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“One of the main problems we have is to obtain organic feed for our dairy cows,”  the Iowa county dairyman said.  “There isn’t much available, and what there is is expensive.”

That’s a common comment I’ve heard  from organic dairy producers over the years, and there is an apparent movement by  some nonorganic farmers to “go organic” and fill that need.  At least many of the 200 or so enthusiastic attendees at the recent Organic Field Walk held at Doudlah Farms LLC, Evansville, seemed to be aiming in that direction.

The field day  was hosted by Organic Grain Resources and Information Network (at UW-Madison) and Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).

To learn

The event, held on the historic “village square” in Cooksville (near Evansville), offered a wide array of subjects ranging from budgeting to crop rotation to human health to weed control.

The Doudlah farm is a 1,450-acre diversified organic grain operation producing corn, soybeans, ancient grains, cover crop seed (Aroostook Rye, Purple Bounty Vetch, 4010 Forage Peas), dry beans and canning crops.

In addition, Doudlah Farms, LLC/FarmRite Organics is a biological organic farm focused on the profitable, progressive and sustainable production of non-GMO/organic, nutrient-rich foods; organic milled grains; ancient grains; cover crop seeds; free-range organic poultry and eggs; and grass-fed pork products.  Non-GMO grass-fed beef is planned in the near future.

I’ve known Mark Doudlah for many years, when he served as president of  the nearby Agrecol (the well-known producer of prairie grass seeds).  What I didn’t know was Mark had also rented (and worked for a year or two) my home farm near Stoughton, now owned by my niece.

The change to organic

“Why the change from traditional crop farming to organic farming?” was my question to Mark.

“In 2008, my dad (Earl) became ill from pesticides (we think), and we figured there must be a better way  to farm,” Doudlah  said. “We began the transition to organic with 40 acres of corn.  We wanted to raise nutrient-dense food that was free of pesticides.’

He admitted that the three transition years were not easy and that he had to learn an almost totally different way  to farm.

"I had to become a biological farmer,” he said.  “I had to learn about soil health, cover crops, weed control and marketing. But, the results pay off. I sell pinto beans to Chipotle and last year sold my corn for $9 a bushel.”

Over the years, I have occasionally written about organic farming only to get letters and emails telling me how wrong I was in defining what "organic” really meant.

What is organic?

No, organic doesn’t mean the food contains a magic elixir. Nor does it mean organic food is juicIer, sweeter, has more vitamins or will guarantee a longer, happier life.

What organic does mean: agricultural production systems that do not use genetically modified seed, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Some of the essential characteristics of organic systems include design and implementation of an organic system plan that describes the practices used in producing crops and livestock products; a detailed record-keeping system that tracks all products from the field to point of sale; and maintenance of buffer zones to prevent inadvertent contamination by synthetic farm chemicals from adjacent conventional fields.

Biological

Organic farmers use biological methods and management practices such as diversified crop rotations that improve soil quality. Organic farming increases soil organic matter, which enhances the soil's ability to absorb and store carbon; cycle nutrient; and absorb water. Increased soil organic matter contributes to greater resilience under stressors such as drought and flooding.

Certified organic refers to agricultural products that have been grown and processed according to uniform standards that have been verified by the USDA. The National Organic Program develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling and enforcement of all USDA organic products.

Grow, grow, grow

The consumption of organic food products has shown outstanding growth in recent years. In 1997, organic food sales totaled $3.4 billion, or less than 1 percent of total food sales. In 2014, organic food sales of $35.9 billion claimed almost 5 percent of the total food sales in the U.S., far more than the  the 3 percent growth pace for the total food industry.  The sale of organic dairy  products jumped almost 11 percent in 2014 to $5.46 billion, the biggest percentage increase for that category in six years.

The long held perception (by many) that organic foods were a short-term fad is a remnant of the past as sales of organic food and nonfood products in the majority of American households in all regions of the country make organic a part of their supermarket and retail purchases — from 68 to almost 80 percent of households in southern states to nearly 90 percent on the West Coast and in New England.

From zero to $1 billion

Closer to home, Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, or Organic Valley as it is commonly known,  was formed in 1988 by a small group of farmers. It has 1,800 farmer-owners located in 32 states and three Canadian provinces raising organic products that are marketed in all 50 states, Canada, China, Japan and 22 other countries.

The La Farge-based organization has become the world's largest independent cooperative of organic family farmers and one of the nation's largest producers and distributors of organic produce, dairy, soy and eggs with 2015 sales of $1 billion.

George Siemon, one of the founding farmers of CROPP and the CEO of Organic Valley, has led the organization from the start.  He saw from the get-go what  many farmers have seen or are now seeing  — that organic is here to stay and will only get bigger.

Neil Breunig, a dairy producer who milks 250 cows in Lodi with his wife Margie, came to the field day. “I’m exploring options," he said. “This is the first such meeting I’ve ever attended. I don’t know much about organic dairying or even how one would get started, but I’m here to learn.”

Thus the field day at the Doudlah Farm was where attendees saw and heard how Mark and his family went organic, from the original 40 acres of corn to hundreds of acres of corn, soybeans and a host of specialty crops used for weed control, fertility and income sources.

As Mark Doudlah said from experience:  “It’s a whole new way to farm. Do your research, and learn as you go.”

A first step might be to contact MOSES at 715-778-5775 or mosesorganic.org.

Whether organic or not, the milk or crops come from Wisconsin farms, and that’s good!

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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