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Blaine Hitzfield, one of seven brothers in Seven Brothers Farm, at Madeira, Ind., near Fort Wayne, speaks at the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society. Photo taken Jan. 26, 2018, in Aberdeen, S.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

NPSAS outgrows Aberdeen

ABERDEEN, S.D. — The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society will move its annual meeting and winter workshop from Aberdeen, S.D., to Fargo, N.D., in 2019 and probably beyond, the group announced in late January.

The organization had held its annual winter gathering at Aberdeen's Ramkota Inn for 13 years, but had outgrown the venue, said Susan Long, the group's long-time office manager at LaMoure, N.D. The conference had been attracting 600 to 700 people annually. The group signed a contract with the Fargo Holiday Inn in part because of its capacity to hold up to 1,000 attendees and workshops and parking, and its willingness to accommodate NPSAS needs, including bringing in organic, locally-grown food, beef, pork and turkey to provide for the menu. "There were others that didn't want to mess with it that were ruled out," Long said. "They didn't want to mess with it — peeling potatoes and carrots. Real food. They don't open it up from a can. When we have potatoes we have real mashed potatoes."

The NPSAS has equal membership from North Dakota and South Dakota, and then Minnesota, and 20 other states, Canada and Germany," Long said.

Waiting list

The NPSAS had 54 vendors this year and 10 vendors on the waiting list. The NPSAS event has the feel of a family reunion with dozens of young children in attendance. It has grown with interest in organic agriculture, "regenerative" agriculture and consumer connections.

Jonathon Moser, 32, started in April as the organization's new executive director. For the past four years he's been a small-acreage commercial vegetable producer near Streeter, N.D., where his father and brother run a cattle ranch and farm.

Moser said the change will allow for networking, which is one of the most important parts of the event.

This year's conference ranged widely from topics on organic row crops, direct-marketing and regenerative agriculture farm systems and grass-based livestock, soil health, as well as food, family and community. There were no topics on fake organic imports, which had been one of the topics in 2017.

Seven bros

Blaine Hitzfield, one of seven brothers in Seven Brothers Farm, at Madeira, Ind., near Fort Wayne, discussed how his family's "stacked-model" brings on production enterprises that match their resources — financial, production and people. It is not organic, but "100-percent grass-fed beef produced using regenerative practices."

The regenerative claim is not on the label, and the grass-fed concept is confusing because the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows feeding soy hulls and other non-starch grain byproducts — including distillers' grains — and still qualify as 100 percent grass-fed.

"We don't like to use the USDA labeling system, because it's a broken system that doesn't transfer any level of authentic value to the customer," Blaine said.

He said 90 percent of the U.S. meat labeled as grass-fed and most labeled as "Product of the USA," is grown elsewhere.

"What qualifies that is if the product is produced and processed in a USDA (approved) facility," Hitzfield said. "That USDA facility can be off-shore. Most consumers wouldn't know any better."

That's just one of many "green-washing" areas of legalities and marketing that are concern for U.S. producers.

The Hitzfield family produces pork and laying hens on 500 acres to "net a gross margin of over $5,000 an acre," in part by marketing directly to consumers. They talked about how to use the internet to reach consumers for premiums. He said the farm captures about $1,000 more per beef animal than on the commodity market, or up to a 50 percent premium.

"The majority of consumers looking for organic, pasture-based natural foods are looking to the internet first," he said. About 75 percent of the family's sales are direct-marketed.

He said the farm is focused on "beating the odds" and bringing new generations into their farms. Blaine said that his first test for a sustainable farm is one that has more than one generation working on it.

Among his brothers, Blaine and two brothers focus on marketing. Blake oversees beef and pork. Two other brothers focus on 5,000 laying hens that are rotated on pasture. He said the company sells its "protein" as frozen, partners with flash-freezing and custom labeling, and delivers to Chicago and other nearby metropolitan areas.