It was the taste of a salad that made all the difference for David and Jill Bell.

David Bell had a couple of businesses he was working at, but he was looking for something new. One night when the couple was out to dinner, David Bell had an heirloom tomato salad made with fresh, local tomatoes. He couldn't believe the difference in taste with such fresh produce.

"It really drove home for him how fresh it was and that it was a local heirloom tomato salad," Jill Bell said. "He really tasted the difference and realized the difference between commercially farmed foods that are picked green and shipped green. There's no flavor in those goods. It was an eye-opening experience for him."

The Bells had received just the push they needed to begin the process of becoming organic growers. They looked for affordable land and found the piece of property in Draper they currently are living on. Seven years later they are continuing the dream born that night: having their own organic farm.

The Bells run the only certified organic farm in Salt Lake City. Much of their produce is sold in downtown Salt Lake City to restaurants who pay premium prices for fresh organic products.

"We love buying local, organic produce from (the Bells). They're doing a great service for this community," said Kathie Chadbourne, co-owner of The Avenues Bakery, which is one of the places the Bells sell their produce.

All yearlong the Bells' garden is a beehive of activity as they grow produce in all seasons. For example, they recently made a transfer from summer to winter basil. This year they have sold 338 pounds of it, although it's only about 1/20 of an acre that the basil crop grows on. They expect to see the results of their fall basil crop before hard winter sets in.

"We grow a lot of cool-weather greens. They grow dormant in the winter," David Bell said. "They're designed to be two-season plants. We give them a head start by covering them with unheated greenhouses."

The arugula and kale crops in the plot across the street from the Bells' home are also flourishing. David Bell said the kales hold all winter, but only some of the lettuce will. The onions will hold steady until January.

"Although things slow down in the winter, they don't stop. A lot of people assume that because the seasons change we don't garden."

"Gardening in the winter is a pure joy," David Bell said, noting that winter gardening is actually much easier, because they don't have to water or weed — and the bugs are dormant.

To be a certified organic farmer, the Bells have strict guidelines they must follow. Seth Winterton, organic program coordinator with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said those wanting to be certified must have an organic system plan, which outlines how they will run their operation.

The plan encompasses all aspects of planting and the soil such as what and when a crop will be planted, how it's planted, how it's harvested, how much inputs are added to the soil and what they use in regards to input products. Organic farmers can't use fertilizers, so they have to find ways to make their garden grow without them, Winterton said.

The organic hopeful must submit a system plan to an agent accredited and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who then comes out to inspect the process and returns once a year to make sure the farmer is still following his or her plan. The farmer is required to show that the ground has been farmed organically for three years before the certification process so it doesn't have residues from fertilizers or pesticides remaining, Winterton said.

David Bell thinks of being an organic grower as taking care of the Earth.

"We like to think of organic farming as being a steward of the Earth and caring for the ground," he said. "Staying organic is not a big challenge, because it's what we set out to do when we started our business, not what we were interested in doing."

David Bell says the structure of the soil has improved in the seven years his family has lived there. When the Bells moved in, there was no organic material in the soil. By moving compost and gently loosening the dirt they have been able to improve the long-term health of the ground. As the soil has improved, they have had less trouble with pests, David Bell said.

Winterton praised their dedication.

"David and Jill work very hard on their operation. It's in the middle of Draper," he said. They've only been able to do it because they have a passion for organic farming."

He has been impressed with the way the Bells run their farm, especially because of its size.

"They're very dedicated and work hard at it," he said. "What they produce on that small amount of acreage is phenomenal . . . . They utilize every inch of that garden. They're good at crop rotation and keeping the fertility up. They're very good at what they do. Vegetable operations take lots of work to be successful."

Farming came naturally to the Bells as they both come from farming backgrounds. Jill Bell always had a big garden growing up in the Midwest, and David Bell's family were pioneer farmers. In addition, his grandfather was the dean of agriculture at California Polytechnic University in San Louis Obispo, which has always been a big influence in David's life, Jill Bell said.

David Bell says it doesn't take much time for people to forget their natural background of farming.

"Everybody has agriculture in their blood. It only takes one generation for the information to be lost," he said.

The Bells started out small, selling their produce at the downtown Farmers' Market and at Liberty Heights Fresh. Farmers' Market helped them make contacts with major restaurant chefs. They decided the best way to advance their business was to let the product speak for itself and to treat selling their produce as a business. They would show up at the restaurants with their produce, cut only hours before they took it to sell.

"Chefs say they want fresh and they want consistency," David Bell said. "If we can't consistently produce (what they need), people will go elsewhere."

Tyrone Ashton, interim executive chef with the Metropolitan Restaurant, has noticed the Bells' consistently good produce and appreciates it.

"It's beautiful. It's consistently at the peak of its season," he said. "What's so cool is that you're not getting something that's shipped. It's freshly picked and beautiful."

Ashton says that although the Bells' organic produce might be a little more expensive, "it's worth every penny because you get what you pay for from them," he said.

Joseph Davis, chef du (of) cuisine at Fresco Cafe, said he's only been in the Salt Lake area for about six months, but he has been impressed to find such a quality grower nearby.

"I came out of California where the produce is phenomenal. To find a grower like that, that's local, it's been a real treat," he said.

Jill Bell says that she considers what she and her husband do as an opportunity to help people return to what their original purpose was.

"There are a lot of people who are confused and lost. People are disconnected from what they were designed to do," she said, pointing out that people are supposed to grow food to feed themselves. "Coming out here and working in the garden, your head clears really well."


E-mail: twalquist@desnews.com