Visitors interested in Orland organic farm
By CHUCK CLEMENT, Staff Reporter
Operating an organic ag operation requires more than just telling customers that grain was harvested from fields that weren't sprayed with herbicide and that livestock spend at least a third of their time grazing in pastures.|
Organic farming has a complicated path from the field to the market for producers to follow. However, there are examples of successful agricultural operations, including one in southern Lake County located in the middle of South Dakota's corn and soybean country.
On Thursday, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) helped sponsor an organic row crops farm tour at Johnson Farms, an ag operation managed for decades by Charlie and Allan Johnson in Orland Township. More than 110 visitors toured the 2,800-acre operation in which the brothers and their wives, Bette and Marcia, and cousin Aaron grow organic grain crops such as corn and spring wheat and raise Angus-Gelbveih livestock.
Charlie Johnson was selected as the MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year for 2013. MOSES operates as a nonprofit organization that provides support and education to farmers who are interested in sustainable organic agriculture. Charlie Johnson has credited his late father Bernard with moving the farming operation toward more natural farming methods 40 years ago. Charlie said most of the visitors were interested in "actually eyeballing the practices" that he and the family use to grow crops.
According to Johnson, Johnson Farms divides 1,800 crop acres into six portions that are then placed on a six-year crop rotation plan. The rotation plan includes one year of production for corn and oats and two years of soybean and alfalfa production.
Michelle Menken, an organic certifier for the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association who attended the Johnson Farms tour, said many organic farmers and ag producers interested in organic farming seek any information available on how to reduce weed and pest problems. Successful crop rotations provide one method of weed control for organic farmers.
For farmers starting out with their organic efforts, Menken said the first lesson is understanding that it takes at least 36 months before their first harvest can receive the organic label.
"You can have that first organic crop planted before you're eligible, as long as you're established as an organic farm when that crop is harvested," Menken said.
MOSES lists three initial steps to creating an organic ag operation -- transitioning the land, selecting a certification agency, and building a record-keeping system.
Organic farmers also need to conduct annual efforts in keeping their operation qualified, following four steps of submitting farm plans, undergoing inspections, verifying certification requirements, and receiving the certification itself.
Menken said farmers should perform another important task while moving through the three-year transition process -- talking to buyers.
"During that transition to organic, marketing is a really good thing to do," Menken said.
Harriet Behar, a MOSES organic specialist, supported Menken's advice with how her organic vegetable and grain farm has planned the marketing of its tomato output this summer. Behar said that she didn't plant the 1,000 tomato plants on her Gays Mills, Wis., farm until she had a buyer for all of the tomatoes. She also has a schedule arranged with her customers for bringing in part of her tomato crop each week as the tomatoes ripen on the vine.