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Missouri family becomes organic farmers

Sunday, October 18, 2009 | 4:50 p.m. CDT; updated 6:21 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 18, 2009
Curious turkeys flock toward a row of Hungarian paprika peppers, Friday in Clarkesville. Mike and Carol Brabo are part of a growing movement that reflects back to a time when food came from over there rather than overseas.

CLARKSVILLE — They're more hipsters than hippies. And they back up their message with meats and vegetables that haven't been genetically modified, treated with chemicals or packed with preservatives.

Mike and Carol Brabo are part of a growing movement that harkens back to a time when food came from over there rather than from overseas.

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The Brabos and other organic farmers understand their small operations won't bring down industry giants.

But their concern that Americans are poisoning themselves with unnatural ingredients is genuine, and the belief that their way of growing food can be expanded to reach millions is strong.

"People are realizing that taking a little pill does not solve our health issues," Mike Brabo said. "Getting a nutritionally dense diet will prevent many chronic diseases."

The Brabos had an epiphany in the mid-1990s.

They returned to America from mission work in Eastern Europe feeling ill.

Mike Brabo believes it was the lingering environmental effects of radiation contamination from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in Ukraine.

Brabo developed thyroid cancer and was forced to have surgery.

When traditional medicine didn't work, he turned to alternatives.

"The doctor said I needed vitamins," Brabo recalled. "I said, 'OK, I'll go get a bottle.' He shook his head and said 'That's not what I meant.'" Brabo began a regiment that included lots of vegetable juices, grass-fed beef and raw milk. "It worked," he said. "In six months, I was off of the medicines."

Last year, the Brabos and their children, Josh and Bethany, moved back to Vesterbrook Farm near Clarksville. It's been in Carol's family since 1927.

With 27 acres of fields, a sheep dog called Kiss Kiss and a burro named Cory the Guard Donkey, the Brabos decided to pursue their passion for better food.

Few worthwhile endeavors are easy, and naturally grown farming certainly qualifies.

There's no use of synthetic chemicals or fertilizers. Plants and meats are not genetically altered, and there's minimal use of organically approved sprays.

Animals do not receive growth hormones or antibiotic-laced feed. The Brabos grow 70 different crops and raise sheep, cattle, turkeys and chickens.

"We do many different things," Carol Brabo said. "We have a lot of interesting vegetables that you don't find anywhere else."

There's purple cauliflower, Hungarian paprika peppers and Korean mint, to name a few. Everything is started from seed in a large greenhouse, then re-planted in the fields.

Even in winter, there's work to do.

"We never leave the ground bare," Mike Brabo said. "We always have something growing." Bourbon red turkeys are used to help get rid of pests, and leaves are washed with water and organically approved neem oil.

Peet moss and animal dung provide natural fertilizer.

There's minimal tilling of the soil, which also draws nutrients from oats and vetch. "We want everything to be natural, but not so natural that it's chaos," Brabo said. The animals roam nearby pastures.

Vesterbrook provided veal for the recent Farm Aid concert outside St. Louis. "You would not believe the taste and flavor," he said.

The Brabos have a production manager, Levi Crawford, and 16-year-old Josh and 14-year-old Bethany get their hands dirty, too.

The farm sells its meat and produce to restaurants throughout the region, grows specialty crops for ethnic consumers and sells at farmers' markets. Customers "like the basic stuff, but they enjoy some things you don't normally find," Carol Brabo said.

In addition to making a living, the Brabos are able to provide for themselves. "We work hard, but we enjoy the fruits of our labor," Mike Brabo said.

The food industry has taken a beating in recent years. From the use of high fructose corn syrup to the injection of growth hormones, manufacturers have increasingly come under fire for the way they feed a growing world population. Mike Brabo believes the criticism is justified.

He also is convinced that the tide is turning, and that generations to come will reject the production methods and products that he blames for an increase in obesity, diabetes and other health problems in America.

"Our current agriculture system is inverted," he said. "Now, we have a few multinational corporations running agriculture.

"A century ago, farmers were at the top of the pyramid."

Critics say organic farming is a niche that can't possibly meet the nutritional demands of a burgeoning world population.

Brabo claims his vision is not a pipe dream, and is convinced that a decentralization can work in agriculture.

As costs for fuel, land and other components rise, Brabo says organic agricultural methods will prove a better bargain. "The economics will force the change," he said.

But why does an organic pepper grown in Missouri still cost more than one raised on a factory farm in California? Brabo points to what he calls the hidden, long-term medical costs of eating food that's been sprayed with pesticides or genetically altered. "Is it really more expensive?" Brabo asks. "No, it's not."

The radishes are ready and there are more than a dozen types of greens of which to keep track.

So, Brabo doesn't have time to sit around. But he remains unapologetic.

His seemingly lone voice is part of a swelling chorus that isn't likely to quit singing its tune.

And though it may sound like a contradiction, Brabo wants exactly what the big food makers and farmers who use modern methods want.

They just see it from a different point of view. "I want to make sure you have the best food and live the longest life possible," Brabo said.


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