and other synthetics, Larsen said.

"I pay a lot of attention to the quality of life in the soil," Larsen said. "That's why we can't use chemical fertilizer, because they kill organisms in the soil like bacteria and fungi."

These organisms help break down nutrients into a form plants can absorb easily. In healthy, chemical-free soil, plants absorb more nutrients, she said.

Organic fertilizers also help beneficial insects, which as predators keep pests in check, she said.

Larsen tries to promote techniques that involve people rather than machinery. The farm sponsors the "Pick-Your-Own Club" where 20 families pick their own produce and pay 60 percent of the market price.

"For the future I see community gardens always involving people and handwork and techniques that depend on observation," she said.

Because of the labor involved, organic produce costs more than commercially grown food. Some consumers are willing to pay the higher price because they believe the food is safer and more nutritious.

According to research conducted at Rutgers University in New Jersey, there are 87 percent fewer minerals and trace elements in commercially grown vegetables compared to organically grown produce. While weight, color and texture appeared similar, the study found significant nutritional differences.

Food grown in healthy soil free of chemicals absorbs more nutrients and enzymes, Larsen said.

Patricia Powell, a manager at the Good Earth Natural Foods, agrees. "There is such a difference in taste - it is sweeter smelling and sweeter tasting," she said. "You don't get that manufactured taste."

Because of the labor demands, organic farming is difficult on a large scale, said Larry Jeffery, Brigham Young University professor of agronomy and horticulture. Synthetic pesticides are necessary to produce large quantities of quality foods, he said.

Without mechanical and chemical controls or hand weeding, 30 percent to 100 percent of crops can be lost, Jeffery said.