Outstanding in the Field Podcast

Summary:

Listen in as Mike has a fun conversation with a childhood friend, Craig Anderson, who left farming for a time before returning and transitioning the family farm to a fully organic operation. If you have ever been curious as to what organic farming entails, this episode is for you!

What you will learn in this episode:

  • What constitutes as organic farming in the U.S.
  • A glimpse into the steps it takes to transition into a certified organic operation
  • An idea of organic farming requirements as outlined by the USDA
  • Specific challenges, management practices, and rewards related to organic farming

Relevant links:

Listen to the podcast:

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Transcription:

Mike Terning:   Hello, this is Mike Terning. Welcome to another episode of Outstanding in the Field, a Greenstone Systems podcast. Today I am happy to announce our guest who I have known since I was in high school. His name is Craig Anderson. Craig, can you please introduce yourself?

Craig Anderson:   Yeah. Craig Anderson from Dassel, Minnesota. Just about an hour straight west of Minneapolis, close to Mike’s hometown there of Cokato, Minnesota. Been here all my life.

Mike:   Alright. Well, Craig, I’m happy to have you on the episode here today of Outstanding in the Field. Just a little tidbit for the audience. Craig and I are not related, but we have the same first cousins.

Craig:   That’s true.

Mike:   Yeah. Craig, your mom has a brother and he was married to my mom’s sister.

Craig:   Correct, yep. So we share cousins.

Mike:   Yeah, we share cousins. We share first cousins. Anyways, it’s great to have you join us from Dassel today. Just a little bit about you. You grew up in Dassel. You were raised on a farm. Kind of tell us about your growing up years, please.

Craig:   Yep. I grew up on just a small farm here. When I was young, my dad had dairy cows and just a small diversified operation. When he got to be about 50, I guess, he sold the cows, got into farrowing pigs a little bit, but always stayed in the crops side of it. So I was raised kind of on the tractor like a lot of people. Slept behind the seat when my dad was plowing and spent a lot of time on the tractor doing different things. So it was a real enjoyable childhood growing up. So yeah.

Mike:   That’s cool. Now what year did your stop milking cows?

Craig:   That would have been probably in the mid-70s. ‘77/’78, somewhere in that range I think. Having some health trouble with his hips, things like that, and decided to get out of it at that point.

Mike:   Let’s see. Cindy’s your older sister and you have a brother as well. Did I get that right?

Craig:   Yep, yep. Cindy is my older sister and Kevin is my older brother. Both of them are older than my by a few years. My sister is 10 years older and my brother is 12 years older. So I was kind of the straggler in the family. So by the time I got out of high school, they already had homes of their own established and kids and occupation and things like that.  Yeah. So then after high school, I went to two years of carpentry school and then a couple years of bible school after that. I kind of got started in carpentry. I still do a little bit of it—cabinet making and some woodworking, things like that. I kind of felt more of a calling to go back into farming. So that’s kind of the direction we headed I guess.

Mike:   Yeah, that’s cool. So your dad got out of milking cows. So your brother and your sister, they milked probably far more cows than you did growing up would be my guess, huh?

Craig:   Yeah. Probably not my sister as much, but my brother helped for sure with the field word, cutting hay, and baling hay and milking. All those things, for sure he was. My sister had a few horses. So she loved being outside and working with animals too. So she did help out with the calves and things like that. My only experience with milking really was—I was young enough by the time he sold the cows, but I milked some for the neighbor a little bit when they’d go on vacation and things like that. So a little taste of it.

Mike:   Yeah. Well, cool. Yeah, I think it’s a special part of the world there, central Minnesota. It’s a good place to put up and raise kids. So you said you felt the calling to get back into farming. Kind of describe for us how that took place, how that transition worked from carpentry back into farming.

Craig:   Yeah. Even when I was working as a carpenter, I was always looking at the clock. I enjoyed the carpentry and I still do, but I kind of felt like boy if I could be my own boss that would be kind of nice. So that’s what always kind of drew my back to the farm I think. At that time, commodity prices were real low. I was still considering it. I had just gotten married. A friend of ours from church had been an organic farmer for quite a few years. He started talking to me about organic farming and the use of mechanical weed control instead of chemicals and things like that. That really appealed to me too. My mom had passed away from cancer, so I was maybe a little heightened awareness of exposure to things like that. So that really interested me, this organic farming thing. So I suppose it’s been 27/28 years ago already, we were kind of introduced into organic farming. This friend of mine was an organic dairy farmer. He had been organic farmer for quite a few years over in Howard Lake. I was just impressed by how he ran his operation and some of the premiums he was making on the grain and things like that. So that really intrigued me too to actually make a living from a smaller farm, smaller acreage. I think that was part of the intriguing things too.

Mike:   Interesting. If you don’t mind me asking, what is his name?

Craig:   That was Gary Schmiege. You maybe know the name.

Mike:   Yeah, I think I’ve met Gary. So he got into it before you did.

Craig:   Yeah. He was in it back in the ‘70s, I think, is when he—I think in fact the farm he was on only had chemicals on it for two years. There was a couple of years when he really battled with some other issues and then ended up going to chemicals, and then he realized that wasn’t the route for him. So he went back to no chemicals, no commercial fertilizers, things like that. He had been that way for many, many years.

Mike:   Well, interesting. That’s cool. So early ‘90s it sounds like you got into it. ’92ish or ‘95ish. Something like that?

Craig:   Yeah. So we were married in ’92 and I was working as a carpenter full time. Like I said, I enjoyed it, but always kind of watching the clock waiting to get home. So I quit my job then for the carpenter. I still did some carpentry things on the side along with farming. We began transitioning our farm into organics. A couple three/four fields per year at a time. I think I sprayed my last chemical probably in the summer of ’95 I think. ‘95/’96, something like that. I had started the process into transitioning all of it into organics.

Mike:   So it took you three or four years to get all the way there.

Craig:   Yeah. That was kind of a field at a time or a few fields at a time. So the technical definition of the transition period is 36 months from the time of the last chemical or chemical fertilizer application until you can sell your first organic crop. So a 36 month period. So that’s a transition period. Basically you can’t use chemicals, of course, during that time, and you’re not allowed to get an organic premium of course because you’re not raising organic. So that’s a little bit of a tricky time. You’re still battling weeds without chemicals but there’s no premiums for the final grain product.

Mike:   Wow. So as you transition these fields then, I guess you declared the period when you’re starting was you had varied soil samples taken at that time then. How does it all work Craig?

Craig:   Yeah. Not really any soil samples. They do have—When you sign up for organics—I think no matter what organization you go with—they do have the right to come onto your farm anytime they want and make sure that you’re following rules. They don’t want to find a Lasso jug in your shed or anything. That would be a red flag probably. We are inspected once a year with an organic inspector. It’s a third-party organic inspector. He reports all the TCs on our farm. He goes through all of our paperwork and reports it to our certifying agent. They review all that information, and then they issue or don’t issue an organic certificate. Usually if they don’t issue one then they give the reasons why not and steps that you can take to be able to be certified. They really work with you well.

Mike:   Which organization do you work with for that?

Craig:   Yeah, I’ve been certified for OCIA probably for the last 15/18 years I think. Something in that range. 20 years, yeah.

Mike:   Okay. That stands for…

Craig:   Yeah that’s Organic Crop Improvement Association. They’re a worldwide certifier. They’re based out of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Mike:   Is your inspector consistent or do you have different inspectors to come in?

Craig:   Yeah, we’ve had different ones over the years. Obviously, it’s been a few years. So yeah, there’s been quite a few different inspectors. We’ve had the same inspector the last couple of years now I think. So we get to know each other a little bit, but I appreciate him. He doesn’t compromise on any of the standards but he’s very practical too. So.

Mike:   Okay. That’s good. So you threw out a little two letter acronym earlier and I just want to make sure that I understand it and the audience does too. You said TCs. What does that stand for?

Craig:   Yeah, TCs is a transaction certificate. So once we declare all the crops that we want certified, we’ll get back an actual certificate from our certification agency. Then as you sell product throughout the year—if we sell corn or beans—it’s a way to trace back that those are actually certifiably organic and verifiable. So I’ll tell OCIA that I’ve sold three semi loads of organic corn, and they will issue me a transaction certificate. That comes to me and then that also goes to the buyer. It’s a paper trail if there were to ever be any audit or anything just to verify that Craig indeed did have this amount of corn for sale certified organic. That goes all the way to the end user whether it’s being fed to animals. In our case sometimes there’s food grade corn which would go into the food system. So that would all be traceable back through a lot number and through the transaction certificate process.

Mike:   Okay. Is that transactional certificate electronic now or is it all still paper?

Craig:   Yeah, I still do the paper ones, but you can request them through an email.

Mike:   Okay.

Craig:   So they’ve really come a long ways. Every year we have to fill out our paperwork and that all can be done online now. So that’s really handy that way.

Mike:   Okay. Interesting. Okay. So it sounds like it’s fairly challenging getting transitioning into it because you’ve got the ongoing crop care and protection issues, but you can’t use traditional herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, things like that. So then what are some of the other challenges you’ve faced starting up when you decided to go organic?

Craig:   Yeah. I guess weeds are the continuing challenge as any farmer knows. Whether you’re spraying or not, they always seem to be there. So fertility can be another challenge too. Since we can’t use any commercial fertilizer that regular conventional farmers would be able to use, we do have to source some other kinds of fertilizer. So we use chicken manure which is organically certified. Technically it’s not organic, but it’s certifiable organic I guess you’d call it. They feel that once all the feed and everything goes through the chicken then it’s kind of a neutral product then. It’s able to be certified provided that the manure doesn’t get any non-certified products applied to it. I think in some places they might put on fly spray, things like that. We’re able to source manure that doesn’t have anything like that on it. So they are able to allow that for organic production.

Mike:   Okay. The chickens can consume antibiotics and you can still use that manure, is that true?

Craig:   Yes. Yep, that’s true. Antibiotics, conventional feed, everything. It’s 100% chicken manure. There’s no bedding in it. So if there is bedding, you would have to confirm that the bedding wasn’t sprayed or anything like that. In this case, there is no bedding. It’s just 100% chicken manure.

Mike:   Okay. Is that locally sourced or where do you get the chicken manure?

Craig:   It is, yep. Over the years we’ve used different places. We’ve used some turkey manure too right out of Howard Lake. We had used some Munsen turkey litter in the past, but lately we’ve been getting it from Forsman Farms in Cokato, the egg producers.

Mike:   Yep. Well, they have a pretty good and growing supply don’t they?

Craig:   Yeah. Yeah, for sure. It’s a growing company and they do have a lot of manure. So it’s kind of nice to have that local. It’s only about 10 miles for us, 10 or 12 miles here. So that comes out in the truck load, comes out by semi-load, and then applied after that.

Mike:   Okay. They deliver it and then you spread it. Is that how it works?

Craig:   Yeah. They’ve subcontracted it out to a separate company called crop fertility services, and they’re based out or Cokato as well. So they line up all the trucking and all the spreading and things like that. So that’s kind of been their business that they’ve started, this CFS company. Kind of separate from Forsman, but they use Forsman’s manure.

Mike:   Okay. So yeah. So fertility. You’ve got the stewardship practice you have to follow with fertility. Then the weed side of it. Is that the biggest one or do you run into many funguses or other bugs that attack your crops.

Craig:   Yeah, not a lot on the funguses. I think because of being certified organic; we need to maintain at least a three crop rotation. So, for instance, we can’t plant corn on corn unless it’s a specific situation where they sometimes will allow situations like that, but you’d have to run it through them through a certifier ahead of time. So we don’t really have a lot of trouble with diseases—phytophagous or root rot or anything like that or nematodes. It’s just a different crop on every field every year with kind of a three year rotation. Sometimes four year when we have hay and alfalfa in that rotation too. We have had trouble in the past with soy bean aphids, very similar to the conventional farmer. We can’t do any spraying, of course, with that, any chemical spraying. So a few years ago they found a soybean variety that was naturally resistant to aphids. I’m still no sure the science behind it whether the hairs on the stem were longer, that the aphids weren’t able to get in there, or it’s a different sugars in the plant that the aphids don’t like. I’m not sure, but they’ve really done well even in a heavy aphid pressure year we see very few aphids on that variety of soybean. That’s been real nice. We’ve struggled with probably eight or ten years of real low soybean yields until they were able to come out with this variety of soybeans.

Mike:   Okay. So your typical rotation, explain to the audience how you go about the crop rotation cycle.

Craig:   Yeah. So we’d start with corn and then followed by beans. The corn does get the most manure per acre. Depending on the analysis of the manure, it can be anywhere from three ton even up to four or five ton per acre. Then the following year is soy beans, just regular looking soy beans out in the field. Like I say, we’ve been growing the aphid tolerant ones for the last few years. This year I’m actually growing soybean seed for Albert Lea Seed House down in Albert Lea, Minnesota. Then following soy beans we would go with small grains, usually wheat. Then we try to under seed that with either clover or alfalfa. If it’s clover we’ll just plow it down that year right after the wheat, later in the fall after the wheat, and then we’ll go into corn again the next year. If it’s alfalfa, we’ll keep the alfalfa for a year sometimes two years and then plow that back in and put corn in.

Mike:   Okay.

Craig:   I like the alfalfa. That poses more challenges too with the weather, getting rained on, but the alfalfa helps keep the weeds down a little bit. That year the weeds just don’t survive very well being cut and all that. Of course the alfalfa benefits the soil a lot and adds nitrogen for the corn for the next year.

Mike:   Yeah, okay. You typically then with your wheat crop, is that spring wheat most of the time?

Craig:   Yep, yeah. Spring wheat, yeah. Usually we try to get it to go for food milling quality, but there is a market for feed grade too. It is quite a bit less payout for feed grade.

Mike:   Sure. Okay. Well, what are some of the other challenges that you face besides giving the crop nutrients and protecting it?

Craig:   Yeah, I guess just like regular farming weather is a big issue and maybe even more so with organics. We rotary hoe twice on the corn and beans. If you’re not able to get in there when it’s time to rotary hoe, you can get a pretty good flush of grasses coming through. That can really be a problem with corn and soybeans of course. Otherwise grass typically isn’t a real big issue with us unless there is times when we can’t get in and rotary hoe. We do struggle with broad leaves here and there too. Then after rotary hoeing we would wait usually about three days after plant, and then we’ll rotary hoe on both the corn and beans, then probably another three more days—depending on the heat units, the weather and everything and what the weeds are looking like they’re doing. That’s kind of a typical scenario. Then by that time the corn is up, and the beans are up and almost ready to cultivate. So we try to wait as long as we can a little bit without getting the weeds too far ahead to be able to cultivate so we can do it with a little bit of speed so we’re not out there a real long time. Shields are down, of course, on the first cultivation and then second cultivation we usually have the shields up and we’re throwing dirt around the base of the plants to try and kill those weeds around the base of the plants.

Yeah, we just started flaming here a couple of years ago. Flaming the corn with an LP—liquid propane—flamer. So that’s basically set up on a cultivator bar, same rows as the planter. Same number of rows. There’s two burners that shoot an LP flame right into your corn row right at the base of the corn plants. That will burn any small weeds that are emerging. It does set the corn back about a week. The corn, most times when you’re flaming it young, it will turn completely white. It looks like you killed it, but it’s growing point is protected. So within a week it’s back to normal again. It’s green again and growing. The broad leaves, of course, don’t have that protection. Those just die then.

Mike:   Okay. How long have you been doing the corn flaming?

Craig:   Corn flaming, just probably three years right now I think here. Yeah, so that’s kind of a learning experience and a little scary all at the same time with 250 pound propane tank sitting right behind the cab on the cultivator bar and then we’ve got eight row equipment. So there’s 16 burners right underneath it. So you kind of hesitate every time you get on the tractor.

Mike:   I bet, I bet.

Craig:   For the most part there’s no horror stories. So you just go forward I guess.

Mike:   Yep, I suppose that’s kind of a step of faith the first time you went out there and you see the corn crop turn white. You were probably scratching your head saying, “Well, I know they told me this, but I know it turns out right.”

Craig:   That’s right, yeah. It’s kind of scary on both ends. You hope you get back to the house, and you hope your corn comes back. It’s kind of like everything else. It just kind of falls into the routine and you get used to it. You use as much precaution as you can. For the most part, it’s a real safe operation.

Mike:   Yep. When I was growing up, we used to side dress liquid nitrogen on the corn stalk, which obviously not nearly as dangerous as LP or anhydrous or anything like that, but at least you don’t have to do anhydrous anymore, right. That’s nice.

Craig:   You’re right. Yeah. That can be dangerous too if your hose breaks or something like that.

Mike:   Yep, yep. Well, yeah. Certainly weather obviously is always an issue in farming, but even more so when you have to get out and mechanically rotary hoe a couple of times, cultivate a couple of times.

Craig:   Yeah, yep.

Mike:   What do you use for your weather prediction information?

Craig:   Just on the internet, just use AccuWeather or Weather.com basically.

Mike:   Okay, alright.

Craig:   Yeah, real simple stuff. I think we kind of confer too. There’s quite a few organic farmers right in the Dassel Cokato area. We kind of get together once in a while and share success stories and cry on each other’s shoulders once in a while when things aren’t going good. We’ve all kind of agreed over the years, the experiences that we’ve seen is if you think you should be out there rotary hoeing and you’re a little bit questioning it, you probably should be out there. In some cases more is better than less maybe. Some days you have to adjust that. You know there’s rain coming tomorrow. I really should be rotary hoeing tomorrow, but I’ll do it today instead because I know it’s going to be raining tomorrow. So it’s better to do it earlier than later. Once the weeds emerge, the rotary hoe is almost worthless. When you dig in the soil and you see the white hairs, those are roots that are just sprouting. That’s the idea time to rotary hoe.

Mike:   Yeah. I forgot to ask. Do you plant with 30 inch rows or 36? What do you use Craig?

Craig:   Yep. Our planter is an 8 row of 30 inch.

Mike:   30 inch? Okay, alright. Is that what most folks around Cokato are using for the organic operations?

Craig:   Yeah. I’d say almost all of them are 30 inch rows. It enables us to get in there and cultivate still in the 30 inch. I think some guys—not in our area—but some guys are maybe on 22s for organics even, but I’d say the vast majority are probably on 30 inch.

Mike:   Okay. Well that’s interesting. I hadn’t heard about the flame throwing. So that’s unique.

Craig:   It is, yeah. It actually came about—My wife’s grandpa remembers it back in the ‘30s that they were using that technology back then. I want to say it was more developing down south, maybe more in cotton and other southern crops.

Mike:   Okay.

Craig:   Then I think World War 2 came, and from World War 2 they developed a lot of chemicals from World War 2 and adapted them into agriculture. So I think the flaming kind of fell by the wayside because of that. Then it was renewed again kind of with the whole organic movement.

Mike:   Interesting. Yeah. Well, obviously common challenges attacked with different technologies as a conventional farm.

Craig:   Yeah.

Mike:   Well, we talked about some of the challenges going into this and ongoing, but what are some of the benefits that you’ve seen and enjoyed with organic farming?

Craig:   Yeah. I really enjoy it. It’s like everything. There’s days where you kind of wonder if you should do something else, but I think 95/99% of the time it’s just fun. I enjoy being my own boss. It’s kind of fun on the organic side to be in a market where people want your product. They’re specifically searching out an organic product to buy in the store, and I’m contributing to that in the front end here. So that’s very satisfying knowing that I’m offering an alternative to people who want it, or some people need it too. They need to eat organic food. So that’s very rewarding to be on the production side of it. We usually have, of course, higher net income per acre, and that’s what enables us to farm fewer acres. A lot of us run older equipment. With the fewer acres, we don’t need newer bigger equipment necessarily. So that keeps our overhead low. So that part’s enjoyable too. We do have some cattle here on the place. They’re not certified organic, but we don’t use any hormones or chemicals or anything on them. We sell beef directly to customers by the half or quarter. So that’s satisfying too, working directly with the customers. They know where the beef is coming from. We use local butcher shops for them to process it. So it’s a lot of variety. I like the variety. Having four crops maybe versus two, unlike on a lot of farms. It’s more work, but I’m usually not doing the same thing two days in a row. So I like that part of it too.

Mike:   Right. Yeah.

Craig:   Yep.

Mike:   Well, it’s a little bit like the way I grew up farming with some of it. We used a rotary hoe, we used cultivators. No flame throwers.

Craig:   Right, yeah.

Mike:   But obviously we did the pre and post-emergence herbicides and that.

Craig:   Sure. You probably walked some beans too when you were younger.

Mike:   We certainly did. I did a lot of hoeing of beans and rot picking and all of that.

Craig:   Yeah, yeah.

Mike:   You still do that now, right?

Craig:   We still do walking beans, yeah. Hopefully, it’s not the case of getting a bunch of kids out there to rescue the crop. We try to get the majority of the weeds taken care of with tillage and with later planting. That really seems to help. We actually want a couple flushes of weeds to grow and then we can kill them with the field cultivator before we get the crop out there. So the kids are out there—Sometimes there’s some patches that need to be rescued, but for the most part it’s a little bit more cosmetic in just keeping the weed seed bank lower too.

Mike:   Okay. You say kids out in the field. Are those neighbor kids? Your kids? Do you hire crews?

Craig:   Kind of a combination of all of those. Kids from church, some neighbor kids, some cousins. We’ll have 8/10/12 sometimes 15 kids out in the field taking a couple rows each and just walking back and forth. So it’s kind of enjoyable. There’s challenges with that too. Managing the kids and keeping them on task and things like that. For the most part, it’s fun. It’s fun to see the kids—If we do get into a bad patch, I point out how bad it is. Then we get through it and they look back and they see this clean field of beans. They get a feeling of what it is like to accomplish something, even as simple as pulling weeds.

Mike:   Yep. They sleep well at night.

Craig:   That’s right.

Mike:   I can say that from experience.

Craig:   That’s true.

Mike:   Growing up, the job I probably hated most was detassling corn, seed corn. I really did not enjoy that. Being out there at 7:00 in the morning with the wet weeds hitting you and being dressed in the garbage bag to sort of keep dry. Then mosquitoes buzzing all around you. Then in the afternoon everything was dry and hot, and pollen was flying and weeds cutting you in the neck. Oh yeah. That’s a college motivator right there, that job.

Craig:   That’s right. It builds character.

Mike:   It certainly does, yep. Yep. When I had some rough days in college, all I had to do was think about detassling corn and college seemed a lot easier.

Craig:   That’s true.

Mike:   Yep. Of course, throwing hay bales in the top peak of the barn. That wasn’t very fun either.

Craig:   Yeah, yeah. Those are hot times too. I remember being ever at the neighbor’s up in the peak. He had a small herd and a small barn, but he used every square inch of that hay mound. I was up at the top. A few square inches I think at the end there in August. So I remember those days too.

Mike:   Yep, yep. Yep, definitely. Well, there may be someone who’s out there listening who’s thinking about maybe dipping their toe in organic farming. What advice would you give someone who’s considering starting an organic farming operation?

Craig:   Yeah. I’d encourage anyone to really look into it, especially if you kind of want to stay on that small side. I never really had a desire to farm thousands of acres. I don’t think I have the mindset for it or the stress tolerance for it either. Not saying that organic farming isn’t stressful, but I just like being able to manage a smaller number of acres. So yeah. I would definitely encourage anyone to at least give it a try. Know that you can’t use conventional techniques for organic farming. I mentioned earlier that we plant later, and that’s generally true of corn and soybeans. We usually don’t plant our corn until about the middle of May when the conventional neighbors around are planting at least by the first of May and sometimes by the end of April if they can get in. Planting later, the soil is generally warmer, and the corn comes up quicker along with soybeans too. We plant soybeans usually the first part of June even into the 10th of June, somewhere in that range. Sometimes a little later. Soybeans come up quick. If you’re able to kill a first couple of flushes of weeds with your field cultivator, then it’s kind of off and running. You can get the beans and the corn in there. They’ll come up quick and you can get to cultivating them quick. I think probably try on maybe some smaller acreage first. I don’t know if I should give advice to plant by the road first or back behind the buildings where nobody sees because either one can be a motivator.

Mike:   Yep.

Craig:   Give it a try. It works, and there are struggles. When you go through that paperwork the first time, you’re thinking why am I doing this? It settles into a routine and you just developed a routine with it knowing this is what I have to do. Once you’ve done it a couple times with the paperwork, it pretty much just flows. You can flow through it. So yeah. I would encourage anyone to at least give it a try. The premiums are well worth it, I think. Then being able to just manage smaller acres with older equipment or smaller equipment is kind of nice too.

Mike:   Well, if you don’t mind me asking, if someone were to get into it what sort of buffers do you need from your crop versus conventional crops?

Craig:   Yeah, so that’s a good question. So if I’m farming next to a conventional farmer, it needs to be a minimum of a 25 foot buffer between his last area of spray and my first row of crop. So those can be done in a number of ways. Sometimes people just plant at the end hay and just harvest it as hay. Of course, that buffer strip cannot be used as an organic crop then, but you could sell it, or you could feed it to your own animals if they’re not organic or anything like that. Some people actually plant a crop in there. Either way that you do it, you need to keep very accurate records of what’s being with that buffer strip. Is it being sold at the market in town at the elevator or am I feeding it to my own non-organic animals? Is my neighbor buying it for his cows? So as long as that’s well documented and accurately documented. That’s usually how most people do it either with a dry strip or using a crop in there.

Mike:   Okay. So do you feed some of your corn to your beef cows for that reason?

Craig:   We do, yeah. Yeah like I said before, the cows aren’t certified organic. We kind of talk to the people that are buying beef from us. For us, that’s a whole other set of paperwork to run through another inspection and everything, more costs involved. The people that are buying beef from us know that we feed buffer strips. If we don’t have enough grain, we source chemical free non-GMO corn for instance to feed the cattle. So they know that. It’s a relationship we have between myself and the beef buyers. So they understand that and true us on that. So a lot of people—Some would farm and they would feed their buffer to their non-organic cattle.

Mike:   Yep, alright. Is most of your beef grass fed or is it more of a traditional diet?

Craig:   Yeah, we kind of have a little mix of both. So they’re out on pasture all summer, the ones that we’re fattening for slaughter. Then coming around August 1st we’ll start giving them corn. We’ll build them up gradually. We’ll get to the point where they’re getting about 15 to 20 pounds of corn per day per animal. So that’s really the first grain that they’ve seen starting here in August. Then we’ll butcher usually in January and February. So they do get a little bit of marbling with the corn, but it’s not like the overly fat hamburger that you buy in the grocery store. It’s a leaner meat but with a little bit of the flavoring from the corn.

Mike:   Okay, okay. That’s interesting. I was going to ask you too. I forgot to ask. In terms of your fall tillage, do you moldboard plow or chisel plow or what? What do you do there?

Craig:   Yeah, a combination of both. So on the alfalfa and the corn stalks, we’ll moldboard plow those. Then after soybeans we’ll chisel plow. It seems like it’s really hard to beat weed control without a moldboard plow. Something about fluffing up the soil and turning it over. We try to be careful. We have one farm that we run that’s pretty sandy and sometimes we’ll put clover in there after wheat. Then we’ve mold boarded that in the spring just to make sure we don’t lose any soil over there.

Mike:   Do you have any contour strips on your farm for erosion prevention or control?

Craig:   No. We do have some waterways here and there but ours isn’t really too conducive to the contour strips. We kind of feel with the small grain and the alfalfa that we’re getting a pretty good mix of row crop and solid sod some of those years too.

Mike:   Okay. Interesting.

Craig:   We try to focus too on soil health, try to build organic matter. I think the soil is a little bit maybe more able to hold moisture versus running away when we’re using manure and crop rotations and things like that.

Mike:   Sure, sure. In terms of premiums—you mentioned that’s one of the huge benefits of organic farming is the organic premium. Roughly, if you don’t mind sharing, what sort of the range that an organic farmer sees of premiums for the crop?

Craig:   Yeah. So right now I actually just had like 600 bushel left in the bin of corn. So I was able to get $7 for that. I had to bring it over to a neighboring town, to Grove City. There’s an organic buyer over there. So that’s kind of the range for old crop. I haven’t really checked in new crop yet, but I expect it’s going to be in that $6.50 to $7 range coming this fall and over winter. Down a little bit from what we’ve seen. Two years ago I think we sold corn at $10. So our market has fallen a little bit just like conventional market. Soybeans seem to hang up there, anywhere between that $18 and $20 range. That’s for feed grade soybeans. Food grade would bring more in that probably $20 to $24 range. Then wheat, last year’s wheat I was able to sell at $15.75, but I needed to deliver it to Grand Forks. So that was about a buck. So just under $15 on the farm here.

Mike:   Okay. Alright. Well, that’s probably another challenge—or maybe not. I’ll ask the question. In terms of relationships with some of your buyers, how did you formulate those relationships?

Craig:   Yeah. We’ve been in it quite a few years. So there’s kind of a handful of buyers we call and just see where they’re at on pricing. Sometimes it’s just like a conventional buyer. Sometimes they’re more in need of your crop than another buyer is so they’re able to pay a little bit more. So over the years we’ve worked with quite a few different buyers, used different ones over the years and kind of develop a relationship with them like you say. They know you and you know them. So we kind of have a circle that we call and see where they’re at on different prices. They’re usually good to negotiate with too. If you feel like you should get a little more, you’re of course able to throw that price out and they’re free to take it or not to. So it’s been good. In Grove City, Midwest Protein is what it’s called. So this Gordy Larson is the owner over there. He’s using his facilities—he’s got the old Grove City elevator there which is able to load rail—so he’s basically a dropping point for quite a few organic brokers. I’m sure he just gets his commission per bushel, but it’s nice having him so close. If you have just half a semi load or something, you can just run up there with a gravity box and dump it right there.

Mike:   Yeah, okay. Well, he may have to be on a future podcast of mine.

Craig:   Yeah, yeah. He’s an interesting guy to talk to. He’s quite an entrepreneur. Like you said, he said if my handshake isn’t any good then my signature wouldn’t be either. So he’s kind of old school that way. So that’s kind of nice to deal with.

Mike:   Yeah, interesting. Do you have to sign any sort of technology agreements with the seed companies that you’ve worked with?

Craig:   We haven’t. There is getting to be a little bit of that with the state. State developed seed, Iowa state, North Dakota state. So they’re out there for sure, I just haven’t chosen those varieties. Not for that reason at all, but they just weren’t the varieties I was looking for. So yeah. There is those—I think you’re referring to like patent technology kind of things.

Mike:   Yeah. Or I didn’t know if there were any restrictions about where you can sell the crop and things like that.

Craig:   Oh okay. Yeah, not really on that end. So we’re certified through OCIA. When you certify through your certification agency, you can choose to certify through OCIA or there’s the one—It’s the National Organic Program, NOP. We’ve chosen to certify through the NOP the last few years. So basically that seal is good in the United States. There’s certain countries like Canada and European Union, they want a separate certification. So sometimes if we’ve sold product that’s going to Canada, we would need to get a Canadian equivalency certificate. So that’s through our certifier. I think at this point there’s some things allowed in the states. There’s only one item that’s allowed in the states that’s not allowed in Canada. I think it’s Chilean nitrate. So you just have to verify that you haven’t used Chilean nitrate and then you can get the Canadian equivalency certificate.

Mike:   Okay. Interesting.

Craig:   There is a Japan—I think there’s a JAS certification also if you are selling product to Japan that they might require. There’s just a few extra hoops to jump through. Typically they all kind of merge together.

Mike:   Okay. Do you happen to know what percent of your grain stays in the U.S. versus export?

Craig:   Yeah. When we first started, a lot of it went to Japan mostly for tofu I think. The beans we were growing at the time, they were food grade. Clear hilum, a little bit higher protein. Those went to Japan. So since then the domestic markets have developed quite a bit. So when you see organic meat for sale in the stores, that would be using organic corn and soybeans for the protein and grain source. So lately now we’ve been seeing more just United States product or using in the United States.

Mike:   Okay. No, that’s great. Well, I’m very pleased that you’ve kind of shared a little bit of your experience. I’m sure you’ve had other challenges along the way. You’ve probably worked with county extension agents to whom you’ve probably had to educate on some of this stuff I would guess.

Craig:   Yeah. When we first were looking into it, he kind of gave us the small packet he had in Litchfield there. He had a little bit of information on the organics, but not a lot at that time in the early ‘90s. So there was some research being done in the universities. So we went to some of those field days. Then farmers would just have field days themselves. So we tended quite a few of those. That seems to be where you kind of learn a lot more, especially from the ones that aren’t afraid to tell you that it was a disaster or something like that. Sometimes you see these pictures of things working perfectly and you wonder if that’s the field by the road you know?

Mike:   Yeah.

Craig:   So it’s god to hear the stories because you know it’s not all perfect. It’s good to hear the stories and hear the successes and the failures. We can kind of learn both ways. That’s kind of the other thing that I enjoyed about it. It’s always a learning experience. Every year is different. You just have to kind of be open to learning, trying new things, and trying different ways of doing things.

Mike:   Sure. Yep, yep. Farmers are masters, it seems like, of adopting and trying new things and evaluating what works and doesn’t work. So I really admire that about farmers, one of the many things. One last question. Do you have any consumers come and visit your operation? Has that ever happened?

Craig:   Not really. I think because we don’t really—I think if you’d have more like a vegetable operation you might see a lot more of course, but most of our stuff leaves in full semi loads. So it goes straight into the organic food production chain or feed production chain. So not a lot. Once in a while we’ll get a farmer asking if he can come over if they’re interesting in switching to organic farming. They’ll come over and ask some questions and kind of look around and stuff. It’s always fun to introduce people to that way. It’s kind of a passion. So it’s fun to share that with people that are interested and people that may be leaning that way.

Mike:   Yeah. What closing comments would you care to add for the audience here?

Craig:   Yeah. I guess I would encourage anyone who’s thinking of it just to give it a try. Give organic farming a try and see how it works for them. It doesn’t work for everybody, but you never really know until you try. So it’s been good for us. There’s been ups and downs, of course. It’s farming. I guess it’s kind of that way with every occupation. There’s pluses and minuses. Despite the markets up and down and the weather and organic farming, really it just continues to be a great way to make a living and raise a family. God’s really been faithful to us over the years. We’ve never lacked for anything. He’s always given us direction and ways that we need to go. So I want to give him credit for that too just for watching over us. I know that he’ll continue to watch over us in the future.

Mike:   Certainly appreciate you sharing your knowledge and experience and what you’ve learned along the way here. Alright. Well have a great week and safe prep for getting ready for wheat harvest and a harvest.

Craig:   Alright. Well thanks much Mike. Appreciate it.

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