Stelzer: 'Instead of farming as a chemist, you are farming as a biologist'
By JO McINTYRE
For the Capital Press
DUFUR, Ore. -- When David Stelzer was a baby, doctors told his parents he would die, or he would have to be on a respirator the rest of his life.
"My earliest memories are lying on the couch wheezing," said the 43-year-old farmer. His parents searched high and low for a cure for his ailments.
They took David to a naturopath, who said their son was allergic to dairy foods, recommended taking him off sugar, and said some problems may have been due to farm chemicals. After they made the suggested changes, most of his breathing problems disappeared in about six months.
That started the family on the road to natural medicine, natural food and natural farming. In 1973, his father decided to stop using chemicals on their farm, including, among other products, a treatment for smut on wheat that had mercury as an ingredient.
There was little talk about natural growing practices at the time, so his father had difficulty getting advice. Yields dropped during the first couple of years of chemical-free farming, but the family persevered.
Today, the Stelzers have transformed from a traditional farm with 2,000 acres of dryland wheat and cattle to a 4,000-acre natural and organic multi-crop farm with a large bulk food sales operation adding value.
To name their business, Azure Standard, they combined notions of a banner or flag and a color representing "a shade of blue which has been associated with law, justice and honesty. In raising an azure standard, we want to place an honest standard in the marketing of food," Stelzer said.
Stelzer says their farming practices begin with building soil health.
"It is a completely different philosophy. Instead of farming as a chemist, you are farming as a biologist," he said.
Soil gets nutrition from the breakdown of organic materials, with necessary micro and macronutrients added in the form of organic proteins from fish waste, manures and other plant or animal waste.
Dupont has a patented product that is a microbe that can be sprayed on and will attack insect eggs, he said.
The farm also uses pyrethrins, oily liquid esters refined from flowers of the chrysanthemum family, known as the African daisy, mixed with diatomaceous earth.
"When soil is in balance, your insect pressure goes way, way down," he said.
Employing about 65 people in Morrow and Sherman counties in north central Oregon, Azure Standard offers about 7,000 natural and organic products, including its own grain and flour products, plus gardening products, heirloom seeds, plant starts in the spring, and fencing.
Azure Standard garners high praise from suppliers and customers alike.
"I still can't believe they helped me get a steer down here and I plan to do it again this summer," says Liz de Forest, of Los Angeles, who has been a customer for 15 years.
Customers come from food buyers' clubs, specialty natural food stores and a few supermarkets.
In addition to its home-grown products, Azure employs contract growers and buys from some branded manufacturers, like Eden Foods.
It also does a lot of its own processing.
Supplier Brent Cheyne has grown barley, oats and certified organic red wheat on his family farm in Klamath Falls since 2005.
"I found them on the Internet," Cheyne said, as he searched for organic wheat buyers. "They are great people to deal with. I have nothing but good things to say about our business relationship. Now, it's just, 'What do you guys need that grows here?'"
The Stelzers have five sons and five daughters. The oldest is 22 and the youngest is 18 months. Both parents are still working on the farm.
The best thing for him, Stelzer said, is that his kids are excited about working on the farm. His sons, 19 and 20, have planted orchards and have put in legumes to build the soil for the trees.
For more information, go to www.azurestandard.com