Organic Farming News Almost Too Good



​I attended the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food And Farm Association recently and as usual it really lifted my spirits. We are so barraged by doom and gloom these days as presidential candidates yell insults at each other, that we tend to over-emphasize the bad news and ignore the good news. In farming, mainstream agriculture is mostly full of bad news right now, but although I sympathize with the farmers caught in the jaws of a declining industrial agriculture, that is sort of good news to me. For instance a report just out says that a huge corn-ethanol plant in Kansas is declaring bankruptcy and leaving millions of dollars it owes grain companies unpaid. That’s bad news but good news in the sense that farmers just might start to realize what a bad idea it is to grow corn for ethanol especially on hills and prairies where annual cultivation is very destructive. Ironically, the farm paper, Farm and Dairy, recently quoted Monte Shaw, head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, saying that even though Iowa has the highest production of ethanol from corn (3.8 billion gallons per year) “we still have excess corn.” Think of how tragic that is and yet how it might bring some sanity back into commercial farming.

​But all I heard at the OEFFA conference was good news, even jubilant news as the pioneers of a new kind of farming march forward into a future we have no name for yet. One dairyman told me it was “just embarrassing how much money I’m making right now.” He is a certified organic milk producer on a small farm with a relatively small herd, his land planted mostly to grass and clover, growing the grain he needs for his cows, not having to buy outside organic grain which is selling around $10 to $12 a bushel.

​In fact the organic farming news is so good even big agribusiness companies like Cargill are reportedly getting into it. Some organic farmers and their organizations are worried that the demand and high prices will mean overproduction. In his speech, John Bobbe, director for Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, worried that the high demand for organic food has conventional farmers “considering organic for the wrong reasons.” It could mean a collapse in organic prices similar to the one in 2008, he said. Right now, a large quantity of organic grain is being imported. Tim Boortz of NForganics was even more pointed in his talk at the conference. “You can’t go into organics because of price. You have to believe in the institution of it.” I know that’s true from personally observing some years ago several eager beavers who “went organic” only because they thought they could make big bucks. They soon got out of it. Organic farming requires long-term, idealistic steadfastness.

​Michael Kline, who works for Organic Valley, one of the larger milk marketers, was particularly upbeat. Right now there is more demand for organic dairy products than Organic Valley can supply, he told me, and the number of farmers transitioning into organic production is increasing dramatically. I know one very good reason for this. Organic Valley’s butter is the best I have ever tasted. Carol, my wife, who is much more discerning about such matters, agrees. It is not available in any of our local stores, which is an example of the challenge Organic Valley is trying to cope with. It can’t keep up with demand.

I asked Michael about the possible dilemma on the horizon of glutting the organic market. Aha, Organic Valley has thought of that already and has built in controls in its contracts with farmers to counter that situation should it arise. It is too complicated to detail here and I wasn’t taking notes, but I plan to get with Michael in the future and spell it out here because overproduction has always been agriculture’s biggest challenge. ​

​What is so striking to me about OEFFA members is the wide disparity in their backgrounds. As I sat there signing books, I was approached by a doctor who grows open pollinated corn. Another man whose main profession I forgot to ask about, wanted to talk about religion even more than he wanted to talk about farming. A retired philosophy professor plopped a whole box of my books on the table for me to sign. A young farmer described how he grows sorghum and sells the syrup as one of his main crops. A farm wife told me her other job was doing design work for a magazine. A food gardener who said he was an animist, wondered if, from my writing, I was too. Several young couples were very excited about getting into small scale, artisanal farming like cheese making and growing salad greens in hoop houses. The only farmers that I didn’t see were the “real” ones who raise thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. When one of them shows up at my table, I’ll know for sure that a new era of farming is on the way.


Regarding the idea that only Big Ag can feed the world, don’t tell that to record rice grower Sumant Kumar, who is small and organic.

Tim, you’re right that energy from the sun and water should also be included — I was thinking of those as part of the cycle but didn’t actually say so; glad you pointed it out.

Any human who doesn’t give at least a passing thought to the concepts of soul and spirit isn’t really human, IMHO! I think farmers and ranchers are even more likely to think about these topics because we live so close to those transfer aspects, like planting, harvesting, birth and death. I suspect (based on lots of reading and personal experience) that the spiritual/soul aspect is outside of that energy cycle. How else to explain things like ghosts, reincarnation and past life memories (yeah, I know, getting a little woo-woo here, but as I said — personal experiences)? The personal energy has decayed (or darned well should have after sometimes hundreds of years) but somehow they can still show up.

My word, Gene, you do spark some interesting discussions!

I keep thinking of that energy in a religious spiritual “soul” sense in one variation though I can understand . But then you have to also mix the energy from the sun and water to into the system. Trying to figure where the “spiritual” or “soul” energy fits into the cycle and do they separate at what we think is the time of death or is there a consciousness that stays awake and aware of everything? Betcha didnt know I was that deep did ya? lmao

Gene, what if you substitute “energy” for “life?” Energy from the soil becomes energy for the plants, becomes energy for the animals (including the human animal) and returns to the soil with death and decay. When you look at it from the perspective of energy transfer, the overall cycle begins to make sense…

Sounds like Gaia to me. At what point will the planet “comprehend” that it is hosting an organism that is destroying it? Can climate warming be compared to an organism running a fever to kill off an invasive disease? Maybe all the small farmers who renew the soil and the plants upon it are a type of white blood cell.

    Chris, love your imaginative comparisons here. Beth. I think you’re right, energy is the right word here. Both of you, very helpful for me. Gene

A food gardener who said he was an animist, wondered if, from my writing, I was too.

So Gene, how did you answer that question?

Enquiring minds want to know! 🙂

    Jan, I don’t know what I am. In general my thinking leans toward animism more than any of the other isms I know about. I don’t really think anything inanimate or immaterial exists in the real world but only in human minds. The most basic human challenge, seems to me, is not confusing all those isms, ideals, ideas, abstractions etc. that exist in the mind with the real world. For years I had a problem trying to define “life”. Still do. I’d watch something die and for sure something we called life went out of the body. But did it really? The fingernails kept on growing and microorganisms have a high old time turning the flesh into compost. Life did not go out of the “matter” involved, but only changed forms or expressions of life. I decided “life” was a mental abstraction too, at least the way we think about it. What do you think? Gene

An inexpensive, yet impervious means of storing harvested grain would do more for food security in the third world than all the corn in Iowa. They are working on solar stoves, organic toilets, small water filtration systems for villages. Is anyone working on small graneries?

    Chris they have 55 gallon drums with secure lids that lock tight to keep out rats and mice. If i remember correctly less that $20.00. Or someone could make a false head that fits the top of the barrel and has threads so that a threaded top could be screwed on and keep out insects for sure. Just store in a dry cool space out of the sun. Mold from rain and humidity would be a problem also. They might have to store in cool dry places with a vented top with a fine screen with tiny holes.

      For a little more storage space old shipping containers with a couple of vent holes are also
      good for grain,vegetable and hay storage.A hole dug in the ground with a 55 gal barrel buried about 7/8 deep will keep things like potatoes,carrots,turnips etc cool and from freezing.Low tech ideas are rarely promoted as solutions because no one is making $$$
      off of them.

Didnt mean to take over or clog up Gene’s blog here.If I did I apologize and will shut up and go away.

    I enjoy all the comments the more the better as far as I’m concerned.Good to get different
    prospectives from different folks.

Don’t hold back, Tim, tell us how you really feel:-)

We already have enough food to feed everyone in the world!! NO ONE should go hungry! Remember how our own people suffered after Katrina? Foreign countries had sent aid and we let it sit on the docks spoiling. Politics,wars,religion,egos ,pride,distribution and last but not least MONEY !Spoilage from pests,improper storage methods,exposure to weather,improper handling. There is enough grain that blows off of wagons and trucks each fall heading to local farmsteads and elevators to feed a small country. Plus the idea is not for the rest of the world to be dependent on us for their food But hopefully for MOST countries to be able to fend for themselves and not be held over a barrel,us included.Food insecurity is making a lot of countries lean towards our enemies in this world.We cant be the worlds savior . They all need to learn proper handling and storage of foodstuffs to have their own safe sane food supply.We will always import and export some foods,especially things like tropical fruits,coffee ,tea and to others in times of drought,famine,disease.We will need people who have the knowledge and ability to grow large amounts of safe,sane food from small plots of land.As the country ,(ours and others) learn and grow,people will learn how to work together making some chores and drudgery and hard work into something social and fun. Remember husking bees to husk out the red ear and get a kiss,picking and plowing contests. In 4 h i was in tractor maintenance and we had tractor driving contests with a wagon backing and maneuvering . There’s sheep dog trials,and at the fairs baking and vegetable and grain contest.Hard labor?? How about lumberjack contests? Guys climbing up trees and sawing off the tops and shinnying back down,ax and hatchet throwing contests.They have car engine diagnosis contests in vocational programs, how about tractor and engine diagnosis contests.We don’t have to resort to or be forced to use hand labor when we load manure,dirt,etc. No one has said we need to reinvent the wheel. I used to own a bobcat when i had the need.ed it.Now we are learning more about pasture farming so the animals are doing the hard work of spreading the manure themselves.Only when we take them off pasture to protect the soil in wet weather and them from extremes in hoop houses to also have some manure stored to distribute where and when we need it.Large bales and stackers can take a lot of the hand labor from haying.Dont forget rotational grazing!There is a lot of us ,myself included who would like to work more acreage but i dont’ want or need 10,000. Let someone else get into it and learn and make a living.Plus we now have organic no till courtesy of the Rodale Research center.Lots of farmers are doing some of the “chores,etc they do to HAVE something to do to keep from getting bored and hanging around the house.I know we used to do a lot of extra steps producing a crop mostly because we “liked ” doing it.

Jack, I disagree. We couldn’t do it overnight, because the current infrastructure is set up to support big ag. And we couldn’t do it cheap, because there’s a lot of catch-up to do in terms of knowledge, land improvement and support systems. But it could be done if the impetus were there. As an example, during WWII, there were 18 million victory gardens in the US, 12 million of which were in cities. In 1944, those gardens produced an amount equivalent to the commercial production of fruits and vegetables in the US.

HI Folks I have to comment on this type of farming that you people endorse. Although I farm only a quarter section, and I do a lot of my chores with a team of horses, that should qualify me as a small farmer. The thing I have to say is that in this day and age there is no way possible to feed the world farming in this manner. Weather we like it or not we need chemicals and big equipment to do this job. Romantic as small farming might appear it just isn’t going to happen in the real world. Try to convince young people to slop the hogs and fork manure. Let alone all the other back breaking work.Good Luck.

    War and poor Gov’ts are the problem when it comes to people going hungry not farming methods.Actually the USA has probably contributed to World hunger not helped by flooding some poorer countries with free food and destroyed their local farm economy.Anyway who decided it was the job of the USA to feed the World? Help them grow their own not give them food,we should have learned that lesson from the so called War on Poverty.

    Hi Jack. You might consider that the support systems for “chemicals and big equipment” may be coming to an end. That’s hard to understand when oil is $30 a barrel, but increased volatility is part of the package.

    Throughout 99.9% of human existence, each human had at least some responsibility for supplying their own food supply. Throughout 96% of recorded human history, it took 15 people working the land to support one in the city.

    The fact that one person on the land now supports about 700 in the city is an aberration of consuming 200,000,000 years of stored energy in some 200 years. It is not because we clever, hairless apes are entitled to avoid “back breaking work.”

    200 million years of stored energy in 200 years! That’s a million-to-one ratio! Do you really think that can continue?

    A reversion to the mean is inevitable.

      A reversion to primitive methods is not inevitable. Especially small farms that are unable to take advantage of economies. Farms like mine will always exist in certain niches. But organic inputs will become even more expensive if used more expansively. People like Jan and Gene are also advocating moving large numbers of people to rural areas to work on these labor intensive small farms. this would be very bad for the wildlife. Here is some better information.

    Can I refer you to this article, and to the work of John Jeavons and others that indeed we *can* and in fact *must* feed the world by being a world of gardeners.

I think of the organic farmer selling turkeys at our local farmer’s market for $75 each and think only, that is NOT the way. There is a calling and a lifestyle to food, and it isn’t a middle class life.

Randy Perkins, A Farmer in Disguise February 24, 2016 at 8:32 pm

Well said, Curt! Gene’s guidance is ultimately a labor of love since the value goes beyond measure.

I think youve said it before, Gene but it bears repeating,you have the best disscussion group anywhere! Thought provoking lnformative, humorous,and very little negativity. A tribute to the writer himself the way I see it. Thanks for doing this blog, Gene. Noon, on wednesday is one of my favorite times of the week. Lunch and the Contrary Farmer.

OEFFA is such a blessing to all of us in Ohio. The sorghum farmer you met is Lee Ruff of End of the Road Farm in Fletcher, Ohio. I hope you have the opportunity to see what an amazing homestead he and his wife Jennifer have created. They are a very special family dedicated to raising the best crops and animals they can for their family and CSA members.

As long as the economic system can make get big or get out ag look feasible on paper, it will still fly.When guys can put pencil to paper and the numbers not make getting bigger a safe sane choice that we’ve been taught for years, sane ag will triumph.Shady bookkeeping and egos start falling when the banks say this is insane and too risky for them to loan money to buy 60′ planters and tillage equipment.Especially with the growing liability of transporting the equipment over heavily traveled roads. You can only go so high and wide down the roads with utilities,etc lining them. Plus no place to pull over so people can pass. SOme huge farms are having to have workers block the road to traffic when they are moving equipment.People getting hurt or killed crashing into farm equipment has resulted in new laws requiring machinery to be even more festooned with lights. Goodbye generators on antique equipment like mine.It just seems to me small highly managed farming and realizing what is really profitable and successful is going to be back to the older style farming we did in the 40s.50.and 60s. After all ,if you are going to be putting up with all the hassles of certification govt inspection of you farm facilities,un caring cityfolks, and the liability ,farming will have to be more fun,profitable and sane. I envision a new wave of small grain elevators,and equipment dealers and sale barns/packers/butcher shops to hand le the increasing flow of organic and or artisnal food being produced.I think it will be full cycle to where we were. Just hoping to be alive to see it andn take part in it.

    Tim, it sounds like you are reading the book I am just now writing, almost word for word. Really uncanny. Gene

      Thanks Gene ! That is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me!=) But then I’ve been reading your work or as much as i could for 45 years more or less! lol I guess it means I’m finally catching on ! lol I try to look at something from as many sides as I can to understand what is going on when i am not pressured for time.But sometimes life is like an auction and we dont always get the time to really examine something and half to jump in . Thank you for being an inspiration and changing my outlook on things.Wish I had had this knowledge 30-40 years ago. Might not be rich but definitley be better off all the way around.Like the New Farm articles that fit what i was doing at the time. Like buying and using a corn picker.We need your encouragement since the govt wanted to bury small farmers years ago and just went ahead and buried the casket empty. lol By the way another small farmer who appeared in Graze magazine who only has about70 acres tillable and milks cows is a great example. Not too many guys farm with a one row pull type picker and a 2 row planter nowadays.You can google Tim Pauli of wisconsin. Another one that fascinated me is William Paul Winchester of oklahoma who is a beekeeper on about 20 acres and wrote a book called A Very Small Farm.He built all of the building on his farm one summer after college and did substitute teaching and care taking at a local church and custom bushhogging at a neighboring farm.he is single and raises and cans or freezes most of his food. Wish he would write a follow up book..I try to google some of the farmers I read about in magazines and online to see if they are still farming today and are they still doing things the same way. I know he’s probably retired now and wondered about his views on things looking back like livestock,crops machinery, but your cousin Dave Haeford .sounds like another wonderful inspiration. I think we need to learn all we can from them before they are all gone.There was an article on a hog farmer years ago in farm journal aboutone farmer who didnt want to be identified and farmed on 100+ acres and built his own hog barn and did all of the work the old fashioned way. Bedding hogs,shoveling manure,etc I’ve learned far more from your stories than i could have going to college and wasting my money. lol Thanks again to you and your family and friends for their sacrifice so we might be better farmers and people.

    I hope I will be alive to see it as well. Healthy, totally local, food is the best health insurance. Machines make a person feel that they should earn more than they ought to. Don’t get me started on banks and how lending money makes people feel they can be bigger than they truly are. Thank you both for your excellent words. David Whitehouse, Buckley, Michigan.

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