GreenBiz: Despite recession, climate change, organic farming future appears bright

By Gregg Hoffmann


From Buffalo County to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin companies continue to profit from organic farming despite the recession and the threats of climate change.

Some of the reasons for optimism are projections of a growth market in organics, studies showing how organic farming helps keep soil nutrient rich, and the support of the Obama administration.

Organic farming advocates were encouraged by some of the pledges from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who recently appeared at the La Crosse Interstate Fair.

Vilsack said he was bringing in new staffers in the organic farming area of USDA who would work closer with farmers. He also told a rally of organic farmers, concerned about what they consider abuses of the certification rules by some large corporations, that he’ll make sure USDA enforced those rules.

“We support family farmers,” said Jeff Gunderson of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service . “It was somewhat encouraging to see the secretary meet with farmers.”

The success for organic farming starts in the soil. “There are healthy microbes in the soil that do many beneficial things,” Gunderson said. “We try to take advantage of those by building the soil through the types of plants we grow, rotating our crops, utilizing what might be natural plants and animals that can keep down weeds and control pests and many other practices.”

Chemical fertilizers, over-tilling and other practices in conventional farming often deplete the soil fertility and diversity, thus making it necessary to apply more fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals. It becomes a never-ending cycle and affects the quality of the food produced.

If you ask the average person what makes organic farming “green,” they’ll say it’s because no chemicals are used.

But there’s much more to it. Experts say what really makes it a “green” endeavor is biodiversity, fostered by rather sophisticated scientific research and farming techniques.

“An organic farmer is trying to maximize the benefits of biodiversity,” Gunderson said at the recent Wisconsin Farm Technology Days event near Waterloo. “He or she tries to manage what are naturally occurring processes, which can then affect water, pollination, soil fertility, disease control and many other areas.”

Gunderson and others involved in organic farming have research to back up their claims.

Western Wisconsin Congressman Ron Kind, who co-chairs the organic caucus in Congress, said research is the key “to growing organics and making people in Washington listen.”

“Nothing is more powerful and convincing than evidence,” Kind said. “You’ve been laying a good foundation and need good research to continue to have it grow.”

Some research is done on the university level and some by people in the field. MOSES holds an annual Organic University, which is tied in with the annual Organic Farming Conference, held in La Crosse in recent years.

Just some of the topics covered include cover crop management for organic no-till, weed management, pest and disease management, organic fertilizer, production levels and soil health.

One such study, for example, conducted by Reg Destree of the Dramm Corporation in La Crosse, indicated that organic fertilizer from fish-based foliar spray led to more vigorous pasture growth and weight gain in cattle.

The research was done at farms in Suamico and New Holstein. Lab tests were conducted on the fertilizer to check for mercury or PCDs in the ground-up fish and no measurable levels were detected.

Another published study, conducted by Michigan State’s Sieglinde Snapp, looked at perennial grain crops as feed for livestock. “Perennial crops offer the opportunity to reduce tillage on organic production systems,” Snapp concluded, “and produce grain that has excellent quality for livestock feed, and has 55 to 90% of yield potential compared to annual wheat varieties.”

These type of studies are presented at the annual symposium and summarized in a report that is sponsored by MOSES, based in Spring Valley, and the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., with funds from the USDA-CREES Integrated Organic Program.

The Rodale Institute, based in Pennsylvania, also does a lot of research into organics. Tim LaSalle, CEO of the organization, told a group at the recent Kickapoo Country Fair that indications are that the use of composting and other organic practices retains more carbon in soils, thus enriching it for crops.

USDA support and maintaining the integrity of the certification process for organic farming are important for continued research. MOSA (Midwest Organic Services Association) has provided organic certification services to producers and processors since 1999. MOSA is based in Viroqua and shouldn’t be confused with Gunderson’s group, MOSES, even though the two agencies do collaborate on some projects. Various certification agencies are located around the country.

The certification process can be somewhat rigorous and costly to convert conventional farm land to organic. Some farmers need the assistance of USDA and other agencies during that transition time, Gunderson said.

Like all sectors of the economy, organic farming has been affected by the recession. Sales have flattened out after several years of growth in the 20 percent range.

A February 2008 study presentation by The Rodale Institute indicated that the organic market was expected to grow and price premiums — the extra money paid to organic farmers — would hold until 2025. While the recession has taken its toll since then, long-range projections for organics from most sources include steady growth.

Individual companies now specialize in the organic and in aiding the green practices of the farmers. Organic Valley, based in La Farge, offers farmers and the public information and assistance about organic dairy and other food.

Blue River Hybrids, based in Kelly, Iowa, had a booth at the Farm Technology Days and used the slogan: Plant Organic, Farm Better. The company makes nationwide deliveries of organic alfalfa seed, as well as organic corn and soybean seeds.

Midwestern Bio-Ag, based in Blue Mounds, increasingly has become involved in organics. It too offers organic seeds for alfalfa and corn. Foundation Organic Seeds LLC, based in Onalaska, offered 16 corn seed hybrids and five lines of organic alfalfa.

Cashton Farm Supply in Monroe County provides organic chicken feed and other products for the organic market.

Cowsmo Compost, based in Buffalo County, provides compost and potting soil for organic farms and nurseries. A&A Custom Grain Roasters in Beaver Dam offers a variety of organic feed mill services. S&D Sales of Cadott sells Lilliston cultivators and other tools for controlling weeds and saving water in the soil.

These companies, and everybody involved in organic farming, are preparing to deal with climate change. The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts recently gave some “good news, bad news” about climate change in the July/August issue of Organic Broadcaster.

Among the “good news” for Midwestern farmers were an extended growing season, fewer days over 100 degrees, increased organic matter in the soil and more vegetation and decomposition which helps the building of soil.

The list of “bad news” was longer and included more days above 95 degrees, more flooding, more weed growth and variety, new insects and disease pests, more humidity stress and dramatic changes in forest types.

The article, authored by Denise Thornton, said, “Organic farmers may be in a strong position to contend with climate change. (Iowa State’s Eugene) Takle noted, ‘Organic and natural systems have a way of working wi th the situation, and locally-adapted strains of particular crops might have more local adaptability.’”

Once again, the nurturing of the natural biodiversity is a key. “We do need to manage it,” Gunderson said. “But the goal is to allow the eco-system to provide as much as possible through natural diversity. If we allow it to do that, and enrich the soil, we can grow healthier plants, which leads to healthier animals and ultimately healthier food.”

–Hoffmann is a veteran journalist and has written on many topics for and . He writes the GreenBiz feature monthly.