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A Day on the Farm


Sun, Aug 13th, 2000
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Monday, August 14, 2000

“The organic market is hot,” Tim Findley said last week, “Get ready for the horse race because it’s the new big thing.”

Findley is a resource coordinator for Organic Valley, an organic food distributor located in LaFarge, Wisconsin, which ships its products to all fifty states as well as numerous foreign countries. He was one of several speakers at the Southeast Minnesota Organic Field Day, which was held at the Roger and Joyce Womeldorf farm a few miles southeast of Preston last Wednesday afternoon. Around forty farmers, who are either already farming organically or considering making the transition, attended the event.

“The current system of agriculture is not set up for the farmer to make a profit,” Findley said. “But organic is a method of production that provides hope and it’s also the type of production that the consumer is asking for.”

Organic crops are grown without petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides and processed without artificial preservatives, flavorings and additives. The crops must be grown in soil that has been chemical-free for three years. Organic milk and meat are produced in non-confinement facilities without using antibiotics or growth hormones. Becoming certified organic, Findley cautioned, is not an easy task.

Dairy farmer Roger Womeldorf has been selling certified-organic milk from his 45-cow herd to Organic Valley for the past year and half. The milk truck, whose route covers some three hundred miles per day, picks Womeldorf’s milk up every other day and delivers it to Organic Valley’s creamery in Chaseburg, Wisconsin. With premiums Womeldorf is currently being paid around $18.00 per hundred weight for his product, which is nearly twice the amount a conventional milk producer is receiving.

By maintaining a closed system and raising his own replacement heifers, it is easier for Womeldorf to stay within the many guidelines of being a certified organic producer. Fillmore County extension agent Jerry Tesmer pointed out another advantage of Womeldorf’s system. “Between the animal manure and the crop rotation he’s got his nitrogen and other nutrient needs covered. Occasionally he might only have to add a little potash and lime to the soil.” Womeldorf also sells certified organic soybeans to the overseas market.

A high learning curve


“Timing is everything as far as weed control goes,” Charles Christie, who farms several hundred organic acres in Fillmore and Mower counties, said. “What works for one guy might not work for you. There’s a high learning curve on this stuff.”

Christie stressed the importance of marketing and said that the Vinton soybean variety is in demand throughout the world. “Quality of the product is everything,” he said. “Color and test weight are important and buyers are very picky about cracks on the seed wall.” He told of how once a load of certified organic beans priced at $17.00 per bushel were carefully screened using various high-tech methods and then the ‘splits’ or lower quality seeds brought only $8.00 per bushel.

Christie said that even with a yield of thirty bushels per acre last year, the dollars generated by the higher price paid for certified organic beans outdid his father’s higher-yielding Round-Up Ready beans. (Current market price for conventional beans is $4.10 per bushel).

“You can be organic but if you want the economic reward in the marketplace you need to become certified,” Prescott Bergh, Organic Program Coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said. He told of the extensive paperwork and detailed records that certified organic farmers were required to keep. They are also subjected to an annual inspection by the designated certification organization (DCO), that they belong to. There are currently five DCO’s that the state recognizes and a farmer is encouraged to choose a program that best meets their needs.

Bergh, who runs a small organic farm himself, said that only ten percent of his time at the Department of Ag is allotted to matters concerning organic agriculture. “That pretty much tells you what the department’s commitment to organic is,” he commented.

“More than any other area of agriculture, organic is a market-driven sector,” Bergh said. “It’s essential that you, as a producer, learn as much as you can about the market.”

The right attitude


Carmen Fernholz, of Madison, Minnesota, became interested in organic agriculture in 1973, but it wasn’t until twenty years later that he finally got all of his 300 acres certified organic. Fernholz told of his struggles with weeds and said that he finally learned that the proper time for tillage was when the soil temperature remained above fifty degrees for three or four days in a row. He had learned that both corn and grass seeds germinate at fifty degrees and because he didn’t rely on chemical sprays for weed control he needed to postpone his planting in order to maintain grass control in his fields.

“By that time most of the neighbors will have their corn already in the ground,” Fernholz said. “That’s when I go out and start my tillage.” Ten days later he’ll make another tillage pass and then, only then, will he start his corn planting.

“The most important thing in going organic is the right attitude,” he said. “Because your neighbors sure aren’t going to be telling you that this is the right thing to do. You’ve got to have the right attitude! I can’t stress that enough.”

(Next week, the Journal will profile Featherstone Fruits & Vegetables, a certified organic operation near Rushford)

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