In the mid-'70s, Carmen Fernholz decided to try his hand at sustainable farming. More than 30 years later, he is reaping the rewards of a niche market. He grows 350 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, oats, flax, alfalfa and dried field peas, all organically, on his 465-acre farm near Madison, Minn. With the exception of the flax, which he markets for human consumption, all of his production is sold for livestock feed.
There is a huge void in the supply of organically grown feed for U.S. producers of organic beef, pork, dairy and eggs. "We are importing organic grain from Brazil and Argentina and soybeans from Brazil and China,” says Harriet Behar, who is the organic outreach coordinator for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) headquartered in Spring Valley, Wis.
She says the prices U.S. farmers are currently receiving for organic grains and soybeans are roughly double the amount that is paid for conventionally grown commodities.
Demand drives sales.
There is a strong demand for flaxseed meal from egg and dairy producers because of its high omega-3 content. Feed grade prices have been in the range of $40 to $50 per bushel.
Driving the demand for organic livestock feeds, Behar explains, is the strong growth in consumer preference for meat, dairy products and eggs that have been produced without pesticides, inorganic fertilizers or antibiotics.
In the 10-year period leading up to the recent economic hiccup, consumer demand for organic food products was growing by 20% annually; demand for organic meat climbed by as much as 40% last year. Behar expects the growth to continue at a more moderate pace, probably between 10% to 15% a year, until the economy improves.
Fernholz has been cashing in on the premiums paid for organic livestock feeds. His corn sold for $9 to $11 per bushel last year, soybeans for $20 to $24 per bushel and barley for $8.50 per bushel.
Fernholz works with a marketing agent from National Farmers Organics, who in turn works with agents from seven other marketing co-ops in the Midwest who are part of the O Farm Group. "That benefits our ability to market at top dollar,” he says.
Fernholz doesn't plant every crop every year, but he grows all of them during a five- to six-year cycle. Soybeans, wheat and barley make up the biggest part of his acreage.
Soybeans, alfalfa and peas are legumes, so they produce nitrogen grown in a crop rotation. He underseeds all small grains and flax with red clover or an annual alfalfa. And, because he's been at it so long, he has a good handle on weed management. Fernholz's only insect problem is the soybean aphid. He is working with an agronomist at the University of Nebraska for a solution.
MOSES's Behar says cost-sharing is available to help producers gain certification. The current farm bill covers 75% of the costs, with a $750 cap per operation. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides a maximum of $20,000 per farm per year, up to a maximum of $80,000 for six years, to convert to organic production, including the cost of technical assistance. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has funds to enhance native pollinator habitat that can be used to plant beneficial insect habitat in buffer zones to assist with insect control.
Behar says technical information on organic cropping practices is available from many land-grant universities, NRCS and MOSES.
"We have a Web site that is a clearinghouse for organic information,” she says. "It lists events and new regulations and publications.
"In addition, there is a new Web site, eOrganic, that will have a question-and-answer section with experts to handle inquiries. And there will be links to other organic information sources starting in late January 2009.”
Behar adds that people interested in organic production should attend the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wis., Feb. 26 to 28. The conference has more than 60 workshops, numerous speakers and almost 140 exhibitors who sell machinery, soil amendments and other products of interest to organic producers.
For More Information
To learn more about organic production practices and producer certification standards, visit:
Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES): www.mosesorganic.org
Natural Resources Conservation Service: www.nrcs.usda.gov
Your area land-grand university
eOrganic: New Web site coming in late January. Visit www.extension.org
for direct link information.
MOSES Organic Farming Conference, La Crosse, Wis., Feb. 26 to 28