Organic Broadcaster

MOSES to honor organic trailblazers at conference

By Dana Jokela, Sogn Valley Farm

Each year, MOSES honors organic farmers who practice outstanding land stewardship, innovation, and outreach through the MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year award. The 2019 recipients, Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford of Blue Fruit Farm in Winona, Minn., exemplify all three award criteria to the fullest.

Jim and Joyce have a long and multifaceted career in organic agriculture, not just as farmers, but also as educators, policy advocates, and consultants. In doing my homework before writing this article, I found the breadth and depth of their contributions to the organic movement—on both local, national, and global levels—so staggering that it left me feeling paralyzed. Where do I start, and how could I begin to capture all this in one article?

Jim and Joyce started farming in the early 1980s as Wiscoy Organic Produce. 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, they were pioneering this approach in their farming and marketing.

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 marketed some of their produce through a home delivery subscription program before Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) existed in the United States. During that time, Jim and Joyce also helped found the still-thriving Winona Farmers Market, an achievement they are proud of to this day.

They took a two-decade intermission from active farming to work in organic inspection and other realms, but returned to farming in 2009. Their decision to farm again was partly spurred by the beckoning of a piece of land. During their farming hiatus, they had rented out a 5-acre field to another organic grower who constructed an 8-foot-tall deer fence around the perimeter, with the understanding that the fence would remain when they stopped renting the field. Well, that grower stopped renting the field, leaving Jim and Joyce with a fully fenced 5-acre weed patch. Surely there was a better way to use this land, they thought.

They looked around at what other growers in the region were producing in order to determine what was missing from the market. The answer came in all shades of blue—blueberries, for sure, but they eventually expanded to black currants, aronia berries, elderberries, honeyberries, juneberries, and plums. The soil on their perennial farm is covered with vegetation throughout the year, an intentional approach to virtually eliminate soil erosion.

Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford grow “blue” fruit on their certified organic farm near Winona, Minn. The couple will receive the Organic Farmers of the Year award at the 2019 MOSES Conference Feb. 21 in La Crosse, Wis. Photo by Laurie Schneider

Their fruit is marketed fresh and frozen, mostly in bulk 5-lb boxes and bags, along with a smaller amount 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.

All of their fruits are high-antioxidant, nutritional powerhouses. The blueberries sell themselves, but most of the other fruits aren’t as familiar to the American palate and have required a good deal of customer education. They developed their own educational brochures, do farm tours, and have given many presentations.

In addition to their fruit crops, they have integrated native plants—hairy mountain mint, anise hyssop, wild bergamot, milkweed, and other prairie species—into their farm landscape to create habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. While they do have honeybees on the premises, the honeybees are found mostly on white clover. “The native bees pollinate the fruit,” Jim said. And native bees thrive when provided native plant habitat and protection from insecticides.

Jim Riddle collects seed from the native prairie he and his wife, Joyce Ford, established around their orchard to shelter pollinators. Photo by Laurie Schneider

Beyond the native insectary plantings within their fruit field, they have established prairie in the surrounding land. As fruit harvest winds down in late summer, they divert their energy toward collecting seed from these native plants. They are lucky to have a ready market for this native seed just down the road at Prairie Moon Nursery, which sells native seeds and transplants across the Midwest.

Production of fruit, pollinator habitat, and native seeds is only part of Blue Fruit Farm’s mission. Jim and Joyce are also committed to community and education. They routinely welcome people to their farm, hosting tours for visiting school groups or welcoming folks to their own Blue Fruit Fest. But the farming and outreach they do today are just two of the many ways they’ve helped build and sustain the organic agriculture movement over nearly four decades.

The two started doing organic inspections in the early 1990s, a time in organic farming history that today’s young farmers never knew. There were no uniform standards from state to state and little inspector training or oversight; it was a sort of “wild west” back then, they said. Responding to these state-to-state disparities in organic standards and inspector training, Jim and Joyce helped found the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA). The two ran IOIA, which provides training and accreditation for organic inspectors worldwide, for the first eight years out of their off-grid, solar-powered home office.

Their work “helped standardize the inspection process, the paperwork, as well as the Organic System Plan—those templates came out of our home office,” Jim explained. And, while Joyce concedes that certification may seem a little heavy on paperwork at this point in time, “it was developed in response to fraudulent situations.”

This work as organic inspectors triggered their pivot away from farming for the next two decades, during which time they got involved in other training, advocacy, and policy work. Their accomplishments and contributions to organic agriculture since the 1980s have been extensive and far-reaching. Presented with a dauntingly long list of accomplishments, I asked them to think back and tell me about a few of the things they’re most proud of.

“In the mid-1990s,” Jim said, “we were paying to get certified. I was inspecting other organic farms, and they would complain to me about having to pay to get certified. I had also enrolled our farm in various conservation programs where you could get cost-share dollars to do conservation work. Something clicked in my mind—why not have a cost-share program to help reduce the cost of certification? This idea just happened at a good time; I was asked by a state senator for ideas about how to encourage more organic in Minnesota. I took this idea to the Minnesota Legislature, testified in the House and the Senate.”

The organic certification cost-share was put in Governor Jesse Ventura’s first budget bill, which passed and became law in 1998. But Jim didn’t stop there. He 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 cost back each year. All you organic farmers reading this can thank Jim Riddle for that!

Jim was also influential in shaping the USDA’s first proposed organic rule. He told me this story: “The proposed rule was released on Dec. 21, 1997. I was scheduled to leave for a trip to Japan on Jan. 10, so I spent my entire Christmas and New Year holidays that year going through the proposed rule, line by line, identifying where it did not meet current organic standards, state laws, or NOSB [National Organic Standards Board] recommendations. I included replacement language, paragraph by paragraph, along with rationale for why each change should be made. My comments served as the playbook for other substantive comments, and were used by USDA to shape the content of the current regulation. Having submitted and circulated my comments, I left for Japan! The rest is history!”

But those two accomplishments just scratch the surface of what these two have done. To name a few more, Jim has spoken at conferences worldwide; served on the founding steering committee of the Land Stewardship Project; worked for seven years as Organic Outreach Coordinator for the University of Minnesota; served for six years on the leadership team for eOrganic, a multi-university Extension portal; served nine years as the elected Supervisor of the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District; served on the USDA National Organic Standards Board from 2001-2006; coordinated organic research grant programs at The Ceres Trust; and served as founding steering committee chair of the Organic Farmers Association.

Joyce served on the Organic Growers and Buyers Association Board of Directors; co-authored the Organic Trade Association’s Good Organic Retail Practices manual; served two terms on the MOSES Board of Directors from 2003 to 2008; served on the Minnesota Healthy Food Charter steering committee for two years; and currently serves on the Accreditation Committee of the International Organic Accreditation Service.

Despite all this organizational and political leadership over decades, Jim’s first response when I asked him what he was most proud of was farming.

“It makes it all real. I’m not just talking about something I’ve read in a book. I’m out there doing it. Being grounded is critical to me. And, that means spending time in nature. Not just farming, but listening to nature. That’s really paramount,” he explained.

Now that Jim and Joyce have reached retirement age, they are thinking about a transition plan for Blue Fruit Farm. They are thrilled that a seasonal employee of theirs is interested in taking over the business. They plan to make the transition gradual, so they’ll be pretty involved with farm operation over the next couple of years.

While Jim and Joyce may be eyeing an exit from farming, I’d wager we’ll be hearing from them for years to come. They are sought-after speakers and consultants and have worked on organic issues on every continent (besides Antarctica). Let’s hope they continue fighting for organic integrity across the globe and teaching up-and-comers about organic farming, while keeping their roots in the Midwest! And, without question, let’s be proud to welcome them as Organic Farmers of the Year at the 2019 MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

Dana Jokela owns and operates Sogn Valley Farm, a 22-acre certified organic farm near Cannon Falls, Minn.


From the January | February 2019 Issue

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