Organic Broadcaster

Dirt-under-the-fingernails wisdom shared through MOSES mentor program

By Brittany Olson,  Farmer

With many years of experience in organic dairy and grain farming plus a bachelor’s degree in education, Dave Campbell finds it natural to be teaching the next generation of organic farmers through the MOSES Farmer-to Farmer Mentoring Program.

Mentor Dave Campbell (right) scouts weeds in his winter wheat field with his mentee, Ben Hagenbuch. Photo submitted

“It comes easy for me and is something I am very passionate about,” said Campbell, who owns and operates Lily Lake Organic Farm about 50 miles west of Chicago. He has 156 tillable acres of certified organic crops, including buckwheat, corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, oats, and red clover as a cover crop. He grew up on an organic farm, well before “organic” was a label; his father went organic in 1967 when Campbell was 12 years old. Campbell and his wife moved to their current farm in 1988, transitioning the entire farm to certified organic production.

Campbell became a mentor in the MOSES mentorship program in 2010, and has mentored a farmer every year since then. “One year I had two,” he added. He is currently mentoring Ben Hagenbuch, who recently moved from the Twin Cities back to his “old stomping grounds” with his wife and four young children.

Hagenbuch grew up on his family’s 1,000-acre conventional cash crop operation not far from Campbell’s farm. He has had a successful career in banking, but “always had an inclination to farm,” he explained. His dad plans to retire “eventually,” and neither of his brothers is interested in taking over the farm. So Hagenbuch is planning ahead. His plans include transitioning part of the family operation to organic—something entirely new for the Hagenbuchs.

True to his banking roots, Hagenbuch wanted to minimize risk and increase the likelihood of his success by learning about organic production from an experienced organic farmer before he makes the transition. He attended the OGRAIN Winter Conference in January at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met Organic and Sustainable Cropping Systems Specialist Erin Silva. She recommended the MOSES mentorship program to him.

The MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program provides one-to-one guidance from an organic farmer who is experienced with the particular enterprise that another farmer wants to explore.

“Planning ahead is crucial to a successful organic transition, and Ben was very motivated to learn and succeed,” said Jennifer Nelson, the program’s coordinator. “And, Dave is such an incredible mentor. They’re a good pairing.”

The mentor-pair met at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse earlier this year.

“The MOSES Conference is not only where you wrap things up with previous mentees, but also where you meet new ones and learn about their operation,” Campbell said. “You also learn whether it’s a good fit or not.” They discussed expectations, and agreed that Campbell could help Hagenbuch investigate which practices would work best for his land, and help him write a business plan to transition some of the farm to organic production.

Campbell and Hagenbuch have met about three times in person to walk through options for particular parcels of the Hagenbuch family farm and other details of organic production, and the two correspond regularly by email, texts, and phone calls.

Campbell said that being a mentor strikes a fine balance between being helpful, but not too helpful to the point that the mentee cannot draw their own conclusions with the knowledge at their disposal. In addition, if he doesn’t have the answer to a question that the mentee is looking for, he wants to be able to point them in the right direction.

“For me, the mentorship experience is all about giving them a combination of information to survive and do the job, and encourage them along the way while providing enough common sense to get through the highs and lows,” Campbell said. “You want to lay things out for them, but not get too involved so that you aren’t making the decisions for them.”

For Hagenbuch, it is that willingness to help combined with decades of hard-fought experience that have made Campbell a fantastic mentor.

“Dave has helped with education and planning,” Hagenbuch said. “I was taking in as much as I could from him in regards to which parcels of land would work best for transitioning to organic production. We are only partway through the mentorship, but Dave has been very helpful with not only walking through my business plan and offering critique when needed, but also making sure the plan is viable.”

Campbell enjoys working with Hagenbuch particularly because of his planning skills.

“He’s taking time this year to plan for next year. He’s an excellent planner, and those skills are hard to find. Most farmers are planners, but not to the extent that Ben is,” Campbell said. “Ben will be starting small because he does have a full time job, but he still needs the equipment to get started in organics.”

Hagenbuch plans to be certified organic by 2021, with 2019 marking the first year of the transition process. He doesn’t want to go all in only to have the venture turn into a bust, but wants to manage his risk carefully.

“It may be as small as 20 acres and it may be as large as 60,” Hagenbuch said. “My thought behind this is to start small and keep my risk low so I can expand gradually and convert more ground over the years. I want to expand beyond basic organic, build soil organic matter, and be a better steward of the land,” he added.

For Campbell, being a better steward of the land is not only something he can get behind, but simply what organic farming is all about. As an example, he is growing a cover crop of sorghum sudangrass for fallow this crop year on two of his fields, in order to control Canada thistle on his farm. He saw firsthand the benefits of using sorghum sudangrass as a method of eradicating Canada thistle when he served as a farm advisor for a SARE-funded research project through the University of Illinois.

Sorghum sudangrass is aggressive enough to block photosynthesis of the shorter Canada thistle plants. In addition, the massive root system of sorghum sudangrass takes up moisture that will be in limited supply to the lateral thistle roots, especially later into the summer when soil moisture is typically in shorter supply. Campbell calls it a “smother-and-starve” approach.

“When the sorghum sudangrass reaches a certain height I’ll clip it about a foot off the ground with my haybine, leaving the sorghum sudangrass residue on top of the plant stubble, thereby keeping the sunlight out, eventually chisel plowing it under later in the fall,” Campbell explained. MOSES and OGRAIN will host a field day Aug. 29 at Campbell’s farm to showcase this method. See for more details and to register for the free event.

Campbell said he treasures the privilege of being able to guide the next generation of organic farmers into a socially, environmentally, and professionally sustainable method of farming that attracts more interest from farmers, new and experienced, all the time.

Brittany Olson is a freelance writer and dairy farmer from Chetek, Wis.

MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program


From the July | August  2018 Issue


Comments are closed.