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Organic producers convene in Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, N.D. - After 60 years of farming conventionally, Linda and Dick Grotberg decided they had to make a change. So they did. Today, the Wimbledon, N.D., couple are in their third year of transitioning to organic.

WIMBLEDON, N.D. - After 60 years of farming conventionally, Linda and Dick Grotberg decided they had to make a change. So they did. Today, the Wimbledon, N.D., couple are in their third year of transitioning to organic.

"This is the third year as far as the chickens are concerned and the first as far as the soil is concerned," says farm operations manager Dick Lovestrand, who owns Bethany Prairie Farm with the Grotbergs.

The farm was the site of the 2007 Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society's annual summer symposium, attended by 100 farmers and ranchers.

Sustainable (organic) farming has been one of the fastest- growing agricultural segments during the past decade. According to USDA, organic farmers in 48 states farmed 2.2 million acres of land in 2003, a 63 percent increase from 1997.

Many of those contributing to this increase were on hand at the Wimbledon symposium, along with several farmers who were at least curious about making the transition from conventional to organic.

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"This seems like a great opportunity for folks that are interested in making the transition," says Gary Holthaus, administrative director of NPSAS.

Bethany Prairie Farm "is switching their whole operation over, from raising confinement hogs to pasture chickens and grass-fed Highland cattle," he says.

Lovestrand, now heavily involved with transitioning the farm's soil, is confident in the outcome, citing pH as the key.

"The pH of the (human) body is 6.8, and the ideal pH for the soil is 6.8. We don't know what our soil is, yet we're just now addressing that. I don't think that the commercial or industrial farmers challenge that, but they want it to produce," Lovestrand says.

It's all about the soil

Organic producers grow a diversity of crops in rotation to manage weeds, diseases and pests and, critically, to maintain and improve soil health. This, in essence, is what the term "sustainable agriculture" promotes - maintaining healthy soils for long-term use.

Five generations of Ken Pigors' family have been raising grass-fed cattle in Ferney, S.D., dating back to the 1880s. His ranch utilizes about one-third as many acres as the conventional rancher, given the same number of animals.

"In order to have herd health, you've got to have good ground," he says. "That's what 'sustainable' is all about - what organic is all about. It's about the ground; getting the ground back in balance."

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Because of this, he is against the use of NPK (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) fertilizers to enhance production.

"It's opposed to the 'NPK' idea," he says. "It's that you just plain take any given spot and saturate it with NPK and maybe a few trace elements and you can raise some stuff. And unfortunately, to a degree, it works. It's just very inefficient. (Of) the NPK that you put on there, the plants can assimilate maybe 20 (percent) or 30 percent of that. In the meantime, it is destroying our water and making the food so that it's killing people."

The answer, he says, is simple, chemical-free and time-proven.

"We run 600 head. We don't really do anything different; we just do it the way we've been doing it since the 1880s."

Growing marketsTodd Churchill is the owner of the Thousand Hill Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls, Minn. He started a marketing company in 2003 to source and aggregate high-quality, 100 percent grass-fed beef from family farmers and ranchers in the Upper Midwest, including Pigors. He has been part of the growing appetite for organic beef in Minneapolis and St. Paul, garnering clients in several diverse market sectors.

"Our initial market was the health food stores in the Twin Cities," he says. "We expanded from there to some of the premium grocery store chains, like Kowalski's, and from there to some food-service accounts, like the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf's College. And from there, we expanded into some of the premium restaurants in town."

Nationally, independent organic grocery and health-food stores and the largest natural food retail chains still represent the largest portion of U.S. organic sales, according to USDA, at 47 percent in 2003. However, the mainstream retail market, which includes grocery stores, supermarkets, mass merchandisers and club stores, made up a surprising 44 percent of sales in 2003.

Organic commodities also command premiums. Organic fruits, vegetables and milk have been reported as being the highest-priced at the checkout counter. Even organic grains and soybeans, which enjoyed higher premiums in the 1990s before slipping in price, still command substantial premiums over their conventional counterparts.

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Despite the higher cost, the organic market continues to grow, drawing more interest in the agricultural community.

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