Organic Broadcaster

Organic transition allows family farm to remain profitable

By Jody Padgham, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Former Wisconsin organic dairy farmer Jim Goodman published a stirring piece in the Dec. 21, 2018 issue of the Washington Post, titled “Dairy farming is dying. After 40 years, I’m done.”

“There is just too much—too much milk, too much grain, too much livestock—thanks to tightening export markets and declining domestic demand for dairy products,” Goodman wrote. He put part of the blame on over-large organic dairy operations in Texas that “feed their thousands of cows a diet of organic grain and stored forage, with no discernible access to a blade of grass,” allowing them to produce more milk than all the organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined.

While the future is always uncertain, this is an especially challenging time as agriculture goes through a serious adjustment, reflective of previous eras such as the 1980s, when thousands of farmers were forced out of the occupation. There has been much discussion, regionally and nationally, about the future of dairy, including organic dairy. But, as some farms are selling off, others are trying a new approach by transitioning to organic.

Reason to Hope
Brett Runde sees great hope and many positives in his recent transition to organic production. Runde believes that organic will be what allows his family to stay profitable and able to maintain a sustainable lifestyle.

“We won’t be getting rich,” Runde claimed. “But, we won’t be worrying about paying the bills. We’ll have a healthier bottom line.” He sees conventional farms around him forced to sell out and sees organic as the solution to keep their farm thriving.

The rolling hills of the Runde Farm in southwestern Wisconsin have been in the family for over 150 years. Homesteaded by Runde’s great grandfather, the farm has grown to 400 acres supporting 160 milking cows managed by Runde and his father, with help from Runde’s wife, Laura, and four children ages 5 to 16.

Runde credits a successful transition to the help of numerous neighbors who modeled diverse organic operations even before they chipped in with support and advice. “We watched our neighbors

The Runde family recently transitioned their farm to organic as a way to keep their 400-acre farm thriving despite a tough farm economy.

succeed with organic and had it in the back of our minds for about 10 years,” Runde said. “My dad wasn’t sure, we didn’t like all the weeds we saw, but our organic neighbors are very successful farmers.”

The first 15 years after Runde joined in partnership with his dad things went ok. “We had high crop and milk production, but were just getting by financially.” But then “we just kept working harder, and not doing as well financially. We needed to either add cows or land to stay at the same income or go organic to capture value. I never wanted to be the guy sitting at a desk managing a big farm and a big crew.” So, they decided to move to organic.

Runde laughed when he explained that he just “kind of fell into the transition.” He had already ordered GMO seed to plant in 2016 when a conversation with a neighbor convinced him to see if he could switch the order to non-GMO. Runde rather nervously called the seed supplier he thought would be least supportive and was surprised at how happy they were to switch his order. “It was absolutely no problem,” Runde remembered. “So we decided we might as well do this for a year—we can always switch back if it doesn’t work out.”

Two additional factors supported the transition idea. The first was that Laura Runde’s father had been a successful organic crop farmer at the nearby Sinsinawa Mound religious community, and she was very encouraging about the potential.

At the same time the Rundes were considering organic, friends about a mile away were thinking about it, too, and many conversations were shared. With leadership from Organic Valley, a meeting with neighboring organic farmers was held in the Runde’s machine shed. “We spent the afternoon talking about potential problems. They shared their record books. You’d never find that in the conventional world,” Runde said. “It really meant a lot to us to have their support.”

With the non-GMO crops planted, Runde started experimenting with unfamiliar organic management of his dairy cows, such as organic remedies and fly control. Joe Klein, Midwest Dairy Pool Manager from Organic Valley, came out and helped the Rundes walk through a few financial reviews. Field days sponsored by the University of Wisconsin and MOSES through the OGRAIN program offered additional information and support. “We are very impressed by how organic people are willing to share ideas and information,” Runde added.

The first crop year went well, and so the Rundes decided to continue on the organic path. This past year, untimely rains led to weedy soybeans, but Runde hired a crew to hand weed the crop and was very pleased with the result. “They did a really good job. They saved the crop, and we ended up with a good yield,” Runde said. While there are lots of unknowns in organic management, he’s not as nervous as he was the first couple of years.

“The biggest learning curve has been developing a pasturing system,” Runde shared. “We’ve always grazed heifers and dry cows, so I expected it to be pretty easy. But, there is a careful balance between the grass and what you feed. If you feed too much, they won’t graze. They need to eat the forage, and we don’t want to waste any feed.”

Runde plans to attend more grazing meetings this winter to learn how to keep high-quality pasture established. Watching a neighbor struggle with overgrazing a first-year planting resulting in winter kill, Runde decided to let the pasture grow a year, harvesting hay before turning the cows out to graze the second year of growth.

The cows started transition a little over a year ago, becoming certified organic in November 2018. “The cows have transitioned really well,” Runde said.

However, the economics of the situation led him to significantly change what he was feeding. “We were buying in a lot of protein and had to stop as we couldn’t afford to buy organic feed and only get conventional milk price during the transition.”

Now the cows are eating a lot more forage, with no purchased inputs other than mineral. “Milk yield dropped about 10 pounds, from 65-70 per cow to 55-65 pounds, but we’re saving $8,000 per month on purchased protein, and feeding only what we have on hand.”

Runde noted that the organic cows are really healthy, with vet checks only once per month and a significant reduction in health problems such as ketosis, milk fever, and transition issues. “Now we only use organic-approved products, but use them much less often.”

There has been transition in the machine shed, too, as Runde replaced chemicals with cultivators. “We got some pieces back that we had lent to neighbors and spent about $20,000 on cultivators, but that is what we would have spent on chemicals in just one year,” Runde said. It took some time to figure out how to use each specific piece. “We need to find where everything works best, and each year is a little different.” After three years, he finds he has more confidence knowing what to do.

“Organic is a lot more work, and I have to get used to doing things different, but I’m enjoying learning new things. It’s like learning how to farm all over again.” Even his dad, Greg, is feeling a little fire of interest in learning a new way to farm.

As for challenges with organic transition, Runde mentioned that it was hard to change who the family did business with. Some of their buying relationships went back multi-generations, with grandfathers buying from grandfathers. Some of the old vendors have worked to pick up organic-related products, but there are a lot of new relationships, too. “We have to start over, building trust.”

And, while over half the farms the Rundes can see from their land are organic, there are still skeptics in the area. Runde noted that one soybean field next to the road had a lot of weeds this past year. “Yeah, we’ll hear ‘so-and-so sure has bad looking crops,’ but that field yielded 65 bushels an acre, so I’m learning to just let the comments roll off my back.”

While the Rundes were helped early in transition by staff from Organic Valley, reductions in demand meant their milk couldn’t get on the Organic Valley truck after being certified in November. Their old shipper found a nearby milk plant that needed organic milk, giving the Rundes a market for now. “Our price isn’t as high as we hoped, but we’re paying the bills ok.”

“Part of the success in transition in this challenging market will be in how much you have to change,” Runde said. “The potential must be assessed farm by farm.”

Along with the financial benefit, Runde notes other positives to their organic transition. “I really enjoy not handling chemicals anymore, knowing that the only thing we have to keep the kids away from on the farm is the bull.”

The thing that Runde has most appreciated is the camaraderie and positive support of the organic community. “At that first meeting, we were all nervous, on pins and needles about going organic, and the experienced guys were laughing and having a good time. ‘When financial stress goes away, when we get a fair price, we have a cushion that allows a few mistakes,’ someone in the group said. ‘We have less to worry about.’”

Runde concludes that organic transition has gone pretty much as he thought it would and has been a good fit for the family. “The first year I woke up a lot at night worrying if I was doing the right thing, but it’s gone well.” He really enjoys looking out the window and seeing his healthy cows out on grass. Plans for now are to keep milking as many animals as the farm will comfortably support; no expansion is planned. Depending on the milk market, the Rundes may eventually cut back on cows, and focus more on organic grain production, where demand is growing.

“There’s been more to this than we realized when we first jumped in, but it has been good,” Runde said. “We are excited about the future, where we were more nervous before. Hope is a wonderful thing.”

Jody Padgham writes from her grass-based farm in Boyd, Wis. She works on the OGRAIN project for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



From the January | February 2019 Issue

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