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Banking on Organics

  • Linda Platts
  • When executive David C. Cole left high-flying AOL, he was a millionaire many times over. He bought a family farm in Virginia and settled in, but with no intention of retiring as a country gentleman. Instead, he saw an opportunity to propel the organic foods market into the mainstream, and eventually add to his fortune.

    Cole had a longstanding interest in specialty foods, first as a vegetarian and later as a meat-eater when he was enticed by the Japanese delicacy Kobe beef. At his 425-acre farm, Cole established a 700-head herd of Kobe cattle and invested millions of dollars in other projects. He rehabilitated the depleted soil, developed an irrigation system of ponds and water channels, removed dead and diseased trees, and planted thousands of new trees and hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables.

    Life on the farm is purring along as smooth as can be. While a llama guards the sheep, the goats clear the fields, and the free-range chickens eat the insects and fertilize the soil with their droppings. The pigs aerate the cattle bedding, the cattle eat the dropped and rotted apples in the orchards, and the dogs keep the bears from feasting on the peaches and cherries. The farm sells 50 varieties of tomatoes, 25 of sweet peppers, 20 of lettuce, 17 of potatoes, many kinds of fruit as well as eggs, pork and beef.

    Cole’s sales were up 300 percent last year, and he expects them to double this year as sales of organic foods nationwide are increasing 20 percent annually. With the purchase of a Pennsylvania food purveyor, he has set his sights on packaging organic products for supermarket distribution to meet the growing demand.

    Cole is also encouraging nearby farmers who are struggling to stay in business to take advantage of the healthy profit margins offered by organic products. His farm is becoming an information center for organic farming, and he has paid his employees and outside consultants to work with traditional farmers interested in making a transition.

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