By Tom Uhlenbrock
RISMEDIA, July 24, 2008-The proof is in the worms.
Walt Gregory is an organic farmer in Dow, Illinois who challenged two neighboring farmers to a worm-digging contest. He wanted to prove that farming with chemical fertilizers destroys the worms and other organisms that are nature’s way of enriching the soil, for free.
“We dug one-foot-square holes,” Gregory said. “The first farmer counted three worms in his soil. The second had four. We dug mine and counted 179 worms. Both of them called me a liar to my face. They said, ‘This is B.S., you put the worms in there.’ We went out and dug another hole where they wanted in my field. They counted 180 worms.”
With chubby cheeks and a flowing snow-white beard, Gregory, 62, looks like Santa Claus and plays the part every Christmas. But he can get cantankerous when extolling the benefits of organic farming, versus “poisoning” the soil, and the food supply, with chemicals.
“We will see the day when the death rate from our food system will make the bubonic plague look like a head cold,” Gregory warned. “Don’t eat fast food, don’t buy at the supermarket. Go to your own backyard, or to an organic farm.”
As ardent as a preacher, Gregory has an unusual pulpit _ a circular demonstration garden that covers a half acre and is modeled after a pizza, with the different ingredients used in a pizza growing in the eight triangular wedges. Gregory saw his first “pizza garden” in California, and that grower is selling franchises for the patented idea.
North America now has five pizza gardens, including R Pizza Farm, which Gregory established six years ago in Dow.
The cost of a tour is $7.50 a person, and the drive to get there is along the picturesque Great River Road National Scenic Byway, which is Route 100 along the Mississippi River bluffs north of Alton. At Clifton Terrace Road, go right to Route 3 and then left 5.5 miles to the farm.
The weather had not been cooperating before a visit to the farm late last month. High river water had blocked the Great River Road farther north at Grafton, and Gregory’s crops were scraggly due to poor planting conditions in spring. “This year has been terrible for me, the rain and cold made it impossible to grow,” he said.
The wedges are divided by gravel walkways, and I joined Gregory as he led a tour for three young farmers from the nearby LaVista Community-Assisted Garden. Like other organic community gardens springing up around the nation, LaVista sells “shares” and buyers then get supplies of vegetables and meat.
Before we entered the wedges, Gregory explained the flowerpots along the way. “I want all the bugs I can get; I want pollinators for the flowers,” he said. “Bugs also eat sick plants. I put out toad houses, and the toads come out at night and eat mosquitoes and other bugs that I don’t like.”
Each wedge had its own plant or animal, and its own story:
Goats: “You are petting living cheese,” Gregory said. “I had mozzarella cheese from a water buffalo once, and it was the best thing I ever put in my mouth. I asked what it would cost to have two water buffaloes, and they said $60,000. I said I’d keep the goats.”
Pigs: “Pepperoni on the hoof. Every part of a pig is used by human beings except one _ the squeal. I ask the school kids, ‘Does anybody eat pig toenails?’ They all say, ‘No way.’ Then I ask them if they like Jell-O. That’s made from gelatin, which comes from animal hooves.”
Cows: “This wedge is ground beef, and we have a little bull in there. Cows eat grass and hay. The only reason Midwest farmers feed grain to a cow is to get rid of their excess corn, which we won’t have this year. Corn creates white marbling in the meat, which removes all fatty acids, which prevent cancer.”
Chickens: “These are Silkies, a French bird. I wanted them because they are good mother hens. We don’t use these chickens. I’ve got meat birds on another farm.”
Grain: “We have eight or nine grains. I’ll grow chick peas in here. Best pizza dough I’ve ever made in my life.”
Peppers: “We have seven kinds of sweet peppers. I do not grow hot peppers in my garden. I had a third-grader break a hot pepper and get it in his eyes. I had two hours of hell out here.”
Tomatoes: “We have 24 varieties, but we just put them in the ground Saturday (June 21). That’s the latest I’ve ever planted tomatoes in my life. We’ll have wonderful tomatoes in September and October.”
Herbs: “We normally have 90 herbs, but the herb garden this year has been especially pathetic because of the spring.”
After a tour, guests join Gregory and his wife, Carol, in a spacious log building that serves as a classroom, store and kitchen and are served pizza made from various ingredients, all organically grown, of course.
“If you eat organic food, you’ll eat half as much because it’s got twice the nutrients in it,” Gregory said. “That’s why the pizza farm exists. To teach people about food.”
R Pizza Farm is open April through October, by appointment only. Call 1-618-466-5950, or e-mail email@example.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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