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Les Miller, right, president of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, and board member Roger TeSlaa, Inwood, Iowa, conduct the business meeting for the 40th annual meeting at the Fargo, N.D., Holiday Inn. Photo taken Jan. 25, 2019, in Fargo, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Sustainable ag group celebrates 40th Anniversary

FARGO, N.D. — The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society transplanted itself to the north for its 40th anniversary annual meeting and winter symposium.

The event historically had been had been held in Aberdeen, S.D., but was moved to the Fargo Holiday Inn, allowing the group to expand commercial booths to 72.

Les Miller, a small livestock farmer from Sioux Falls, S.D., the organization's chairman of the board, said the group had liked Aberdeen, but the Fargo location offered an ability to put everyone in one hotel, rather than scattered among three or four.

"It really looks to be working," Miller said. "We're planning on the next three years being in Fargo.".

Two big moves

Miller said the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society has about 280 members, largely from North Dakota, South Dakota and the western third of Minnesota. The group focuses on education, advocacy and research, often on topics related to organic agriculture. In September, the group moved its headquarters from LaMoure, N.D., to downtown Moorhead, Minn.

The organization has an annual budget of about $192,000, including 4 percent from membership. The rest is from sponsorships..

This year's conference topics often focused on "regeneration" — a term Miller said describes the work of raising crops and building soil at the same time.

The topic of "fake" or counterfeit organic products being imported into the U.S. was not as heavy in this year's agenda as in past years. Last year, speakers focused on the culmination of three years of study into the importation of Eastern European grains that were billed as organic but sometimes were fumigated or had been exposed to other processing or production methods that don't meet organic standards in the U.S.

"We just know there's not enough organic production," Miller said. He noted that Annies, a Berkeley, Calif., maker of pastas meals and snacks and a brand of General Mills, had told the sustainable ag group that "they import 66 percent of their grain needs to make those granola bars, for organics."

Some of the organic imports are genuine, but the NPSAS is trying to encourage more U.S. organics. "It's the price that attracts the crooks," he said.

Biodynamic

Two of the event's major speakers were Steffen Schneider and his wife, Rachel.

Steffen is director of farm operations Hawthorne Valley Farm a 900-acre farm at Ghent, N.Y., with vegetables and a 75-cow dairy herd. The farm has a creamery and bakery and a retail farm store. The farm markets vegetables through farmers markets and through a Consumer Supported Agriculture.

Steffen is also founder and director for the Institute for Mindful Agriculture, a group founded in 2014. A German native, he describes biodynamics as "the original sustainable, organic farming."

Hawthorne Farm uses "biodynamic" principles, Steffen explained. The techniques were developed in 1924, an "ecological, holistic way of doing agriculture," like organic farming with homeopathic inputs — "medications, almost like remedies" — and "based on a cosmology ... that describes the earth as a living being that needs care to be alive and thriving."

Steffen says there are several hundred biodynamic farms across the country, certified by the Demeter Association. Steffen met a couple of North Dakota farmers that use "biodynamic methods," but who were not certified.

There is a premium in the market for biodynamic wine products but the premiums for other purposes are "not so clear."

"Organics has lost its luster a little bit," Steffen said. "By following the conventional marketplace model, we have now many organic farms in this country that follow the industrial input-output mindset, albeit not using synthetics."

Some consumers have "lost confidence in the USDA Organic seal in the marketplace," and want a higher level of assurance that the "food is really healthy."

Dueling distribution

Steffen notes that retailer Costco is the "biggest seller of organic products in the country." But he declined to speculate on the veracity of organic labels in large distribution chains. He said the best way to assure organic principles is to source as much food locally as you can and have a relationship with the growers.

He said he doesn't necessarily want to see biodynamic products promoted in big retail companies. He says biodynamic farmers might be better off avoiding "the commodity routes" where supermarkets take too big a profit cut and force pricing pressures down on farmers.

Rachel Steffen said the Mindful Agriculture Institute is broader than biodynamics. One of its projects was developing a "rolling grocery store" that serves communities where food retailing is less available. She said the institute's members — whether biodynamic or commodity farmers — together focus on "making healthy food available to all kinds of people at different income ranges."