WELLS, Minn. — Riding in the passenger seat of Dennis Lutteke’s John Deere 9620 was a delightfully comfortable environment for my interview with the a 25-year certified organic farmer. Lutteke was pulling an eight-row, JD cultivator (30-inch rows) in his field a few miles north of Wells, Minn.
Starting as a child with his dad, Lutteke is indeed now an experienced veteran — both in the particulars of growing seven different organic crops; and in managing an 80-cow Holstein herd producing organic milk. His major partner is son Chris who also started learning some of the many intricacies farming and taking care of cows when just a youngster. “And dear Dad reminds me I’ve still got some learning to do,” chuckled Chris.
Lutteke was cultivating corn on June 11 because you don’t use herbicides on organic crops. And thanks to earlier showers which slowed cultivation, Lutteke admitted their corn fields had gotten a bit “grassy green.” However, if needed, grassy weeds in the rows will be torched in a couple days; followed by a second cultivation for a weed-free environment which is always a goal of crop farmers everywhere.
Lutteke’s 9620 tractor was GPS guided except for the field end turn-arounds. So Dennis didn’t object to me pitching question after question. The 9620 had a great cab so we chatted in comfort.
Lutteke recalled working for the Wells Farmer’s Elevator several years back, applying chemicals (mostly Treflan in those days). “One day I stopped and read the label,” he said. “I wasn’t a student of chemistry, but I noticed some ingredients were listed as potentially harmful for people. One day when I was spraying one of our own fields, my daughter came running across the field barefoot. My mind reacted to what I had read on the Treflan label. And suddenly my mind started some new thinking.”
“We quit all fertilizers in 1978 and all pesticides in 1982. Yes, we certainly stared doing lots of field checking after that. However, everything worked quite well — except for like today when having to tear out some grassy weeds.”
The Luttekes have been milking cows since 1972. That means a steady supply of cattle manure so his crops weren’t starving for nutrients. And with the advent of organic crops, he also noticed a decided improvement in overall herd health. “We just weren’t seeing sick cows anymore,” Lutteke admitted. “I think that is because of both the better nutrition of our feeds and forages; but also because our cows are grazing on healthy soils. So I could see some real positives: our crop health was better, our cow health was better, even our human health was better.”
Lutteke makes no claims about becoming a nutritional health specialist. “I can’t really explain the improved cow herd health. But apparently, the nutrients in both our feeds and pastures were creating some positives. We haven’t had a vet on the place in probably 15 years now.”
The Lutteke operation features a variety of crops: corn, soybeans, alfalfa, oats, peas and sweet corn, plus black edible beans. So with this total commitment to organic farming — including going without purchased fertilizers or pesticides — what’s happened to crop yields?
“We’re very much aware of better soil health,” Lutteke stressed as we turned the tractor around for another pass down the field. “We’re seeing that with more vigorous root growth, better plant health, and a real plus … these cover crops actually increase nutrient values of your soil. So over the years we’re seeing yields very comparable to conventional crop production. Yep, right now it looks like a great corn year for all farmers. If my neighbors raise 200-bushel corn I think we’ll be harvesting 200 bushel yields also.”
This year, the Luttekes’ primary grain corn is Viking 51-04, a 104-day CRM priced at $156 per bag. Silage corn is Viking 48-10 with excellent tolerance to Goss’s Wilt, NCLB and GLS — plus it thrives on high populations and intensive management (according to the Albert Lea Seed book).
Whoops … a bell just chimed. We’re at the end of the field and Lutteke now turns this hefty 9620 around. “A piece of cake!” I thought.
So away we go once again … and I’m still asking questions.
“You’ve got so many different crops. Why?” Lutteke responded, “We are seed growers for Albert Lead Seeds. We grow corn, soybeans and oats for them. Our organic green peas are for Seneca; also sweet corn for Seneca. Our black beans we grow for Ever Best Organics out of Michigan. We hire a trucker to deliver those beans to a plant in North Dakota.”
Acknowledging that weather and other elements can vary from year to year, Lutteke says their crop diversity is a safety net “… because you’re never going to hit on just one prime crop year after year. So diversity helps minimize the risks and unaccepted consequences.”
Lutteke admits to being an early convert to cover crops. He modestly responded, “I can’t say enough good things about cover crops. Tomorrow we plant sweet corn on ground planted to peas last year. Then, after the pea harvest, a cover crop planting mix of turnips, radishes, crimson clover and oats which is like a picnic for the birds congregating in these cover-crop mixtures. Today that ground is just like chocolate cake … soft, mellow — just ideal for sweet corn … and any other crop too.”
“I like the radishes and turnips. Not much top growth in the clover, but in that root zone, lots of activity both aerating our soils and rebuilding some nutrients too.”
Seeding dates for his various cover crops somewhat depends on what’s already there. This year for example, after sweet corn is harvested, they’ll do oats. “Oats just seem like a scavenger of everything. Good for the soil plus we raise oats for the Albert Lea Seed House. We under-seed with alfalfa, red clover and/or sweet clover. That stuff usually gets up to two feet tall, then we plow it down. Last year on an 80-acre piece, these clovers were blooming when we were spreading manure. Monarch butterflies were exploding from the field. That’s when you know you are treating Mother Nature in a very special way. The Monarchs hung around for only 3-4 days, but obviously that field presented something they really wanted.”
Lutteke acknowledges organic grain markets are down right now — like about $6-$7 for corn. “Last year we sold most of our organic corn for $9. We’re usually about three times the conventional markets. Yes, organic seed prices are usually higher; but no pesticides, no herbicides and no concerns about drifting sprays. And even cultivating with this rig provides some comfort. Lots of good thinking time; or good talk show radio chatter; and music whenever I wish.
“All of our land is system tiled … mostly 50 and 60-foot splits. Around here, that’s just an important part of crop production — regardless of what you are growing.”
How does Lutteke read this year’s financial outcome for farmers in view of potential record production in both corn and soybeans?
Lutteke hesitated, but just a moment. “I don’t know how to answer that one right now. For certain, we’re watching every task, every input cost with both the cows and our crops. We’ve got contracts for everything we produce; so barring a weather disaster I think we’ll be okay.”
He added, “Might sound strange to others, but we’re not in this business for the money. We do it because it’s good for our soils and it’s okay to be preparing for the next generation too.”
Does Lutteke see more farmers getting into organic farming? It’s a three-year process to become certified.
“Maybe some don’t like the idea of getting out to cultivate anymore,” he chuckled. “But consider elimination of all your pesticides, herbicides and considerably less machinery needs. We all accept that our land is a gift from God. To me that means caring for this land and making efforts to make it even better for succeeding generations. If we can do this without so many chemicals, then our land benefits and so does mankind.”
No, Lutteke doesn’t boast. Instead, he congratulates his neighboring farmers for their good works. He thinks agriculture is not appreciated by the vast majority of Americans and others. These are not his words but he agrees that when the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace!