COLUMNISTS

Organic farming a natural choice

John Oncken
The Miller family milk some 300 cows north of Sun Prairie and sell organic milk.

“Organic Valley has always been, and always will be, committed to providing an economic model that allows farmers to make a living,” says the largest independent organic cooperative in the nation. 

But why would it matter if family farms disappear? Who really cares if the food you eat comes from large conglomerates? “We do, and Organic Valley farmers want to tell you why”.“Take away family farms and you take away deep connections to animals, land, community, and small-town commerce. And that’s why in the 1980s, when family farms were dying, seven farmers got together in Wisconsin and set out to change that through providing organic food. From seven farmers to 1,800 farmers three decades later, Organic Valley continues to champion the American family farm.”

34 years later

Marbleseed will host the nation's largest organic farming conference Feb. 23-25, 2023, in La Crosse, Wis., welcoming farmers, researchers, and agriculture professionals to learn the latest organic production practices and build a supportive community of resilient organic, sustainable, and regenerative farms.

This year's Marbleseed Organic Farming Conference is set for Feb. 23-25.

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) was first incorporated in 1995. In June 3, 2022, MOSES was renamed Marbleseed, after a prairie plant native to the Midwest.

With the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) authorized by the 1990 Farm Bill, there was a great need for farmer education and technical assistance. Increasing use of production methods that improved soil health, along with an emerging certification process created a dynamic and exciting environment for farmers who were on the frontline advocating for organic standards that could support the burgeoning organic farming movement. 

“The nature of Marbleseed calls to mind regeneration and ecosystem support. Its self-seeding nature speaks to the resiliency, adaptability, and strong community networks needed in the organic farming movement today. Its relative anonymity provides the opportunity to create meaning,” said Executive Director Lori Stern.

Still a need

Organizers say the need for farmer education and technical assistance continues, and so does Marbleseed’s commitment to provide it.

But the organic farming landscape has changed greatly in the past three decades. Growing environmental awareness and consumer demand for organics has increased, but market capture by industrialized food and agriculture means little of that demand is reaching small and mid-scale farmers and the barriers to enter organic farming, and the challenges of staying in business, remain prohibitively high for small and mid-scale farmers.

Headquartered in Spring Valley, Wis., officials at Marbleseed can be reached at info@marbleseed.com.

Another positive factor is the emergence of Organic Grain Resources and Information Network (OGRAIN) at the University of Wisconsin which provides many educational learning opportunities for beginning and veteran organic farmers.

The Miller family houses their cows in a freestall and milk with a rotary in a milking parlor.

The Doudlah farm is a 1,450 acre diversified organic grain operation at Evansville, Wis., 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 dense 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 are planned in the near future. 

I’ve known Mark Doudlah for many years when he served as president of the nearby Agrecol, a well known producer of prairie grass seeds. 

A "USDA Organic" label is printed on the label of a carton of a dozen eggs. The USDA Organic label generally signifies a product is made without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, and that animals are raised according to certain standards.

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 believe) 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. "I had to become a biological farmer,” he recalls. “I had to learn about soil health, cover crops, weed control and marketing. But, the results paid off.“

What is organic?

Over the years I have occasionally written about organic farming only to get letters and e-mails telling me how wrong I was in defining what ‘organic” really meant. No, organic doesn’t mean the food contains a magic elixir. Nor does it mean organic food is juicer, sweeter, has more vitamins or will guarantee longer happier life. 

What organic does mean: Agricultural production systems that do not use genetically modified (GM) 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 recordkeeping 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 methods and practices

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 nutrients, and absorb water. Increased soil organic matter contributes to greater resilience under stresses 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 USDA. The National Organic Program (NOP) develops the rules and regulations for the production, handling, labeling, and enforcement of all USDA organic products. 

The Organic Valley milk product line is sold nationwide.

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% of total food sales. In 2014, organic food sales of $35.9 billion, claimed almost 5% of the total food sales in the U.S., far more than the  the 3% growth pace for the total food industry. The sale of organic dairy products jumped almost 11% 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.

From zero to $1 billion

Closer to home, Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) or Organic Valley as it is commonly known 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. 

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

For those interested in learning more, a first step might be to contact Marbleseed at 715-778-5775.

John F. Oncken can be reached at at jfodairy2@gmail.com