What I learned from an organic farmer

Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke

Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke

Written by Haleigh Ortmeier-Clarke, Minnesota Corn Growers Association intern

Organic farming gets a lot of attention, both good and bad. As someone who comes from a traditional farming background with genetically modified crops and pesticides, I am usually quick on the defensive when it comes to a discussion around organics.

My eyes were opened by Carolyn Olson and Emily Zweber at the CommonGround volunteer training on June 24, at the Minnesota Corn office in Shakopee. CommonGround is a group of farm women who connect with non-farming consumers to answer questions about food and farming.

Each woman took turns introducing their family farms and farming practices, which actually sounded a lot more familiar than I expected. I guess the saying really is true, don’t judge a farm by its title.

At Fairview Farm in Cottonwood, Minn., Carolyn and her husband Jonathan raise organic wheat, corn, and soybeans. They also use cover crops and finish swine for a neighbor. The couple takes pride in how they raise their crops.

Emily and her husband Tim farm with his parents, Jon and Lisa Zweber, just south of the Twin Cities at Zweber Family Farms. The farm has been in the family since 1906. Because of the land topography the family decided to turn to pasture-raised dairy in the 1980s and have been certified organic since 2008. Besides the organic dairy, the family raises non-organic free range chickens, broilers, pigs, and beef.

What is organic?
After introducing us to their farms, Carolyn and Emily did some explaining on what it means to be U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Certified Organic. They are third-party certified, operate under the National Organic Program (NOP, under the USDA), and follow rules and guidelines set up by the  National Organic Standards Board.

Animal welfare standards are similar to conventional farming, but no synthetic hormones, antibiotics, or unapproved inputs may be used. Organic farms are thoroughly inspected to ensure they are maintaining good standards. Carolyn brought some examples of the extensive paperwork and bookkeeping done on the farm that is mandatory to remain certified. It is definitely not a quick, nor simple process.

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Carolyn Olson and Emily Zweber talking organic farming at a recent CommonGround training at the Minnesota Corn office.

Hot topics that often arise in organic-focused discussions are antibiotics, weeds, and feeding the world. Emily and Carolyn addressed them all.

Sick animals
The argument for the use of antibiotics makes sense, and there are also many good reasons as to why some farmers choose not use them. Emily says step No. 1 in their plan of attack is prevention. Vaccines are an important part of cows’ lives because they can prevent many diseases and infections before they can happen. Calves get colostrum for a boost and the bedding and facilities are always kept clean.

Consumer-driven demand for antibiotic-free animal products is a driver of the organic industry. In reality, few antibiotics are actually needed. The bottom line, though, is if antibiotics are they only way to save an animal, they will be given antibiotics, even on organic farms. An unnecessary lost life is the last thing that any farmer wants. The animal will not be able to go back into organic production and will be sold. On a dairy farm, the milk collected from the treated animal is kept separate and dumped.

Killing those pesky weeds
Pesticide use is another common talking point for proponents of organic agriculture. I always asked the question, “So what do you do with weeds?”

Carolyn’s answer: “We have a variety of cultivators.” Different equipment is used for different stages of the growing season, for different crops, and for different weeds. I was particularly interested in the flame weeder. To me, this sounded like some sort of action movie contraption with big balls of fire and cool sound effects. Even though it wasn’t pulled out of last week’s blockbuster film, a flame weeder is still a pretty cool contraption.

The weeder has torches that fit between the rows of the crop that hit the weeds with a blast of heat. The point isn’t to end up with a crispy weed, but to draw out the moisture from the weed that is necessary for nutrient movement throughout the plant. Many adjustments need to be made in each weeding situation to prevent the crop itself from being harmed.

Feeding the world
“But how are you going to feed the world on organic” is a common question, one I am too guilty of asking.. Many organic farmers do not see conventional agriculture as a competitor. There is a market for both products and when it comes down to it, “All farmers are working hard. It’s our passion,” Carolyn said.

Emily also had a great point of view: “We’re farming in the best way for our family, farm, and animals. If you don’t agree, go find another farmer to support. Just support agriculture.”

In today’s world of media wars and google Ph.Ds. it’s important to stop and see the tassels sometimes. Marketing campaigns that pit organic versus conventional aren’t really pro one or the other. They’re simply anti-agriculture. Farmers have the same goal, whether they’re certified organic or not. Farmers are producing the food we eat, the fiber we wear, and the fuel we use every day. Supporting agriculture should be an easy choice, a choice we all make.

At the end of the day I think that Carolyn brought us back to what is truly important. “We should ALL be proud of what we are producing.”

Big or small, organic or conventional, we are all agriculture, and THAT is our CommonGround.

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