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Cluck bucks

Ivan Martin pulled the minivan up, parked, and they saw him.

Ivan Martin pulled the minivan up, parked, and they saw him.

“There’s my girlfriends,” Martin said, grinning on a mild
mid-afternoon in late October.

Martin got out carrying a bucket of feed, and about 1,000
hens rushed out, surrounding him. Squawking, pecking, looking for food, they
came to say hello to their hero.

Martin owns Dauphin
County’s Natural Acres
farm
, a 525-acre organic operation in northern Millersburg. The 71-year-old man
is part of a natural-health movement that has spawned business opportunities
across the midstate.

People are concerned about what they put into their bodies,
Martin and several local natural-food store operators said. Even amid bustling
schedules and a bad economy, the organic business is doing well in Central Pennsylvania, they said. People are taking time
and spending a little more to eat healthy.

Organic food is more expensive because it isn’t
mass-produced, and there is added care put into growing it. 

“The production is more involved. You can grow it a lot
cheaper if you just throw on a lot of fertilizer,” said Peter Bergman, operations
manager for Weaver’s Natural Foods Inc., an organic market based in Manheim, Lancaster County. “The trade-off is you’re not
spending as much at the doctor.”

Health is what led Martin to organic farming. Troubled by
several ailments throughout his life, including polio and arthritis, he said he
used vitamins to initially help manage the lingering effects of the diseases
and other ailments. An organic diet later helped him manage his health
problems, he said.

Martin is an entrepreneur in the field and came up with some
of his own inventions on the farm. One is a 1,200-square-foot mobile chicken
coop in which his hens live and lay eggs until late fall, when the weather
turns cold.

The chickens walk freely around the fields during the day,
but are brought inside the mobile chicken house at night to keep them safe from
wolves and other predators. The hatches are opened on the chickens’ house
during the day, which allows the hens to come and go as they please.

About a month ago, Martin’s unusual chicken-raising
techniques landed him a spot on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The episode
contrasted the differences between raising farm animals humanely and
inhumanely. Martin’s chickens were used to show viewers how to raise chickens
the right way, he said. Natural Acres earned about five minutes of air-time, he
said.

Even though the naturalist has a close relationship with his
birds, Martin said he doesn’t let the chickens roam free out of a concern for
their well-being.

“It gives ya’ a better egg,” Martin said of the darker,
brown-colored eggs organic hens lay.

The chickens take to Martin like a father figure. Some even
sat on his lap as he hand-fed them sitting on a four-wheeler in the middle of a
field.

Chickens like roaming the fields because they are natural
foragers, Martin said. They like to roam and eat grass and worms, he said. They
peck at grass almost as though they are grazing.

“She can be a chicken, and a chicken wants to forage,”
Martin said.

Martin’s chicken coop is on wheels so he can move the birds
around to different areas of the farm. That keeps the hens from tearing up
large patches of grass. And grass is valuable on Martin’s farm. He feeds his
100 head of beef cattle organic grass.

The farm is teeming with other operations, too. When you go
to Natural Acres, you can’t help but notice the faint smell of onions wafting
through the air because Martin produces compost out of manure and onion waste.
He gets as much as 150 tons of onion leftovers delivered to the farm each week,
he said. He in turn sells his compost.

That’s not all; Martin owns a bed-and-breakfast and a
natural-food store on the farm. He grows grains, beans, and he plans to
increase the amount of vegetables he grows organically.

“When we spray soil, we kill micro-life. Nutrients are not
getting to the plants,” Martin said.

It’s not a mystery why organic foods make people feel better,
Bergman said. The extra proteins, natural sugars and other nutrients in organic
foods nourish the body.

Most organic-food consumers probably share the views of
Martin and Bergman. But scientific proof of the benefits of eating organic
isn’t so clear. Studies show organic diets can help consumers ingest more
antioxidants and fewer toxins, which would lower the risk of high blood
pressure, heart attacks, cancers and allergies. But the Mayo Clinic’s Web site
says there is no conclusive evidence that organic food is healthier than
conventionally grown food.

Still, based on the number of customers at Weaver’s, more
people believe in organic-health benefits, Bergman said. He couldn’t put a
number on how much more business the store does today, but traffic has been
increasing, he said. And Weaver’s has staying power. It’s been open for more
than 35 years.

Weaver’s is not as big as a regular supermarket, but the
store offers a little bit of everything – from organic chips and pretzels to
gluten-free foods and frozen meats.

There also is a wellness center where customers can see a
nutritional counselor when Weaver’s is open, Bergman said.

Organic food has sprung out of stores like Weaver’s.

Larger supermarket chains are starting to catch on to the
organic market. Popular midstate grocery chains, including Giant Food Stores,
have added aisles in recent years dedicated to organic foods.

And while the bigger stores are expanding their organic
offerings, it hasn’t hurt Weaver’s business, Bergman said. The more exposure
people have to natural foods, the more interested people become. Weaver’s
benefits from that, he said, and the store has more organic and specialty items
than the big-box

supermarkets offer.

Customers get personal service at smaller organic food stores
that they can’t find at the larger supermarkets, said Pam Kinsey, who owns Nude
Food
, an organic-food business in Harrisburg’s
Broad Street Market.

 “I feel like small
business offers a few more things. If a customer has a question or they’re
trying to transition, I will answer their questions,” Kinsey said. “I know a
lot of customers by name.”

Kinsey has worked at Nude Food for 10 years and has owned it
for three and a half years. She sells bulk foods, grains, pasta, dried fruits,
nuts, snack mixes, organic coffees and more.

Some organic prices might be cheaper at Giant because the
big box can buy 15 cases of items at a time and Kinsey can’t, she said. But
customers appreciate the service they get at Nude Food, and they keep coming
back, she said.

“I’ve heard a few say, ‘I can get it cheaper at Giant.’ I
have a lot of faithful people shop here because it’s in their community, and if
we thrive, they thrive,” Kinsey said.

Even though natural foods contain no synthetic
preservatives, most have a long shelf life, Bergman and Kinsey said. Many items
are vacuum sealed and some are air-dried. Bergman found that organic lettuce
stayed fresh longer than non-organic lettuce, he said.

As far as taste is concerned, Kinsey said there is no
difference to her. She thinks organic food even tastes better, especially
bananas.

And if people are concerned about the price of organic
foods, Kinsey recommends easing into natural food purchases.

“I have people say that they want to eat organically, then
they see the price, and they don’t. I tell them to transition slowly. Eat rice,
oatmeal and less-expensive things,” Kinsey said. “People feel very strongly
about eating healthy and don’t mind.”

Martin is banking on it. He plans to build an even bigger
chicken coop in the next year so he can produce more organic eggs.

He has about 3,000 chickens all told and wants to bring more
of his girlfriends on board.

“I’m a big proponent of real food,” Martin said.


The life of Martin

Before Ivan Martin bought Natural Acres farm in Millersburg
in 1985, he sold a large research firm in Lancaster County
called Dutchland Labs, which served the pharmaceutical industry.

He also founded Advanced Scientifics out of a two-car garage
in Denver, Lancaster County.
His sons now own the business, also in Millersburg, that designs and
manufactures single-use bags and containers for the pharmaceutical and
biotechnology industries.

Martin turned to organic farming in the late 1990s. The
525-acre natural farm includes a natural-food market, bakery, bed and
breakfast, composting facility and about 3,000 chickens. And he raises up to
400 head of cattle, naturally.

In 2006, Martin bought a meat-packing plant in Middleburg, Snyder County,
to give his company better control of his meat business. Martin grows a limited
amount of grains and vegetables and plans to expand his crop farming.

Natural Acres distributes meat, eggs, baked goods, raw milk,
raw cheese and produce to about 65 restaurants and health-food stores within
150 miles of the farm.


Organic 101

To be considered organic, no pesticides can be used to grow
crops, and Martin’s livestock have to be fed with natural grasses and grains.
No chemicals can be used in a farm’s soil for three years before it can be
registered organic with Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO). The U.S.
Department of Agriculture allows the organization to certify businesses.
Natural Acres was certified in 1999.

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