MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year

This award recognizes organic farmers who practice outstanding land stewardship, innovation, and outreach. The MOSES Board of Directors selects the farmer/farm family to honor from submitted nominations. They present the award at the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

Nominate a Farmer

 

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Congratulations to the 2019 Organic Farmers of the Year:
Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford of Blue Fruit Farm, Winona, Minn. See their story below.

 

Past Winners

 

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2019 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year

Blue Fruit Farm
Jim Riddle & Joyce Ford

Jim Riddle & Joyce Ford have had a profound impact on organic agriculture, not just as farmers, but also as educators, policy advocates, and advisers. They have worked at local, state, and national levels to promote organic agriculture, and helped shape the country’s founding organic standards in the 1990s. In truth, they’ve been front and center in nearly every aspect of the organic world. 

Riddle served on the USDA National Organic Standards Board, the body responsible for shepherding what can and can’t be used in organic production. He supported research on organic practices when he worked for the University of Minnesota and later at The Ceres Trust. He helped launch the Land Stewardship Project, a farm advocacy organization based in Minnesota, and the Organic Farmers Association, a national group that provides a strong, unified voice for organic producers. He also served nine years as the elected supervisor of the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Ford has extensive leadership experience as well. She served two terms on the MOSES Board of Directors in the early 2000s, and was on the board of the Organic Growers and Buyers Association. She was on the steering committee of the Minnesota Healthy Food Charter, and currently serves on a committee for the International Organic Accreditation Service. She also co-wrote the Organic Trade Association’s manual Good Organic Retail Practices.

The couple started growing vegetables near Winona, Minnesota in the early 1980s as Wiscoy Organic Produce. They used cover crops from the get-go, including innovative applications such as interseeding winter rye into standing sweet corn during the last cultivation. They were certified by the Organic Growers and Buyers Association, before the existence of the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). 

Long before organic and local food were mainstream terms, this was their approach to farming and marketing. They grew their produce organically and marketed it locally through a home delivery subscription program when no one had even heard of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). To reach more consumers, they helped found the still-thriving Winona Farmers Market.

They recalled the early 1990s as a sort of “Wild West” in the organic world, without uniform national standards for organic farming and little training or oversight of organic certification inspectors. Their response was to help create an organization that would train inspectors and standardize the organic certification process. They ran the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA) for its first eight years out of their home office, and shifted their focus from farming to conducting organic inspections.

When they were inspecting farms—and listening to farmers complain about the cost of organic certification—they had an “aha!” moment that led to the Organic Certification Cost-Share Program.

“This idea just happened at a good time,” Riddle explained. “I was asked by a state senator for ideas about how to encourage more organic in Minnesota.” He thought about the cost-share program he had used to help with conservation work on his farm. Then he testified before both state houses, explaining the need for the program. In 1998, the state’s budget bill included funds for organic certification cost-share, making Minnesota the first state in the country to offer that. Riddle then worked with Senator Paul Wellstone’s staff and got organic certification cost-share in the 2002 Farm Bill. Now any certified organic operation nationwide can get 75% of their certification costs back each year. 

Riddle and Ford returned to farming in 2009, finding a new niche by growing nutrient-rich “blue” fruits—blueberries, black currants, aronia berries, elderberries, honeyberries, juneberries, and plums. They aptly named their new business venture “Blue Fruit Farm.” 

While their property already had a 5-foot high deer fence, they had to add netting, irrigation, and other infrastructure to make the new venture work. They paid close attention to soil tests to decide how to amend the soil for their various fruit crops.Riddle’s advice to new growers is to start by building the soil— “it’s going pay off forever,” he added.

They market their fruit fresh and frozen, mostly in bulk 5-lb boxes and bags, along with smaller amounts in clamshells. Two-thirds of their sales are wholesale, mostly to restaurants and breweries, with the remainder being sold directly to consumers at the farm or through pre-arranged deliveries. They also make jams and juices and sell them under Minnesota’s Cottage Food Law, which allows individuals to sell up to $5,000/year worth of processed goods made in a home kitchen.

Their farm is certified organic by MOSA. As exemplary organic farmers, they have surrounded their orchard with habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Beyond the native insectary plantings, they established prairie. As fruit harvest winds down, they divert their energy toward collecting seed from these native plants. They are lucky to have a ready market just down the road at Prairie Moon Nursery, which sells native seeds and transplants.

Riddle and Ford share a commitment to teaching others how to grow “blue” fruits, especially the more unusual varieties like aronia and honeyberries. They frequently host tours and field days on their farm, and have created an annual event, the Blue Fruit Fest.

They’ve learned a lot about growing berries, and have had to change direction when some varieties either succumbed to powdery mildew or produced bitter-tasting fruit. Pest and disease pressure must be managed organically.

“For plum curculio (PC), we’ve gone to planting garlic at the base of the trees and then using a garlic foliar spray when traps show that the PC is present because the plum curculio doesn’t like garlic. It’s a very integrated approach.

With all that Riddle and Ford have done in the organic community, they are most proud of their work as farmers.

“It makes it all real,” Riddle said. “I’m not just talking about something I’ve read in a book. I’m out there doing it.”

 

 

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