Farmers Eager to Learn About Organic Transition
By Mary Fund
About eighty farmers attended the “Farmstarts” Workshop for beginning or transitioning organic farmers or want to be organic farmers at the Klinfelter Barn Conference Center near Hiawatha in northeast Kansas on August 30. The day-long workshop featured speakers – mostly experienced organic farmers—on “why organic and what is organic? They also covered organic soil fertility, crop rotations, weed control, soil health, organic certification basics, and marketing.
The workshop was organized by Kansas Organic Producers and the National Farmers Organization (NFO) under a USDA Beginning Farmer/Rancher Grant to NFO to host similar workshops throughout the Midwest and Central Plains. An earlier workshop had been held in Hays, Ks. last spring.
The audience, which came from across the state and some from Nebraska and Missouri, was largely farmers who had been farming less than ten years, but included some older farmers interested in transitioning to organic. Attendees included some father-son teams, as well as some young women farmers taking over the family farm, and ranged from grain and livestock farmers and grass farmers, to specialty crop farmers.
Many were drawn due to low conventional commodity crop prices for grain and the lure of organic price premiums. Others were interested in adopting more ecologically based farming practices and building soil health. Some liked the idea of selling food as opposed to commodities and liked the idea of no chemical pesticides or herbicides used.
Will Ortman, who raises organic grain, beef cattle, poultry and berries near Marion, South Dakota, told three stories as to why he got into organic farming. He started selling organic grass fed beef to local grocery stores and also directly off the farm. He received a call from a woman he knew, who wanted to buy some beef. Knowing that she and her husband raise beef, he asked, “Why don’t you butcher one of your own?”
Will Ortman addresses the farmers at Organic Transitions Workshop The answer was “Because we eat organic and we don’t want to eat our own as we feed GMO grain.”
A second story was similar from a crop consultant friend, who noted that one of his client’s conventional wheat fields was showing some signs of chemical damage (from his own application). But one corner of the field looked really good. That patch, he was told, was the wheat harvested for the wife’s bread baking and for family consumption. He did not spray it. Ortman thought, “How can we sell things we don’t want or let our own families eat?”
The final epiphany came in 2004 while sitting in line at the grain elevator to unload some of his bumper crop, and he realized the price was $1.46/bushel. Even with a bumper crop, his family’s farm would not survive at that price. Top yields don’t mater if the price is not profitable.
Ortman, who now farms 600 to 700 acres with his brother, knew that with high land prices, expansion was not an option. So they gradually converted to organic practices and added crops and diversity of enterprises. They raise corn, soybeans, alfalfa, Black Turtle Beans, grassfed beef, poultry and eggs, and started a strawberry and raspberry enterprise.
The Ortmans’ do not follow a strict crop rotation but plant according to weed pressures in particular fields. They use cultivation judiciously, but also have three or four different kinds of cultivators. Depending on field conditions. They also use a flame weeder on occasion, and hire hand roguing if needed. This is still cheaper per acre he claims, than most chemical herbicides. The premium he gets for his certified organic grain also helps cover the cost of hiring labor.
For a successful transition to organic, Ortman said you must understand and adopt a new mindset. While conventional agriculture is driven by agribusiness and corporations, which takes away your decision-making freedom, organic is driven by the consumer. Conventional agriculture says, “This is what there is”. In organic, consumers say “this is what I want.”
The mindset, he argues, is all-important because the first impulse when weeds take over or you suffer a setback is to grab the chemical jug. In organic, he explained, the consumers are the boss. You are entering a written agreement with the consumer who wants no chemicals, often prefers smaller operations, and likes the idea of providing a living wage to the farmer and others.
Jack Geiger, Robinson, Ks. organic farmer agreed that the philosophy of the farm is important. His crop he explained is his family. Farming is the tool. He prefers to think of land as a trust and asks what is our relationship with this land and the people on it? His father did the work of transitioning to organic, so he is simply carrying on the tradition, adding to it as he learns. Geiger’s goal is to raise and market food for the local or regional food system, and to support other family farmers.
Geiger stressed the importance of using or recycling resources you have at hand. That extends beyond organic farming practices. He and his family built a seed cleaning facility with recycled lumber. His fences are hedge posts from the farm. He buys only one off farm input and that is lime. He builds bedding piles of manure and straw and spreads it on his fields. He will put cattle on the poorer ground, allowing them to fertilize it. He feeds 90% of his corn to his cowherd, allowing them to recycle nutrients back to the soil.
Geiger adheres to a strict crop rotation, though it will vary from upland to bottomland, erosion potential and quality of soil. Crops include alfalfa, red clover, wheat, corn, soybeans, and silage sorghum in various combinations. Geiger likes tillage and does not believe it to be the “evil” that is being claimed. Organic farmers probably till too much, he admits, and done wrong it is damaging. Done at the right time it is ok. There is a place for it in an organic system where the rotation relies on perennials and small grains, along with row crops.
He strives to have diverse income streams so that in any one year he can rely on at least one or more of them to be successful. He does not use crop insurance. With livestock, in a drought year for instance, he can chop corn for feed.
Ortman’s advice for successful transition to organic included “securing a support network” and “self-educate all you can”. These FarmStarts workshops are the beginning of some informal support networks across the Midwest and plains. Kansas Organic Producer and NFO will host another workshop in early 2018.