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|Paynesville Press - March 26, 2003|
Organic farmers find market niche
At first glance, the farm looks like any other in the area, but closer inspection indicates that it is different from its neighbors. Because the farm is an organic operation, no bags of genetically-engineered seed are near the planter, and no tanks of chemicals are waiting to be applied to the fields. |
Organic soybeans are chemical-free and grown from seeds that have not been genetically modified. Theses soybeans will likely end up in Japan where they will be used in a wide array of food prodcuts including tofu and soy sauce.
Crops from the farm will be sold to a specialty market, where soybeans sold last year for four times the price of conventionally-grown beans, and organic milk sold for nearly twice as much as milk from nonorganic cows.
A conscious effort to farm organically goes as far back as the 1940s, according to Glen Borgerding, an ag consultant from Albany who specializes in organic crops. In the 1980s, the market for organically-grown products began to expand, and organic producers also began to grow in numbers. Currently, organic farming is growing at a rate of about 25 percent every year, said Borgerding.
Dave Schwartz of the Meeker County Extension Office feels safe buying food from the grocery store because he believes the United States has the safest food supply in the world. Still, since some people prefer eating organic foods and are willing to pay premium prices for them, a legitimate market exists for organic farmers.
Just like conventional farmers, organic producers fertilize, plow, tend, and harvest their crops. Only they do it without using genetically-modified seeds and synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
Oluf Johnson, who raises organic crops on 1,500 acres south of Lake Koronis with his family, considers genetically-modified crops unsafe (since they can't be exported to Europe and parts of Asia) and uses seeds from his own crops. Typically, they plant late in order to cultivate any weeds in their field after they emerge and before they start to seed.
Oluf Johnson holds corn that came from one of his open pollinated fields. While the corn comes from plants grown near each other, each of the three ears is a different color.
Gene Mohs, who farms organically northwest of Lake Henry, compliments cultivation with flame weeding, a method of killing weeds with heat.
Cover crops also can be planted to choke out weeds before another crop is planted. A cover crop can also be used as a "green" manure. One year, Mohs grew a mature alfalfa crop to choke out weeds and then plowed it under. "Anybody that noticed must have thought I was crazy - plowing a beautiful field of alfalfa," he said. But when he was finished, not only had he choked out most of the weeds, he had also improved his soil by adding organic matter.
Since switching to organic production, the Johnsons' fields are in such good shape that they haven't needed to add manure. They may need to buy a spreader soon, though, just to get rid of a large composted manure pile, said Oluf.
Although some plant-based pesticides are allowed in organic production, they aren't used much because insects are rarely a serious problem for an established organic farm, said Borgerding.
Because herbicides kill indiscriminately, they kill beneficial insects like lady bugs and wasps, which eat other harmful bugs, as well as any pests, according to Borgerding. Herbicides disrupt the cycle of insect life, he said. In established organic fields, harmful insects almost never do serious harm because Mother Nature has ways of dealing with parasites, he added.
Diverse crop rotation - rotating at least four crops (rather than two or three like most conventional farmers) - helps create this healthy ecosystem with natural insect control. Organic farmers do need to have a higher tolerance for all bugs, both good and bad, according to Borgerding.
Johnson and Mohs believe that healthy ecosystems are their first line of defense against weeds and insects. Since becoming certified in 1996, Oluf and his son, Clifford, have seen the condition of their fields steadily improve. The soil in their fields is in such good condition, said Clifford, that they have no compaction problems, and their fields drain well, even during the wettest times.
Oluf believes weeds are an indication of toxicity problems in the soil. Every year, as his soil condition improves, he has fewer weeds and higher yields, said Mohs, who got interested in organic farming in 1996. Last year his yields were the same as, and in some cases higher, than when he was farming conventionally.
Organic dairy cows are fed organically-grown feeds and cannot be given hormones or antibiotics.
Most organic dairy farmers - including Mohs and Mike Elmhorst, who shares an organic dairy farm north of Paynesville with his wife, Evangeline - grow their own organic crops to feed their cows.
Organic producers believe that the use of growth hormones is a leading cause of mastitis and can cause joint problems in dairy animals, which, in theory, is true, according to Jim Salfer of the Stearns Count Extension Office. While there has been no direct link between hormones and health problems in dairy cattle, lactation is stressful for the animals and increased production can lower the animal's resistance to infection, said Salfer.
The Elmhorst's (Mike and Evangeline) dairy farm heifers have never been treated with antibiotics or given growth hormones. Because of this, Mike Elmhorst believes his heifers will produce milk longer than conventionally raised heifers.
Organic producers and organic consumers believe that hormones and antibiotics - even when used carefully - still can find their way into the milk supply, which is why organic dairy cows are given neither. If an organic cow is treated with antibiotics after its organic certification, it loses that certification.
Instead of antibiotics, both the Elmhorsts and Mohs depend on vitamins and homeopathic remedies to battle infection. Usually this treatment is effective, but not always.
Mohs' dairy herd once had a bad bout of mastitis and he had to give antibiotics to several cows. At full capacity, Mohs would have 40 cows, but since this bout with mastitis he has operated with only 35. Since organic cows are expensive to buy, he needs to grow his own replacements.
Organic producers compensate for smaller yields than conventional producers with higher prices.
Last year, while conventional farmers were getting less than $5 per bushel for soybeans, the Johnsons were selling theirs for almost $18 per bushel. Oluf considered 45 bushels per acre a good soybean crop when he farmed conventionally but now the Johnsons produce 40 bushels per acre and have less overhead, since they spend nothing for chemicals and very little for seed, using their own crop.
Soybeans, by their nature, lend themselves to organic production and are a versatile commodity, especially for vegetarians and other health-conscious people. There is also a large Asian market for soybeans.
Organic producers do not see prices as high as those for soybeans for other organic crops, but the organic prices are normally higher than those for conventional crops. Recently, when the conventional corn sold for $2 per bushel, organic corn sold for $3.25. When conventional wheat was $3.25, organic wheat was selling for more than $5, according to Schwarz.
According to Borgerding, organic milk prices are holding at about $18 per hundredweight, while conventional milk has been around $10 per hundredweight for months.
While his organic milk production may be lower than conventional dairy farms - especially those that use hormones to boost milk production - Mike Elmhorst said his cows tend to have more cycles of milk production, have fewer calving problems, and have a lower death rate as calves.
According to Salfer, a study done in Vermont indicates that profits for organic dairy producers were higher than for conventional producers. The profit margin, while still higher, was reduced for organic producers that didn't grow their own feed.
One financial risk, according to the Johnsons, is that they are unable to get crop insurance for their fields where they rely on open pollination.
The USDA adopted its first set of uniform standards for the organic industry in 2002. Certification is required to sell products as organic and receive premium prices.
To be certified by a licensed agency, producers must be chemical-free for a minimum of three years. They must also adopt a strict record-keeping system.
The Johnsons had a relatively easy time making the transition, said Clifford. They had some CRP land that didn't have to wait to be certified as organic. Still, the transition period was difficult financially, as they had lower yields without getting higher prices.
The Johnsons didn't have access to any government programs to assist them in switching, but now a program will pay farmers up to $50 per acre per year while in transition.
Debi Johnson, Oluf's wife, and Heidi Johnson, Clifford's wife, now own a certifying agency. The certification process takes about two months and can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending primarily on the size of the farm, they said. Once a farm is certified, it must be re-certified periodically and can lose its certification if conditions warrant.
Just recently the Johnsons learned that some beans bound for Japan had been contaminated by spray from a neighboring property, even though their field has 25-foot buffer strips. (These buffer strips are required to prevent contamination of organic crops. Organic farmers must sell the crops in buffer strips as conventional crops.)
The Johnsons' 100-acre field has now lost its organic certification for three years.
The Elmhorsts, who moved from Wisconsin to Paynesville, bringing their cows with them, have always operated an organic farm, but the meticulous recordkeeping and the application process was intimidating and kept them from certifying their farm, Evangeline admitted. However, their daughter, Sandy, has urged her parents to finish the process. As far as she is concerned, why sell milk for $9 per hundredweight when the family could get $18 if they were certified as organic?
Evangeline finally finished their application a few weeks ago, and because they have already farmed organically, they expect to be certified within a few months.
The Johnsons were growing weary with going in debt every spring to pay for the seeds and chemicals needed to produce a conventional crop. Now, with less overhead, the Johnsons enjoy farming without having to worry about repaying their loans.
Mohs was also frustrated by the overhead of conventional farming. Since going organic, Mohs enjoys farming again. He spends less time worrying about his bottom line and feels free to relax and enjoy his work.
Organic farmers also hope to minimize their impact on the environment.
Mike Elmhorst refers to this method of farming as the way God intended it and said he has never regretted his decision not to use chemicals. He always farmed without chemicals, as his father taught him.
The Elmhorsts and the Johnsons both have adopted organic lifestyles. Both families grow much of their own food, and Debi Johnson even makes regular trips to buy organic milk. "I believe God led us down this path," said Oluf.
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