CASE STUDY: Transitioning to organic
Goldmine Farm

Pioneering Illinois farmer recounts transition to organic
An appetite for experimentation tempered by cautious risk taking forge a successful operation.

By Dan Anderson
Posted November 16, 2007

Farm at a glance

Goldmine Farm
Jack Erisman
Pana, IL

Organic since: 1988/1990

Size: more than 2000 acres

Crops: corn, soybeans, small grains, hay, cattle

Markets: national and international

From a young age, Jack Erisman was determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer, despite his mother’s best intentions. At a time when children were strongly encouraged to take over the family farm, Jack’s mother did everything she could to steer him away from farming. But he always loved the land, and he loved the equipment; he fondly remembers his father—“the hardest working man I’ve ever seen”—starting up the Caterpillar tractor. It made an impression that never left.

Jack Erisman’s father built up the farm by buying land no one else wanted and restoring its productivity. He eventually became one of the largest farmers in the area. The family farm is located in Christian County, Illinois, just south of where the glaciers deposited the best soils in Illinois.

Jack attended parochial school in Springfield and Jesuit boarding school in Wisconsin for a classical education including Latin, Greek, mathematics and science. For awhile he considered the priesthood but ended up enrolling at St. Louis University to study Liberal Arts. He found he did not care for it and returned to the farm for a short time before joining the army at his father’s urging. In the fall of 1961 he finished his stint in the army and enrolled at Colorado State University to study agricultural engineering. Before he could finish school his father became ill and Jack once again returned to the farm. He planted his first crop in 1963, while working with his father. By January 1964 Jack’s father sold out completely, and Jack was a full-time farmer.

When Jack’s father bought the land that is now the home place, Jack’s grandfather walked over to the house from his own place across the newly purchased land. He told Jack’s father, “You didn’t buy a farm, you bought a goldmine.” He held up chunks of yellow clay subsoil. The previous owners had not farmed the land well, and in large areas the top soil was completely washed away, exposing the clay. The joke stuck, and the place is still called Goldmine Farm.

The decision to transition

Ultimately, Jack’s education and life experiences had an impact on the way he approached farming. By the end of 1969, he had come to realize more fertilizer and chemicals didn’t necessarily mean more profit. He also began to consider human and agricultural history, and came to realize that humans grew their food for thousands of years without the benefit of synthetic chemicals. Yet the dominant thinking was that chemical fertilizers and pesticide were now the only way humans could hope to feed themselves. “The period of time that agriculture has been based on chemicals seems extremely small compared to the rest of history,” Jack says. “The whole approach seems to be born of arrogance. This is a giant experiment. We don’t know if we can sustain it indefinitely.”

He started seeing the soil as a resource instead of a growing medium to be used up like so much oil. He experimented extensively and developed a farming philosophy that sought to build soil quality while minimizing off-farm inputs.

By 1968, Jack had initiated conservation tillage, all but eliminating the moldboard plow. By 1970, he had ceased using anhydrous ammonia and insecticides, using lower rates of nitrogen—in liquid form—and cutting chemical rates in half.

He spent the 1980s cutting back more on chemicals, learning more about the soil and perfecting the use of sustainable agricultural practices. This was a difficult time for farmers in general. Jack was servicing a half-million dollar debt, all of which he was able to pay off before making the decision to transition to organic in the later part of that decade. To this day Jack has never collected a single government payment.

In 1988, Jack tried converting one 40-acre field of wheat. The next year he expanded organic practices to another 40 acres of wheat. Then, in 1990, he treated the entire farm—2000 acres—as if he where farming organically. He was told by professors at the University of Illinois that no one had tried to convert large scale acreage to organic, and they honestly thought it could not be done.

Whole-hog conversion

Jack himself does not recommend this approach to others. Although he had been making incremental changes away from chemical farming the previous 10 years, the whole-hog jump to organic with the entire farm was daunting, particularly for Jack’s wife, Jeannie. She was uneasy about the change and still doesn’t care for the constant experimentation and being different from most of their friends and neighbors.

Indeed, the first years were difficult, but he had a business plan, stuck with it and made a profit. Another boon to his business was the gift of 180 acres he gradually received through a family trust over 30 years.

“I have grave concerns about capital becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of fewer corporate entities,” says Jack. Of course, the concern is for the conservation of the natural resources upon which future generations will depend for food. But he also worries that modern industrial agriculture is destroying opportunities for individual ownership. “Greater individual ownership results in better stewardship,” Jack says.“It provides the greatest benefit and economic balance for society.”

Jack runs a diverse operation using a seven-year rotation. This typically starts with corn, into which a rye cover crop is sown. The next year soybeans are planted, followed by a small grain—wheat, oats, barley or rye. The next spring, a grass/legume mix is over-seeded into the small grain. After harvest, the grass/legume mix is allowed to grow and is used for pasture and hay for one to three years depending on the field and water access. In some fields year-five is planted back to corn, year six to soybeans and year seven is fallow. About one seventh of Jack’s land is idle every year.

Jack also has a 200+ head cow/calf herd that he keeps mostly on pasture except for a few steers that are on feed. The animals are there to complement the system. “If we can successfully keep the animals on grass, it enables us to use longer rotations,” Jack says. This makes the farm less dependant on cash from grain yields. Jack sees the good-quality perennial pasture as a key component of the system, and gives it the potential for long-term sustainability. “That’s the ideal, but after 20 years I’m still learning how to do this.”

“If we can successfully keep the animals on grass, it enables us to use longer rotations."

Jack also uses the cattle to allow his hired hands to build their own equity in the farm. Jack usually has two hired hands working with him on the farm. They typically stay with the farm a long time. A couple have even retired from the farm. One reason is the opportunity Jack allows for them to acquire ownership in the cattle herd.

Jack admits he is still developing the system, but now sees that the biggest challenge is sustaining it. It’s not that Jack worries there won’t be any farmers to work the land in the future, he just wonders who will manage it in a way that reflects his own values (neither of Jack’s sons is interested in farming).

Challenges of transition

Jack encountered several challenges transitioning to organic. Originally, half the land he farmed was rented. Some of the landlords (family members) balked at the lower corn yields that first year and suggested adding nitrogen fertilizer. Surprisingly, his non-family landlords were supportive of the changes Jack wanted to make, and he eventually was given the opportunity to purchase the land. As for the family land, Jack did apply some nitrogen for the next three years, but in 1993 he certified his first fields, and by 1996 the whole farm was certified organic. Over the years, Jack’s father finally became convinced Jack was going the right direction. The family-owned land allowed Jack to take some risks and experiment, but he waited until he was debt-free before taking steps toward organic. Through good money management and some profitable investments in the 1970s, he was able to secure the farm and line up his personal finances in a way that made the transition less risky.

In the temperate region of Illinois, Jack has discovered other challenges.

The greatest challenge, he says, is simply trying to grow a row crop organically during the transition years. Going from conventional corn to organic soybeans, the challenge is controlling weeds. In first-year organic corn, the challenge is providing enough nitrogen. Jack talks about the land as a living entity. He explains that, “soil that is accustomed to chemical weed control and fertility year after year has to have time to adjust—from a biological and biochemical perspective—after those chemicals are suddenly removed.” In Jack’s opinion, first-year organic soybeans are almost not worth trying. “The weeds are too aggressive and yields too low.” With corn, the nitrogen demands would require many tons of compost or manure, hauled in and spread, in order to get a respectable crop.

Jack talks to many beginning organic farmers, and recommends they put fields going into organic into a small grain—wheat or oats—then into grass/legume cover crop, let the land rest in this state for a couple years and take a hay cutting or graze if some income is needed from the field. Otherwise, let it be. During transition, it’s important to minimize tillage.

Jack got this idea from a neighboring farmer who wasn’t even organic. He saw Jack struggling with the transition and told him, “Jack, you’re working yourself to death. Seems to me you should plant some wheat and then put in some grass/legume mix and let it sit until you’re ready to plant something.”

Jack took his neighbor’s advice and it worked. He’s now helped several other farmers do the same. “Landlords don’t like it because they’re not getting any income during those years,” Jack says, “But I tell them you don’t have any expenses either. Just let it ride, then in the third year, begin your rotation with corn, soybeans or a small grain if desired.” This proven strategy makes transition much simpler.

Certification process

When Jack first started in organic farming, there was no federal Organic Rule and certifiers across the country each had slightly different set of rules. Jack, with a group of other producers involved in organic agriculture, founded the Illinois OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) Chapter. He was in charge of overseeing the writing of the new organization’s by-laws. At that time, OCIA was a national organization with a well- established set of organic standards and procedures for certification.

Still, there were problems in the early days—double billing, lost paperwork, delays in receiving certification and steadily increasing percentages demanded by the national OCIA. Eventually, Jack changed certifiers with good results.

Today, with one set of organic standards administered by the USDA, many farmers—especially small-scale vegetable farmers marketing directly to consumers—are choosing not to certify. Their customers trust them and are willing to pay whatever price the farmer sets. But certification has become an essential part of Jack’s marketing plan. He sells his organic grain into the national and international markets, and certification allows him to capture the premiums that make organic profitable. The marketing of his organic grain is a vital and enjoyable part of the process for Jack. He’s confident that he could be successful growing vegetables and selling them at the farmers' markets and restaurants, but he’s chosen not to go that route. Jack is a successful grain and livestock farmer who uses organic certification to document his production practices and capture a higher price for his harvest. Having a good working relationship with your certifier is one of the keys to making the process work.

“Keeping good, detailed records is absolutely essential,” says Jack. Total openness and honesty are the best approach when dealing with certifiers and inspectors. Don’t try to hide anything. Most certifiers will work with you to solve problems. Jack also recommends talking to other organic producers to learn about the different certifiers and to gain a sense of how they work with producers. Are they available to answer questions when you need them? Are they prompt and organized with paperwork? Ask about all the costs.

Jack’s gradual transition to organic production—from when he decided to go for it—took about 10 years, and he’s continually looking toward the future. He spent countless hours diagramming his fields and devising a crop rotation for the next 30 years (the plan has been modified since then). “It’s always in flux,” says Jack. “A good pasture might be kept in pasture longer than planned if it’s doing well.” As new technology comes along, and Jack’s knowledge of the system increases, adjustments are made.

Jack’s first inspector was Jim Riddle, a man still considered to be one of the top organic inspectors in the world. At that time it was not against the rules for inspectors to give advice on organic practices. Jack picked Riddle’s brain during the day-and-a-half inspection.

Social history of transition: Influences

Jack’s father had a natural knowledge about land and how to farm it and make it pay. He built up the farm and eventually became one of the largest farmers in the area. “He had an incredibly strong work ethic. Work was everything,” remembers Jack. “He was extremely competitive and shrewd, but he was a risk-taker.” As he talks about his father, Jack doesn’t seem to realize how strongly the words describe him and the course of farming that Jack has chosen for himself.

In addition to his parents, Jack cites other progressive Illinois farmers who influenced him along the way. There was C.J. Fenzeau, whom Jack met in 1970. “He was like an evangelist,” remembers Jack. In the 1980s it was Gary and Jim McDonald from Mason City, Illinois. Over the years, Jack has been involved with sustainable agriculture organizations and other groups rich with farmers willing to share knowledge and exchange ideas. There was also New Farm magazine and the writings of Robert Rodale. “I still have many of the old issues laying around,” he said. He also read Plowman’s Folly, the classic book by Edward Faulkner about restoring the health of the soil through proper incorporation of plant residue. “I’ll never forgot the impact that book had on my thinking.”

Jack began farming in the midst of the chemical revolution. It was an exciting time in agriculture; 1964 was the first year Jack used, among other things, anhydrous ammonia. In 1965, he got a huge corn crop using anhydrous. The years following that large boost were never quite as good, and Jack spent time wondering why he couldn’t do it again. During that time a couple neighbors really pursued the chemical route. He recalls their shoes being yellow with Treflon. Later, those same farmers died of cancer and everyone said it was the chemicals that killed them. Jack traces his first thoughts of sustainable agriculture to that event.

Jack has always been an innovator. “I was the first to pull a tool bar with an anhydrous ammonia tank,” he remembers. He was willing to try things that others thought were impossible, but he was always careful not to endanger his livelihood by the experimentation (including going organic). Jack considers sound financial management to have been a key to his success as a farmer and an on-farm researcher. "If I manage wisely, I can afford to experiment with the farm. Not every acre has to make me what the average is." That is, as long as the whole farm breaks even, Jack counts his experiment on parts of the farm as progress. These small successes and failures have each played a role in developing Jack’s current organic system.

Sometimes opportunities to learn just present themselves, like in 1967—a very wet year. Jack didn't finish harvesting until February. At that time farmers always fall-plowed, but this year they just couldn’t get to it. In 1968 he was faced with plowing 600-700 acres of corn in the spring before planting. “I didn't know how we were going to do it,” Jack recalls. “I decided to chisel plow and we put a V-8 engine [a DVT-573 International turbo charged engine] into a 5020 John Deere. We went out and chisel plowed 1,200 acres in the spring.” He proved to himself and neighboring farmers that you could spring chisel, something then considered crazy.

That experience lead to other things. "I had all this residue on the land,” Jack remembers. “The Elanco guy [herbicide dealer] said, 'You're going to have to double your chemical application.’” Jack ignored the advice, reasoning that the residue would impede the growth of weeds. It worked, but he paid the same price many organic farmers have paid. “I was a trash farmer,” Jack says. “It probably cost me a half-section farm” because of a landlord's preference for bare soil between the rows.

In 1980, Jack’s father tried to talk Jack into quitting the farm. Jack was 40 and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “My father told me, ‘you’ll never make as much money in farming as I made.’ He could see then where farming was headed.” Jack decided to stick with it anyway and try some new things. “I’m not that comfortable unless I’m trying something new,” Jack says, a trait he inherited directly from his father.

In the end, there were very few major events or individuals who influenced Jack, but there were countless little things that, when combined, subtly altered his view of the world and the work he does in it.

Jack was instrumental in the formation of the earliest sustainable agriculture organization in the state—the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Society (ISAS). The organization sprang up from a group of farmers looking for information on alternative farming systems. At that time, there wasn’t much out there, and they got a less-than-enthusiastic response from the University of Illinois. The farmers of ISAS went to the university to seek research-based information on farming more profitably with less dependence on chemicals and other external inputs. At the time, organic agriculture was still relegated to the realm of the ’60s hippie movement.

Then ISAS farmers began doing their own on-farm research. The university provided some help in designing projects, but mostly ISAS was on its own, organizing meetings and field days to share what they were learning. Jack was a leader from the beginning. He already had many contacts at the university and in state government and other agricultural agencies. ISAS membership gradually increased and, eventually, sustainable and organic agriculture gained a level of legitimacy in Illinois.

Other regionally based farmer-led organizations grew out of ISAS, with on-farm research and field days being the main activities. Later, these groups joined forces under an umbrella group called the Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Network (ISAN). Conferences were held and funds were eventually secured to help expand on-farm research and outreach activities. Jack always maintained a leadership role in these organizations and is considered a driving force in the Illinois sustainable farming movement. These groups helped pass legislation that secured $750,000 in annual grant funds for programs that promote sustainable and organic agriculture throughout the state.

A matter of principle

As a rule, government payment programs are very important to grain farmers; with persistently low prices and steadily increasing costs, most grain farmers would not see a profit without them. Jack does not participate in government programs for philosophical reasons. He has built waterways and terraces on his farm without financial assistance from the Soil Conservation Service. “Why should I ask the government to help me with something on my own land that will bring me benefit?" He has gone to government agencies for information, but he would consider it hypocritical to accept money from a program that he doesn’t believe is right.

Likewise, the Erismans do not buy medical, life or crop insurance. "I lost about $70,000 in crops over 32 years, but I figure I would have paid $700,000 in crop insurance over the same time; $70,000 is a reasonable crop loss over three decades.” As their debt load diminished, Jack cut back on term life insurance. He does purchase workman's compensation, Social Security and other benefits for his hired men. He decided, however, that the odds are better just to pay medical bills than to purchase family medical insurance. Jack points out that his parents paid insurance their whole lives, but when his mother contracted cancer the company dropped them immediately.

Rotation evolution

Crop rotations are an important part of the organic grain and livestock system on Jack’s farm. It is a controlled diversity, a carefully planned sequence of cash crops, cover crops, hay, pasture and livestock that strives to balance the biological and geographical resources and processes operating on the land. At the same time ownership issues, storage capacity and marketing forces are taken into account when considering the rotation. Jack spreads out a large sheet of paper onto which he has drawn an elaborate table of years and crops. It all fits together with the precision of an engineer’s calculating mind.

When translated to the landscape however, the plan becomes little more than a set of general guidelines. Enter the need for flexibility: The engineer’s mind gives way to the realities of weather, pests, weeds, shifting markets and shifting perspectives. It still works, but the final product doesn’t look much like the original plan. If Jack were a house builder that might be a problem, but when working with natural systems, the real limits of the farmer’s control over the factors of production become evident. This is true for the organic and conventional farmer alike. Where the conventional farmer avails himself of chemical and genetically engineered technologies to overcome the irregularities of weather, pests and fertility, the organic farmer uses rotations.

Jack’s fields are roughly divided into seven groups, in order to balance acreages and build in a geographic distribution for storage purposes, rainfall and forage needs and to satisfy his landlords, who want diversity within their landholdings.

Jack uses a repeating sequence of two seven-year rotations that differ slightly and amount to an actual 14-year cycle. There are many potential variations built into the plan. The subtle shifts are a testament to Jack’s intimate knowledge of the land, its needs and potentials. He is producing a crop but at the same time improving his soil, protecting the water and building up a healthy and productive landscape to pass on to future generations.

Jack Erisman's rotation schedule

CROP(S)
NOTES
Year-1
Corn

Rye cover crop sown after harvest, or spring

Year-2
Soybean

Small grain sown after harvest in fall

Year-3
Small grain

Wheat, cereal rye, spelt, barley, triticale, or oats in the spring; all overseeded with grass/legume mix

Year-4
Hay or Pasture,
or seed production
60% grass by volume, if field will be used for hay or pasture. Another option for this year would be red clover or alfalfa seed production.
Year-5
Corn
Same as Year-1
Year-6
Soybean
Same as Year-2
Year-7
Rye
Land is left idle while rye is growing
Year-8
Soybean
Same as Year-2
Year-9
Small grain
Same as Year-3
Year-10
Hay or Pasture
Same as Year-4
Year-11
Corn
Same as Year-5
Year-12
Soybean
Same as Year-6
Year-13
Small grain
 
Year-14
Grass/legume mix
For hay, pasture or seed production. From here, could go back to a year-1 corn or year-8 soybean, depending on conditions.

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Like most grain farmers in the Midwest, Jack’s fields are not contiguous. Many distinct fields make up his entire farm, all within five miles of each other, but all differ in size, shape and biological characteristics. Furthermore, each field is at a different stage in the rotation. In theory, Jack has roughly one-seventh of his land at each stage of the rotation each year. This arrangement gives Jack lots of diversity and flexibility across the farm each year, something conventional grain farmers do not enjoy with the typical corn-soybean rotation.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are essential because of the complexity of Jack’s rotation and the benefits derived from a growing stand of grasses and legumes on the soil. Having eliminated synthetic forms of fertility, cover crops are part of the strategy for building up tilth and nutrients for cash crops. They also protect the soil from wind and water erosion, increase soil organic matter, keep weeds from taking over and provide extra forage for grazing beef cattle when needed. Jack always uses a grass/legume mix for cover cropping. Grasses used are rye (cereal), ryegrass, orchard grass, perennial ryegrass and timothy. Legumes used are primarily alfalfa and various clovers.

To maintain organic certification organic farmers must use organic seed, and this applies to cover crops as well. Demand for organic cover crop seed has increased as more farmers have moved to organic. Consequently, the price of seed has doubled. This has increased the costs of planting cover crops substantially. Planting some species at recommended rates would cost Jack $50 per acre. To keep costs down, he plants at lower rates, uses whatever is available, and grows some of his own seed. Still, it is a challenge. When you consider that Jack has around 500 acres planted with grass/legume cover in any given year, that’s a lot of organic seed to grow or source from organic seed companies. “There’s a real hole in organic seed production,” he says.

Tillage

Farming more than 2,000 acres, Jack is dependent on equipment to accomplish all the necessary tilling, planting and harvesting. Over the years he has tried everything, and he doesn’t rule out any equipment, including the much-maligned moldboard plow. “There’s a place for the moldboard plow in this system,” Jack says, explaining, “It really comes in handy when going from pasture to row crops, breaking up root balls and such.” But Jack knows the variety of tillage equipment and how to use it.

Equipment companies often come to Jack to hold field demonstrations on his land for their newest line of machines. They come because Jack has fields that aren’t planted fencerow to fencerow in corn or soybeans. “They come and do their field day and then leave the equipment for me to use over the next year,” says Jack. He constantly keeps an eye out for new ideas in equipment that will help him do a better job.

There is certain equipment Jack says he cannot live without, such as the close-space, notched-bladed disk. Another important tool is the high-residue rotary hoe. Jack also uses a high-residue cultivator. But the tillage picture is all over the place. In places where he can’t plow, Jack works a lot of his ground with a disk and a chisel. Again, the issue in so many of his fields is dealing with well-established grass and the hard root-balls it forms. Breaking those up to prepare a good seed bed for crops is an important task, and Jack will use any piece of equipment that gets the job done.

Varieties

Crop selection and variety choices have a lot to do with market demand. “For instance,” says Jack, “If I had any organic food-grade white corn now, I’d practically be able to name my price, where a couple years ago I could hardly get rid of it.” But the same volatility is true of conventional white corn. Jack doesn’t grow everything on contract, but he watches what contracts are doing before deciding what to plant.

He almost always goes for food-grade quality on all his crops. If he doesn’t get food-grade he looks to sell into the feed market. There are particular difficulties with raising organic food-grade oats. The buyers of food-grade oats are very strict and the premium for organic oats is not that great. Jack can raise a good oat crop, but bran bugs routinely come in, and their presence in the harvested oats is not appreciated by organic food-grade oats buyers. “By the time they’ve docked you for the bugs and storage and whatever, there goes your premium,” says Jack. Still, he’s able to market lots of feed-grade oats through local feed stores and to individual horse owners. He’s grown many different varieties, particularly of corn, but notes that many of the specialty varieties don’t yield as high, and so the premiums being offered are an important determining factor.

Jack saves as much seed as is practical, given market demands and economics. He's experimenting with open-pollinated corn. It has a higher feed value and would enable him to save his own corn seed, but open-pollinated lines don’t have the high yields that hybrid varieties have.

Looking ahead, looking behind

“I still feel very strongly that our ag research needs to be holistic…that we need to look at the basic biology of the plants and soil to see what they can do without labeling it ‘conventional’ or ‘organic,’” Jack declares. His mindset towards research and farming is ecological at its core and typical of successful organic producers, who have made the switch from an industrial paradigm to a holistic one. For example, synthetic chemical inputs are no longer judged merely on their value as a convenience or production-enhancing tool, but also by their impact on the system as a whole.

Jack believes modern agriculture has severely altered the elements and cycles and resources upon which agriculture itself depends, so much so that ag research needs to go back to the basics and start with clean slate. “We have to step back 100 years and start over,” he says. “It’s not the same land. As researchers and producers, that’s our challenge today.”