TALKING SHOP: 4th Annual Iowa Organic Conference, Nov. 1, 2004
The new face of family farming

Rediscovering old crops, rethinking livestock management practices and re-imagining the food supply chain in the Midwest

By Laura Sayre

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 counties.

"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 way."

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 varieties.

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 conditions).

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 pmugge@midlands.net.

Supply chain management for organic grain producers

"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] system."

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] system."

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 GM contamination.

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."