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
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
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 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
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Supply chain management for organic grain producers
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
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
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
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."