In our world where democrats and republicans take pride in not getting along; where vegans butt heads with factory farms; and dairies chafe at almond milk; there is another rumbling in the world of agriculture which is slowly getting louder. Organic agriculture doesn’t have the clout of industry’s bigger players, but they are fiercely dedicated and capable farmers. And organics’ popularity among consumers is growing.
For a closer look at organic farming, I attended my first MOSES Organic Farming Conference last month. MOSES stands for Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. The three-day event in La Crosse, Wis. drew about 3,000 participants, exhibitors and presenters.
The atmosphere at the MOSES conference is quite unlike that which you would find at most ag shows. Organic farming is a close-knit profession with almost a communal quality. Many members of the old guard readily admit to being “tree-hugging hippies,” and go out of their way to indoctrinate the younger people into the fold. There is no hand-wringing and teeth gnashing over China. A 100-animal herd might be considered a big operation.
Where are the young people who want to get into farming? They are here. Tattoos and nose rings far outnumbered seed corn caps at the conference. But outward appearances aside, this upcoming generation is dead-serious about their profession and mission. They’re smart, they’re savvy and they’re not afraid of hard work. Sounds a lot like your “typical” farmer, doesn’t it?
Yet despite their similarities, organic and traditional farmers seem worlds apart. Organic farmers operate on a much smaller scale and many work off the farm to make ends meet. Because of this, they seem to be dismissed by their non-organic brethren as “hobby farmers.” On the other side, organic producers look at traditional farmers as rapers of the land and environment. Monsanto was definitely a dirty word at the MOSES conference.
This difference in philosophies does not help either faction.
Traditional farmers are embracing soil health, but the enormity of their acreage make such practices expensive and somewhat impractical. Plus, implementing soil health practices on rented land is a hard pill to swallow with narrow break-even margins. Where is the monetary value of improving land that isn’t yours?
Because there are few (if any) 1,000-acre organic corn or soybean fields, organic farmers lack the political power of growers’ associations. The Minnesota Farm Bureau was conspicuously absent at the conference. Organic producers do have their lobbyists, but the scant legislative crumbs tossed their way create a feeling that organic farmers are on their own.
Joseph Kerns, a production agriculture consultant out of Ames, Iowa, recently shared some interesting thoughts on organics in America.
“We consume about 40 percent of the organic production of all products and devote roughly 0.5 percent of our crop ground to organic production,” Kerns said. “The organic production crowd is a bit emphatic and voracious in their perception that they are ‘right,’ and anything other than organic is somehow sub-standard. There is room for commercial and niche production, neither is all good or all bad. Once we stop defending our positions and take an opportunity to learn from others is when we can make better decisions that lead to profits — the goal of any commercial enterprise.”
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Farm Service Agencies would benefit by embracing the organic community’s passion, energy and youth. Organic producers’ yen for distancing themselves from conventional farming makes them less approachable and less likely to be given a seat at the big table. A little give-and-take by both sides can only make agriculture stronger.
Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.