Posted December 9, 2004: On the day before
Election Day it rained hard, all day, across most of the state
of Iowa. While the pundits and the candidates cycled through
the final 24 hours of the campaign, the corn and soybean harvests
came to a temporary halt as farmers were forced indoors. It
was a time to contemplate end-of-year returns and future prospects.
To do so, a good percentage of the state's organic farmers
gathered in Ames for the 4th Annual Iowa Organic Conference.
Two hundred ninety-five people were in attendance, according
to conference organizer and ISU organic agriculture extension
specialist Kathleen Delate. The conference's trade show was
the largest to date, with more than 50 exhibitors, from Clarkson
Grain Company to Dow Agrosciences. A delicious organic lunch
menu—roasted chicken and ham, mashed potatoes and winter
squash, succotash, goat cheese, and apple pie—featured
foods from over a dozen local organic farmers.
The heavy rains came on the heels of a high precipitation
season, and there was general agreement among the farmers
in attendance that 2004 had been a tough year for organics
as a result. Many farmers had problems with vomitoxin in their
wheat and barley crops, and some were forced to plant corn
and soybeans later than usual because of wet conditions. Still,
early yield reports were good and the meeting had the characteristic
optimism and excitement of an organic producers' group.
Ongoing challenges, political and practical
Keynote presentations by Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for
Rural Affairs and Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center
for Sustainable Agriculture surveyed the challenges and opportunities
facing the agricultural community of the Midwest. Hassebrook
spoke of the urgent need for family farmers to grab hold of
value-added marketing opportunities before large corporate
operations beat them to the punch. The first 'natural' pork
to appear in supermarkets, for example, came from large-scale
confinement facilities, he said.
The Center for Rural Affairs is supporting the formation of
a livestock producers' co-op in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota,
to help family farmers gain better market access by boosting
volume and consistency. Hassebrook also called for a renewed
effort to create, promote and enforce a 'family-farm' label,
so that consumers can make informed decisions about the foods
they buy. Finally, Hassebrook urged farmers and other rural
constituents to demand a federal agricultural policy that rewards
good land stewardship instead of corporate ownership and continual
expansions of scale.
"The single most effective thing Congress could do [to
help family farmers] is cap commodity payments," which
favor the largest producers, said Hassebrook, who as executive
director of the CRA has been actively involved in getting
sustainable agriculture provisions into recent farm bills.
Family farmers, he said, have the power to reform the commodity
payment system, if they want to enough. "Most decisions
[affecting farmers] are made by rural state delegations in
committees—these are people who claim to represent farmers,
and farmers have to hold them accountable."
Leopold Center director Fred Kirschenmann cited his organization's
spiritual founder, Aldo Leopold, to argue for understanding
organic agriculture as a biotic community. Leopold advocated
a biotic--as opposed to a strictly utilitarian--understanding
of conservation. "We can't just divide species into those
that are useful, injurious, or indifferent to agriculture,"
Kirschenmann paraphrased. "We have to look at the health
of the whole biota."
Essential to the management of organic systems as biotic
communities, Kirschenmann went on, is the use of grasslands.
In the Midwest today, grasslands are often regarded as the
best use of the worst land, rather than as an integral part
of a well-functioning farm. Evidence from around the world
suggests that integrated, grass-based crop-livestock systems
are the most energy efficient, a quality that becomes increasingly
important as fossil fuel prices rise. Grass-based systems
are also more diverse and more resilient, and therefore better
suited to a world characterized by climatic instability.
A functional value chain for the agriculture
of the middle
Iowa lies at the heart of what Kirschenmann and others have
identified as the disappearing 'agriculture
of the middle.' While very large farms, mostly supplying
the food processing industries, have come to dominate the
agricultural sector, and small farms selling direct to retail
markets are making a comeback, medium-sized farms continue
to disappear. Converting to organic production is one way
for medium-sized farms to improve their profitability, but
as the organic grain and livestock farmers in the audience
could testify, certification alone can rarely solve all the
marketing challenges faced by family farmers in remote rural
"The agriculture of the middle needs a functional value
chain," Kirschenmann observed. Once upon a time, he said,
farmers could buy their supplies and services, raise their
crops and sell them on to the dealer or packer, end of story.
Nowadays, Kirschenmann said, to be successful farmers have
to be communicating with all the parties in both directions
along that value chain, from the suppliers of seed, breeding
stock, and other inputs, to the veterinarians and consultants,
to the handlers, processors, packers, retailers, and consumers.
"In the new value chain, the farmer is a partner in food
production with all the other parties, not just a step along
The good news, Kirschenmann said, is that medium-sized farmers
have a growing market opportunity in the food service sector,
which now accounts for nearly half of the US consumer's food
dollar. The majority of food service sales are in restaurants,
and half of all restaurants want "food with a story,"
which is precisely what organic and sustainable family farms
have to offer—if they can successfully access a functioning
value chain to maintain and communicate that story.
An old and new crop for the Midwest: flax
The day's breakout sessions offered numerous examples of
value-chain building by and for Iowa's organic farmers. A
morning session on organic flax production and processing,
for example, described the opportunities created by Spectrum
Organic Products' recent opening of a new
flax processing facility in Cherokee, Iowa. The session
included presentations by Mark Schuett of BIOWA Nutraceuticals
and American Natural Soy, who was instrumental in convincing
Spectrum to locate its new facility here; by organic farmer
Paul Mugge, who grew flax for the first time this year and
is optimistic about using it in a rotation with corn, soybeans,
and triticale; and by Iowa State University organic extension
specialist Kathleen Delate, who coordinated trials of organic
flax at Mugge's farm and half a dozen other locations across
the state in 2004.
Flax was formerly an important crop in America--for both
linen and linseed oil--and is still grown widely on the Canadian
prairies. According to the National Agricultural Statistics
Service, Iowa's peak flax production decades were the 1890s
and 1940s; as recently as 1950, there were 77,000 acres of
flax grown in the state. The plant is a cool-season annual
in the family Linaceae. The cultivated species is Linum
usitatissimum, which includes both oil seed and fiber
Schuett described the strong 'nutraceuticals' market for
flax oil, which is high in the nutritionally desirable omega-3
fatty acids. Spectrum Organic Products has been in business
for 17 years and reports steady growth in demand for flax
oil, which they sell in fresh and gel cap form. The new plant
currently has the capacity to crush 60 tons of flax seed per
day and could be expanded to handle up to 120 tons/day. The
company also plans to construct additional cleaning, conditioning,
and storage facilities.
According to Schuett, Spectrum would like to source 35 to
40 percent of the plant's production from Iowa farmers, equivalent
to 2,500 to 3,000 acres of organic flax. Not surprisingly,
Spectrum wants flax seed with high oil content. For 2004,
they set their base price of 34¢/pound for seed with
38-percent oil content. A by-product of the crushing process
is flax meal, which can be fed to livestock.
Delate gave an overview of flax production guidelines and
described the 2004 organic flax trials undertaken at the Neely-Kinyon
Research Farm. There is an excellent flax breeding program
in Canada, she noted, and extensive information on managing
the crop is available through the University of Saskatchewan
(although it may or may not be appropriate to Midwestern US
The crop generally has a 110-day season, including about
50 days of vegetative growth, 25 days of flowering, and 35
days of maturation. The Iowa trials suggest that flax does
better after soybeans than after corn—although flax
is a relatively light feeder, it does need some fertility
(standard recommendations are for 50 lbs of N/ac).
Recommended planting rates run from 25 to 70 lbs/acre, with
higher rates suggested for organic production to improve competitiveness
against weeds. Planting dates for flax are similar to small
grains, and in the 2004 trials the Iowa farmers found that
the earlier seeded fields did the best.
For harvesting, Mugge said, "you need a good sharp sickle
bar." It's better, he said, to swath the crop first and
then pick it up with the combine--straight combining is reported
to decrease yields by as much as 50 percent. Another challenge,
Mugge said, is to make certain that bolls in which the seeds
are borne are broken up by the action of the combine.
The strength and durability of flax fibers mean that flax
straw breaks down slowly in the soil, he said, so it should
be chopped and spread if not baled. (For the same reason,
flax straw makes great mulch.) Mugge makes his flax straw
into big round bales. A number of alternative uses for the
straw have been suggested—including paper, linen, and
various construction materials—and some of these are
already being targeted for research at ISU.
While flax yields reported in the literature run from 9 to
22 bu/ac, Iowa's organic flax farmers have already achieved
yields as high as 36 bu/ac. Evidence suggests that flax grown
in colder latitudes has higher omega-3 levels but lower yields,
so that may explain the disparity. Varieties trialed in 2004
included Hanley, Bethune, and Norlin.
Some old-timers will tell you that flax is likely to be weedy,
that it's difficult to cut, and that it can be hard on the
soil. While there's some truth to at least the first two of
these complaints, Mugge said, they are not insurmountable
problems, and they are outweighed by the promise of the crop
as a profitable addition to an organic rotation. Consider
the numbers: at 34¢/lb, a yield of 30 bu/ac of 56 lb/bu
flax would gross $571 per acre, a respectable figure for an
organic field crop. "Let's keep optimizing production,"
Mugge concluded. Anyone interested in joining an informal
organic flax producers' group should contact him at email@example.com.
Supply chain management for organic grain
"I'll challenge the ISU agronomists
any day of the week to show that the corn-soybean system
is better than [the organic corn/soybean/small grain/forage]
Later in the day, Bob Turnbull and Ron Rosmann led a session
on supply chain issues and the organic grain market. Turnbull,
who markets soybeans for Stonebridge Ltd. in Cedar Falls,
frankly described the organic corn and soybean supply chain
as "fragmented, inconvenient, illiquid, under financed,
and [generally] not well understood." This is in strong
contrast to the conventional commodity supply chain, which
is unified across seeds, inputs, and transport systems; has
a convenient and extensive collection and delivery network;
is highly liquid, thanks to the Chicago Board of Trade and
other financial institutions; is well financed in terms of
both research and industry support; and is generally well
understood by all participants.
Nevertheless, Turnbull said, demand for organic corn and
soybeans continues to build, and the sector is becoming more
organized as segments consolidate and strongly capitalized
companies get into the game. Organic grain producers are gaining
strength as their numbers increase, he said, and should continue
to work together to make their needs and interests known throughout
the industry—for instance, through representation in
the Organic Trade Association.
Those entering the organic corn and soybean markets for the
first time need to get acquainted with both ends of the value
chain in order to make good planting and marketing decisions,
Turnbull said, adding that your target market can affect everything
from the certifier you choose to the varieties you plant.
Many organic farmers aim to sell into the higher-value food
grade market, he said, which has stricter standards for cleanliness,
quality, and varietal characteristics. (Food-grade soybeans
need to be at least 36.5- to 37-percent protein at 13 percent
moisture, for instance, and are paid for on a clean whole-bean
basis. Splits and smalls are usually bought at a discounted
price, around $10/bu, so you need to know what the screen
size will be.)
Turnbull advised farmers to know who they're dealing with
when it comes to buyers. "Make sure the purchaser is
a licensed grain dealer," he emphasized, as this gives
you recourse in the case of a delayed or failed payment. You
should also be clear about where possession officially changes
hands, at the farm or at the buyer's facility. The high value
of organic commodities means that large amounts of money can
be at stake if anything goes wrong.
Western Iowa organic farmer Ron Rosmann described the challenges
of balancing market demands, agronomic performance and soil
stewardship when designing organic crop rotations. In truth,
said Rosmann, "demand for the crops drives the rotation.
You have to be flexible."
As a rule of thumb, Rosmann said, Iowa organic farmers need
to gross an average of $600/ac on their cash crops—meaning,
for most farmers, their corn and soybeans. Organic yields
are still running lower than statewide averages (Iowa's average
conventional yield for corn is 180 bu/ac, whereas 160 bu/ac
for organic corn is remarkable), in part because of the limited
number of varieties suited to organic production and in part
because of the physiological tradeoff between yield and protein
content. "You breeders at ISU, we need you," Rosmann
declared. Nevertheless, he said, "I'll challenge the
ISU agronomists any day of the week to show that the corn-soybean
system is better than [the organic corn/soybean/small grain/forage]
Last but certainly not least, organic farmers in Iowa have
to manage their rotations so as to isolate their corn and
soybeans from GM-planting neighbors, declared Rosmann. (The
Rosmanns are lucky enough to have one organic neighbor, which
simplifies their buffer zone picture somewhat.) "Generally,
we can manage our other borders by choosing [varieties with]
different maturity dates," Rosmann said. "But you
have to communicate" with your neighbors to guard against
Increasing organic livestock production
The day also featured a number of sessions on organic livestock
management, including organic dairying, poultry, beef, and
pork. Tom Frantzen, who farms near New Hampton, Iowa, and
Allen Moody, meat pools coordinator for CROPP/Organic Valley,
teamed up for a session on producing and marketing organic
hogs and cattle.
A fourth-generation farmer, Frantzen converted to organic
in the mid 1990s and began selling organic pork through CROPP
in 1999. Today he rears about 1,000 pigs per year—out
of 50 sows on his farm and 40 sows on a separate farm—and
is working on developing a hoop house gestation facility.
He also grows corn, soybeans, small grains, hay and pasture.
Although Frantzen has been raising hogs farrow-to-finish all
his life, he told the audience that a recent, ISU-sponsored
gathering of pork producers in Waverly, Iowa, gave him a whole
new perspective on organic hog management. "I came out
of there a changed person," Frantzen said. "I now
believe radically different methods are needed to raise hogs
without antibiotics." Essentially, these methods focus
on practicing good sanitation and isolation strategies—like
all-in/all-out weaning and quarantining of new pigs brought
on to the farm—in order to reduce exposure to health threats
and minimize contact among different groups of pigs.
"The state of Iowa has become a sink for pig diseases"
thanks to the spread of large-scale hog confinement operations,
Frantzen pointed out. There are about 15 million hogs and
pigs in Iowa—a million or so fewer than there were in
1970; but in 1970, they were spread among 91,000 farms. Today,
there are just 12,300 hog farms in Iowa, and 400 of those
have more than 5,000 head.
To survive in this environment, Frantzen said, perhaps we
need to think about applying basic principles of organic crop
production—like using rotations to break pest cycles,
and striving to reduce contamination from off-farm sources—to
organic livestock management. "Continuous farrowing is
like continuous corn: it's one of the most unsustainable practices
around." Instead, he's tightening his farrowing schedule
to allow for clean breaks between batches of pigs. If you
must bring in new breeding stock, do it between May and October,
when disease pressures are at their lowest, and quarantine
incomers for 60 days.
Despite the challenges, Frantzen and Moody encouraged other
farmers to consider entering the organic pork market. Organic
Valley now has 17 farmers in its organic pork pool—up
from nine in January 2004—and is actively recruiting
new producers. The cooperative retains two swine specialists
to help farmers improve their management systems, and the
pool's ratio of weaned pigs to breeding sows has been rising
steadily. "This market is in its infancy," Frantzen
emphasized. "You have the ability to shape it if you
get involved now."