Energy and optimism: It's the formula the organic industry uses to thrive

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- The sale of organic products has slipped in a down economy, but there was energy and optimism among hundreds of organic producers at the Minnesota Organic Conference in St. Cloud.

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- The sale of organic products has slipped in a down economy, but there was energy and optimism among hundreds of organic producers at the Minnesota Organic Conference in St. Cloud.

Minnesota has some 650 certified-organic farmers with some 120,000 acres of production and another 250 organic processors, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which staffs the event. An estimated 1,000 more farmers are in "transition" into organic production.

"I think the biggest challenge for passing on our organic farms to the next generation is profitability," says Carmen Fernholz, who runs A-Frame Farm in Madison, Minn. Fernholz was part of a "veterans" panel at the conference.

Fernholz's 450-acre operation has been certified organic since 1975. While once he complained that the university research provided little help for organic growers, today, he is hired as organic research coordinator for the University of Minnesota.

Fernholz notes that a son and daughter-in-law were interested in coming back to the farm about five years ago, but the prospect of $15,000 per year in health insurance and $170,000 tractors kept them away.


Price premiums

He says the key to sustainability in the organic market is price premiums to conventional markets. For example, organic corn needs to fetch in the $8- to $10-per-bushel range to make a decent profit, and organic wheat must be in the $10- to $12-per-bushel area, although Fernholz acknowledges wheat prices have been suppressed by inventories and a struggling economy.

"Organic is not going to be successful for the next generation without those prices," he says, adding the organic consumer has to feel "comfortable" paying $6 per gallon for organic milk that is sitting next to the $2.50-per-gallon conventional milk.

Fernholz touts the efforts of Organic Farmers' Agency for Relationship Marketing, which collectively markets products for seven or eight cooperatives. OFARM was started by the National Farmers Organization.

Fernholz urges organic colleagues not to think of their organic system as "low-input" but as "alternative." He says he uses a rotation of corn, soybeans, small grains and finally alfalfa for one to three years. Instead of purchasing fertilizers and pesticides, he buys extra seed, invests in manure and in extra equipment for timely and effective weed control.

He uses techniques like "under-seeding" and numerous charts to help producers time their operations to suppress weeds. Fernholz says the big challenge for organic producers today is Canada thistle, and he recommends careful mapping and a strong effort to control it through organic rotations, with a heavy emphasis on the alfalfa piece.

He says he's also learned to delay corn planting until May 20, to substitute benefits conventional farmers get with "pop-up" fertilizers. He uses a "split-tillage" concept that allows crickets and black beetles to work for him.

"A cricket can eat 240 pigweed seeds in a day," he says.


He says growers should avoiding soil compaction that can "smother microbes" so that they aren't able to feed the plant.

For new producers, he has another hint: "If you can find some fields that have been using Roundup for the past 10 years -- those are the ones you want to get," he says. "They've lowered the weed seed bank."

Protecting image

A new animal industry public relations effort to combat negative imagery about the meat and livestock industry

Keynote speakers at the convention offered a mixture of science and motivation.

Alan Guebert, a syndicated columnist in farm papers, got a standing ovation after blasting the mainstream media, national ag magazines and "Big Ag" in general for trying to brand organic producers and consumers as "elitists." He says conventional agriculture can't look at "sustainable agriculture as anything but a threat."

"The train's coming," Guebert says. "They're coming after you."

Guebert says agriculture has been "industrialized to death" and that organic farmers value quality over quantity. He even says that -- now that his kids are "off the payroll" -- he and his wife are determined to eat the "best food we can find" and that he knows what that is because he was raised on it.


Our food system

Angie Tagtow, a registered dietician from Iowa who is managing editor of "Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition," links today's overweight and unhealthy children "back to our food system."

Tagtow says food companies spend "billions on marketing a single product," while the U.S. Department of Agriculture has $2 million budgeted for nutrition education. Food costs are nominally low, but the health care costs are not counted.

"Actually, we have a very expensive food system," she says.

Tagtow asserts the current ag policy "doesn't feed the eaters in this country" and notes a doubling of fresh food imports in the past 10 years. Farmers, even in the Midwest, could produce more fruits and vegetables. She said 85 percent of Iowa farms produced fruits and vegetables in the 1920s while fewer than 12 percent do, today.

She acknowledges that when asked directly, "Is organic healthier healthier than conventional," she has a "tendency to reframe the question." Instead of definable differences in quality points to how eating organic foods reduce "children's dietary exposure" to organophosphorus pesticides. She notes that today's livestock are grown -- in buildings, medicated, eating "package diets" and "things they were not designed to biologically consume" -- often is produced by "farmers who don't own them, simply workers for another company.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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