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Published September 05, 2009, 10:18 PM

Richardton, N.D., organic
farm's harvest gets under way

Duane and Chantra Boehm, who farm five miles southeast of Richardton, have finished harvesting their oats and winter rye crops and are starting their hard red spring wheat. “It’s an average to above-average crop. Nature plays a big part,” Duane Boehm said. It’s a busy time, but an exciting time at the farm.

By: Linda Sailer, The Dickinson Press

RICHARDTON, N.D. — Duane and Chantra Boehm, who farm five miles southeast of Richardton, have finished harvesting their oats and winter rye crops and are starting their hard red spring wheat.

“It’s an average to above-average crop. Nature plays a big part,” Duane Boehm said.

It’s a busy time, but an exciting time at the farm.

“At harvest time, he combines, while I haul the grain,” Chantra said.

While the harvesting practices are similar to their neighbors, growing the crops is a different procedure. The Boehms are organic farmers. Duane said they made the transition 20 years ago.

The term “organic” means farmers avoid such synthetic soil “inputs” as pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

“We use tillage and crop rotations to control weeds and crop rotations for soil building and fertilizer,” Duane Boehm said.

They grow buckwheat, field peas and millet in the crop rotations. They also incorporate crop residues and “green manure” crops such as alfalfa and sweet clover.

“Obviously, we still provide nutrients for the crops. We aren’t purchasing them, we’re growing them,” Duane said.

Factors in his transition to organic farming, he said, included questions about the use of synthetics and the possible effects on the environment and human health.

“Those were the two things we thought about the most, but it’s the satisfaction of growing crops that people actually want to buy,” he said.

The Boehms are certified as organic growers by the Organic Crop Improvement Association. They are members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society, of which Duane is a past board member.

“There are several certifying agencies that work in the country, as well as a national standard we certify to,” he said.

Without using a computer, the Boehms work together to keep records.

“We keep track of when we plant every field, what seeds and inputs are used, cultivation practices, whatever,” Duane said.

The bushels are assigned a number that can be tracked from the field to the mill and the product that the consumer purchases.

“It’s so the consumer can feel confident he is buying organic. The system works,” Duane Boehm said.

“The main thing, is we’re not certifying our product is chemical-free. We certify to how we grow it. In the real world, there’s no way I can prove my product hasn’t been exposed to airplane and wind drift. We certify to our practices,” he said.

Certification takes 36 months before harvesting a crop, he said.

“We’re attempting to manage with limited purchased inputs. Our main input, frankly, is seed and diesel fuel to run our equipment,” Boehm said.

He said he raises most of the seed, so the diesel fuel is the big thing.

The Boehms maintain a 30-foot buffer around their land as required for certification. The buffer helps prevent any wind drift from neighbors’ pesticides.

“Our neighbors respect what we’re doing and work well with us,” he said.

On the average, Boehm said his yields probably are less than what the neighbors produce. The difference is the value of the wheat crop. The Boehms are paid a premium price for the grain.

“It’s a variable, depending on the quality,” he said.

Without the use of expensive chemicals, “There’s not as much upfront costs to recover when harvesting the crop,” Boehm said.

“Weed control can be a challenge,” he said. “Summer fallow is part of it. We have a reduced-till system, but not no-tillage. Perennial weeds are starting to give us more problems under reduced tillage.

“Part of the organic certification process, is one out of five years, you do soil-building, which can include doing fallow to incorporate crop residue,” he said. “We’re not stuck on one rotation practice. We tend to grow crops to address the situation on a given field, certain weed problems and certain fertility problems.”

Another challenge is finding experts in the field of organic production, he said.

“You can’t visit very well with your neighbor over the fence because he has a whole different system,” said Boehm.

"Marketing can be a challenge — not so much anymore because we’ve been doing it for some time. Markets are more readily available than 20 years ago,” he said.

The Boehms market through several sources and have developed long-term relationships with the buyers.

“We tend to go directly to the milling companies,” he said.

Before shipping, the grain may be cleaned at Stone Mill Inc. of Richardton, which is a certified organic cleaning facility.

“We clean it to 99.9 percent pure, and from here it goes to the mill,” said Stone Mill CFO Charlotte Hoff. “We are the step between the farmer and the flour mill. Basically, we get it mill ready.”

Boehm said the demand appears to be growing, especially on the East Coast and West Coast. Some of his product is shipped overseas.

He can count at least half a dozen organic producers in the Dickinson area.

Boehm is a lifetime farmer who grew up 1½ miles south of his present homestead. After four years in the military, he returned to the farm. He and his wife will be married 38 years this month. They have two grown daughters.

The Boehms agree organic farming is more hands-on and more labor-intensive, but they say it’s the satisfaction of knowing they are producing something people want.

“The bottom line is the integrity of the product. We’d rather not say we’re producing crops. We produce food. We feel we’re food producers,” Boehm said.

The Press and the Herald are both owned by Forum Communications Co.

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