Coming over from the dark side may be a bit of a dramatization as to how North Carolina grower John Vollmer got into organic farming, but he did move from selling agricultural chemicals to growing crops without them, and is in the process of rewriting the book on sustainable, profitable small family farming.

Vollmer, along with his wife , Betty and son Russ, operate Vollmer Farm in Bunn, N.C. Though he has been in agriculture all his adult life, his venture into organic farming is an ongoing 30-plus year process, he says.

While a student at North Carolina State University, Vollmer got a part-time job with Phil Upchurch in the Weed Control Lab. Another pioneer in the science of chemical weed control, Harold Coble, was a graduate student and close friend of Vollmer.

From his work with weed control, he got a job after graduation with Elanco Products Company, and worked his way up the corporate ladder. Then, he says he got homesick and returned home to North Carolina to farm and be a dealer and a custom applicator.

For a decade, he ran a thriving business, serving at one time more than 250 farmers in a small area around Bunn, where he now lives and farms.

Within 20 years there remained less than a dozen or so farmers in the same geographic area.

The amount of farmland remained fairly much the same, but the number of farmers was dramatically less. This scenario spelled the end for small, independent dealers, and by the early 1990s Vollmer saw the writing on the wall for his business, and he began to look at his options for making a living farming.

By the time he got out of the agrichemical business, the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental groups were beginning to take a closer look than ever before into the impact of chemicals on the environment.

“We weren’t blind to the negative impact some of these chemicals could have on the land. In ditches where we cleaned spray tanks and dumped chemical residue, nothing would grow there. However, in a short period of time, those areas recovered. I learned a valuable lesson from that aspect of our business— that if we do what we should do to grow crops, the land will take care of itself,” Vollmer says.

“I’m not an organic purist, because I do see the value of agriculture chemicals. At the same time, there is often a different way to be successful in farming without using chemicals or choosing products that have the least impact on the environment.