By Gigi DiGiacomo and Robert King
Seasoned farmers Jonathan and Carolyn Olson make organic production look easy. They started with a conventionally managed 300-acre farm in Southwestern Minnesota and now manage more than 1,100 acres of certified organic land. They love what they do and have become leaders in the organic community.
The Olsons’ decision to go organic began with a comment from their buyer in 1997. “My dad and I had been growing seed and food-grade soybeans for a couple of years, when our buyer said to us, ‘You should be growing organic—it pays more,’” Jonathan recalled. The Olsons didn’t know any organic growers at the time, so they did a lot of homework before making the transition. They visited the University of Minnesota’s Lamberton Experiment Station and “asked a lot of questions,” Jonathan said. “Going to events and conferences, we started to build contacts and have conversations with organic growers.”
The Olsons gave organics a try by putting 40 acres from one of their cleanest fields into transition during spring of 1998. “The first couple of years seemed easy,” Jonathan said. But, over time, weeds began to build in almost every field. The Olsons have had to experiment with management strategies that include altering planting dates, increasing mechanical and hand cultivation, and flaming. Despite continuing struggles with weeds, the Olsons said they’ve never lost money. “At worst, we’ve broken even with fields that occasionally were really ugly,” Carolyn said.
During the past 15 years, Jonathan and Carolyn gradually have transitioned 1,100 acres (much of the land is rented on long-term lease from family members). Throughout the transition, they maintained what’s known as a “split operation” with some ground under organic and some under conventional management.
Under National Organic Program rules, split operations must thoroughly clean all equipment before using it to work organic fields. This removes contaminated seed and/or residues left behind from conventional crops. “We worked really hard to clean out equipment, clean off dirt, flush it for seed,” Jonathan explained. They invested in enough bins to allow for simultaneous storage of organic, transitional, and conventional crops. The Olsons also keep meticulous records.
Early in the process, full certification became a goal of the Olsons, and all their land is certified now. Reflecting on their transition strategy, the Olsons noted important benefits associated with having run a split operation. Most important, they said, was the chance to learn while growing the farm business. “Gradually transitioning smaller acreages allowed us to learn,” Jonathan said. “Fifteen years later, we’re still learning. And, just about the time you think it’s getting easier, you do something like plant tillage radish in front of soybeans,” he added with a smile.
The decision to gradually transition also pro- vided the Olsons greater access to capital. “As long as we were transitioning gradually, organics wasn’t a problem with our lender,” Jonathan explained. “Our banker smiled when he saw the first organic prices and, over time, thought it made sense.”
Today the Olsons are busy almost full-time from mid-May, when planting begins, to November after harvest wraps up. Their three-year rota- tion includes corn, soybeans and, in year three, small grains followed by a cover crop. Fertility comes from the Olsons’ 2,400-head conventional hog finishing enterprise, which Jonathan and Carolyn have managed since before going organic. Their organic corn yields regularly equal or exceed conventional county averages while their organic soybeans yield slightly below conventional averages.
Jonathan enjoys marketing. He contracts sales nationally to buyers of organic seed, feed, and soybeans. During transition, he regularly earned premiums of up to $1 for GMO-free soybeans, though he said this can take a lot of calling around. “But I don’t mind doing it,” he added. “I like this aspect of marketing—the homework.”
With consistently good yields and premiums earned for organic crops, the Olsons are reaching their long-term goal of fully paying down farm debt. “Financially, the last couple of years have been very rewarding,” Jonathan said.
When asked about their biggest challenge, Jonathan retorted “besides weeds?” That’s when Carolyn jumped in suggesting that the community reaction has been difficult to deal with at times. “We get a lot of comments,” she said. “Everything from ‘You’re pretty brave’ to ‘Your dad never had weeds in that field.’” But, she added, it just takes educating folks about what they are trying to achieve.
“Carolyn started a blog (Carolyn CAREs), and we both posted on Facebook after planting the tillage radish,” Jonathan said, explaining that they were inundated with questions from passers-by.
Due in part to questions from neighboring farmers, the Olsons have become very active in their community, advocating on behalf of organic farming and working to educate others interested in transitioning. Carolyn serves as President of their county Farm Bureau and is a member of the Minnesota Organic Advisory Task Force. Carolyn and Jona- than both volunteer regularly with the Future Farmers of America and speak to farming organizations. In fact, the Olsons were nominated for the 2014 Organic Farmers of the Year award, highlighting their dedication to organic farming and commitment to education.
Gigi DiGiacomo is a Research Fellow, and Robert King is a Professor in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.
This profile was prepared for the Tools for Transition (TFT) project, a four-year research and education effort funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Transition scholarships are available for Minnesota field crop and dairy farmers participating in the Farm Business Management Program. The Olsons are TFT participants. Contact Meg Moynihan for scholarship information: 651-201-6616 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
March | April 2014