Going green down on the farm

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Region’s ag industry going for organic growth

Story by Cheryl Hentz

The agriculture industry is the heart of Wisconsin’s economy, making a $59.16 billion contribution each year and the leading state in numerous agricultural products. That may not be too shocking, but what could be a surprise is that organic agriculture continues to be one of the strongest performing sectors of Wisconsin’s agriculture industry, as well as that of the United States as a whole. 

Nationwide more than $24.6 billion of organic products were sold in 2008, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

According to a study by the Organic Trade Association, nearly three-quarters of American families now purchase at least some organic products, and the largest chunk of these consumers – 32 percent – began buying organic products only within the past two years. So despite the recession, the organic market seems to be holding its own.

“Statistically there seems to be a steady, upward trend toward an increased demand for organic. With the slowdown in the economy there’s been a little hiccup in that trend because of people having more difficult financial times and not having quite the same purchasing power that they had, say two or three years ago, before people started getting laid off,” said Nick Schneider, agriculture agent for the Winnebago County UW-Extension office. “But that trend of growth in organics has been pretty steady and solid over the course of a couple decades now.

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Wisconsin seems well-equipped to serve this growing market. The state currently has about 1,443 certified organic farms — more than any other Midwestern state and second behind only California — that create $80.6 million in farm gate sales. And more than one-quarter of the nation’s 87,000 organic dairy cows live in Wisconsin. In fact, while Wisconsin leads the nation in organic dairy operations, our organic industry overall is quite diverse, ranking among the top five states for organic corn, soybeans, oats, barley, rye and hay production and in the top ten for organically-grown vegetables and flowers.

One of those certified organic farmers is Dan Calvey. He and his wife Linda own Park Ridge Organics in Fond du Lac County – a small 20-acre farm they’ve lived on for 24 years. Both had always worked off-farm jobs, but as they got closer to retirement they decided it might be wise to do something with the land. They attended an organic farming conference in La Crosse about seven years ago and made the decision then and there to go totally organic. Today they grow about 40 different vegetables.

Good stewards of the planet

“It makes us feel good that we can supply so many people with a quality vegetable. And I wanted to farm this way. You’re really taking care of the earth, the water, the whole eco-system. You’re not doing anything to contaminate the water tables, or whatever,” said Calvey, though he admits it is a lot of hard work.

In fact, about four years ago the Calveys’ daughter, Robyn, came to help them work the farm and today she’s the farm manager and running the whole operation, which is good because she’s younger and has more energy, something definitely needed because their crops aren’t the only thing growing by leaps and bounds.

“Every year our business has doubled. We turned over more soil this year than we ever have,” Calvey said, though he conceded that perhaps the fact that they sell Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships – where families buy a share of the farm from them in order to get vegetables from them – could account for their increase in business. 

“We initially had 15 families sign up; the following year there were 30; and last year we had 85. Our projection for next year is 150 families.

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This growth of food co-ops, purchasing programs, and the like, is not something unique to Calvey. According to the Organic Agriculture in Wisconsin 2009 Status Report, the 35 organic farms endorsed by the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition in 2009 sold 5,900 shares of food — primarily produce — which represents a 69 percent increase over 2007. Meanwhile, the number of people joining organic food cooperatives continues to climb, too. The Willy Street Co-op in Madison had 16,000 owners and exceeded sales projections by $1.5 million in 2009, while Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee had 14,000 owners and People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse had 3,938 owners by the end of 2009.

Some won’t pay more

Ann Maenner of the Wisconsin Fresh Market Vegetable Growers Association says higher pricing for organic, natural, or locally-produced food does affect some people’s willingness to purchase it, but not to the point where they’ve seen their business diminish either. On her farm alone – which is not organic, but which follows many organic practices – they see about 25 percent of their CSA members eventually drop out because of cost, while the other 75 percent seem committed to the idea of buying products from somebody that they know and where they know how those products are grown or raised. 

“That being said our overall customer base has steadily grown, which means that even though 25 percent are deciding after a 6-month period that they may not be able to afford it, there’s more than 25 percent who are waiting and wanting to come into the program,” she said. “So it’s clear, I think, that interest (in organic or locally-produced foods) seems to be growing.

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So what is driving people to farmer’s markets and their local farms for food purchases? 

A few reasons, said Laura Paine, grazing and organic agriculture specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

“Part of it has actually been spurred by the food safety scares that occurred in recent years – like recalls and concerns about pesticides, or antibiotics and hormones in foods, and so forth. Organic foods have been produced without those things,” she said. “The other big piece is the interest in local foods, and a lot of organic foods, not all, but many, are produced by smaller companies like small, local, family farms. So people are aware that the products have come from a farm in their region.”

“I think the demand has been there because there’s a consumer perception that organic products are healthier or more natural. The producers have been able to tap into that,” added Paul Dyk, livestock agent with the Fond du Lac County UW-Extension office. “Farmers are very good at listening to what the consumer wants and if consumers start purchasing more organic products, the prices will go up and more producers will try and meet that need. That’s why I think they’ve been able to be successful.”

Dyk predicts demand will keep growing, but admits he has no idea where the top will be.

Market continues to grow

“If we look at the last 10 or 20 years, the organic products market has continued to grow. It’s a little bit hard to tell where the top will be. In some ways the organic market is being replaced by what’s seen as acceptable as locally grown food,” Dyk said. “Those are slightly different and aren’t necessarily organic, but we are seeing more of that so we’re seeing more Farmers’ Markets being revitalized and people selling more things from the farm as being local, which is being perceived by consumers as a good thing. So that is starting to somewhat take the place of or at least grow at the same time as the organic foods.” 

The difference between true USDA certified organic products and something produced naturally or organically grown is one that is confusing for consumers, yet one that must be recognized. Truly certified organic farms must go through rigorous inspections each year and provide extensive documentation about their farm operation in order to obtain certification. Such is not the case at all with farms that produce naturally or which say their products are grown organically.

There are lots of farmers out there who use very sustainable methods, who are very pro-active in their farm management practices, strive to use the least amount of protectives that they can, really work on cultural practices, things like that, but may not be certified organic, said Maenner. That is where the “buying local” idea comes in. 

“The biggest concern our customers have is how the animals are taken care of. They want to be able to come here to the farm, see the animals and know how they’re taken care of. But the whole issue of animal care has nothing to do with being certified organic. Our customers are more concerned with animal care than they are with whether we’re certified organic. So this whole organic thing is very confusing to consumers,” she said, adding that it’s very expensive to be certified organic; and it’s something that you do every single year. “If you’re going to try to do things more sustainably, but you’re not certified organic, it still means you’re going to do more cultural things… It takes a lot of manpower and a lot more labor… So even if somebody is not certified organic, but they’re using sustainable, natural methods, there is some additional cost there.

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Paine said that while it is a little more costly up front, over time, production costs drop. 

“It’s a transition that requires patience. But ultimately it not only reduces production costs but can improve environmental performance as well,” she said.

More stores going organic

Maenner has contact with grocery stores and says most of the stores she’s spoken with are increasing both their certified organic offerings, as well as their offerings of local products, which may or may not be certified organic. 
“And again, I think that’s because consumers are looking for a healthier product. I’m not sure that organic is healthier, but I think that’s the perception of consumers,” she said “Rather than just trusting the system, people want to know where their food is coming from and be able to ask questions of the people who actually are growing the food, or at least know that some third party is actually confirming that whatever their food desires are, is being met.

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Certain foods, if they’re bought organic, make sense because they get a lot of pesticides. But there are other foods where the difference in pesticides between conventional and organic is no different at all statistically, said Zen Miller, dairy and livestock agent with the Outagamie County UW-Extension office. 

“And yet we tell people that organic is better. But just because it’s organic doesn’t make it better. I could take you to an organic farm that’s absolutely dirty and I think if you went there you wouldn’t want to buy from there,” he said. “I could also take you to another organic farm where it’s clean and I could do the same with conventional farms. So people put a brand on something that “x” is better than “y,” but that’s just their opinion.”

Andy Jaworski of Jaworski Farm in Brown County said being organic is important because it’s the right thing to do for the planet. 

“Do I think everyone should go organic and that that’s the only way to go? No, I think diversity is good so consumers can choose where they want their food to come from. But I do think it’s a growing trend and people are going to become increasingly aware that it’s important to know where their food comes from, and that buying local and buying fresh, less processed foods, will become even more important to consumers over time.”

Cheryl Hentz is a freelance writer from Oshkosh with more than 25 years experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines and cover topics including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and animal rights, finance, politics and women’s issues. She can be reached at 920.426.4123 or via email at cheryl.hentz@gmail.com