Great Stuff I Have Seen on Organic Farms
This article was first printed in the March - April 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
In my 15 years of being an organic inspector, I have had the privilege of visiting many organic farms around the world. My husband thinks I am a little nuts, since even when we are on vacation, I like to visit organic farms as a tourist activity. Usually people are very gracious and willing to show me around. I thought I would share some of the more unusual and exciting things I have seen.
In Belgium, we stopped by a farm that had a small sign out-front that said “organic cheese for sale” (in French of course). An energetic woman showed us her small cheese and yogurt making facility in the store and out back, we were given a tour of the dairy farm. The genetics of the colored breed herd had been stewarded for 6 generations, and the deep bedding pack open stall system obviously provided a cozy place for the cows in winter. We also spoke with people in the village nearby, and everyone raved about “their” cheesemaker, with an obvious pride in their region and this cheese that gave their community distinction and character. The gouda type cheese was as marvelous as you may imagine, lovingly air cured and aged from unpasteurized milk. We were most impressed with the community support and pride of their cheesemaker, giving this farm family good reasons to continue in their ancestors footsteps by producing high quality food for their friends and neighbors. We in America can use this as an example of one way we can help our local agriculture be viable and vibrant. My view of homeland security is a healthy, sustainable and local food supply!
In Costa Rica, I visited a farm that had worked with the world-renowned Earth University, in the development of a methane digester to produce energy that fueled a small chicken processing facility. A large plastic bag (about 50 feet long by 4 feet in diameter) was placed into the ground and half filled with pig and chicken manure. A plastic hose was then run out of the bag to a secondary holding bag to hold the methane. When needed, the methane was used to heat the scalding water, singe the feathers off the slaughtered birds and heat water for washing the eviscerated birds. The blood and feathers were channeled back into the plastic bag to keep the methane generator working, along with more pig manure. The 3 pigs present ate the unwanted parts of the birds (head, feet etc.). This facility raised and slaughtered about 200 birds a week and supplied the local town with all of the chicken dinners they wanted. After about two years, I was told a new bag would be put in the ground and started up. The first one would be allowed to peter out, with the manure then composted and ready to put on the soil. I found it very inspiring to see how the waste products were so easily and efficiently used to produce a needed commodity: energy. This is an excellent example of recycling ‘waste” and producing energy from a renewable resource.
Closer to home here in the Midwest I have seen many farmers experiment with a variety of techniques to improve soil at the same time as providing weed control. Farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have drilled winter rye in the spring. Yes, in the spring. Immediately, usually the same day or the next day, they plant their soybeans, either in rows or drilled. They then let nature take its course, no cultivating or work needed until harvest. Usually the rye does not grow more than 8 inches or so, and prevents broadleaf weeds from growing. Although I have seen some foxtail in this system, it is not overwhelming. This works best for a dark hilum soybean rather than a clear hilum bean, since the rye will still be green (just not tall or headed out), in the fall and could stain the beans at combining. In times of drought, this may not work well, but usually the farmer does not plant all of his fields in this way. But, any field that can produce an acceptable crop of organic beans without any cultivating can be a big help. The rye prevents erosion when there are heavy rains. Since there is no cultivation, there is no loss of organic matter, only gain.
Many livestock farmers are putting up large and small hoophouses with translucent coverings for calf, heifer, cow and poultry housing. The animals seem to really enjoy the light and wonderful air circulation in the winter, although it can get a little warm in the summer, but then the animals could be outside then anyway. Speaking of keeping cows outside, I have seen more and more dairy farmers having their animals spend the entire winter outdoors (they just come in for milking), with large round bales stacked two high in a row as a windbreak. Throughout the winter the bales contribute to the deep bedding pack outside. The cows and the farmers seem happy with this system.
I have also been impressed with farmers who have taken the time to actually track how much time they spend planting, cultivating, hand pulling weeds and harvesting their crops. They then take this information and plug it into a farm assessment program, usually provided by the local bank or extension agent. They assign the standard price for their county for their labor time, amortize their equipment costs, and the whole economic picture is put on paper. Usually, they find that a switch to organic farming returns many more dollars per acre, even with the higher labor costs, the higher cost of organic seed and organic starter fertilizers if they use them. This helps them be a little more enthusiastic about getting on the tractor on those days when another 17 hour day of cultivating is needed before the rains come……
On these winter nights, I have been learning more about biodynamic farming. The whole farm is seen as living organism, with the farmer part of that living being. If the farmer is stressed, tired, worn out, or unhappy, the farm will suffer. At times, farmers take on more than they can handle and fall into the trap of working so hard they forget to enjoy life. Organic farming offers the chance for farmers to work not only hard with their hands, but with their minds. Thinking through problems and challenges and working through them with a fresh perspective includes not buying a product to solve the problem, but changing the system to prevent the problem. When I have visited farms where the farmers see themselves as a part of the farm, and that solutions should include their own well being as well as meeting the needs of their operation, these are the farms that have the healthiest soils, plants, livestock and people.
Harriet Behar is the MOSES Outreach Specialist. She was an organic inspector and inspector trainer for many years and has an organic bedding plant and vegetable operation with her husband in Southwest WI.Return to TOP