Farmers and Chefs Partner to Help Ohioans Connect with the Land

August 18th, 2014
Public News Service
by Mary Kuhlman
8/18/14
 

WESTERVILLE, Ohio – With an increasing interest in local foods, some Ohio growers and producers are using agritourism to help people connect with the land and learn how the food they eat is grown. Tours, weddings, and farm-to-table dinners are among the events regularly held across the state, showcasing Ohio’s agricultural tradition and the fresh, seasonal offerings of area farms.

Val Jorgensen, the owner of Jorgensen Farms in Westerville, says opening her gates provides an opportunity for people to learn about the role of local foods in building a sustainable food system.

“A lot of the consumers I meet at farmers markets are committed to buying local food, but sometimes they don’t have the opportunity to really visualize or understand where that food is coming from,” says Jorgensen. “This gets them one step closer.”

Agritourism also allows farming operations to diversify their income. Jorgensen is hosting a benefit dinner Sunday, Sept. 7th called The Farmers Table, where diners can tour her organic farm and enjoy an evening of local food and drinks prepared by top area chefs. Farms throughout the state also offer ‘you-pick’ fruit, fall festivals, and educational activities.

While the majority of Jorgensen’s operation is used for growing and production, she says she enjoys holding events to give consumers a glimpse of what happens on the farm.

“The biggest reward for me is being able to stand back, either just before or during an event, and watch the enjoyment of others,” says Jorgensen. “That gives me a sense of making a difference in people’s lives where they can really connect.”

She adds events like The Farmers Table also allow farmers and producers to share the beauty and bounty of Ohio agriculture.

“It’s going to be something where they can experience the ultimate in seasonal food right here at the farm,” says Jorgensen. “The exciting part is we’re able to pull together not only the growers, but the chefs and the community.”

Meet Us at The Farmers Table

August 18th, 2014
Edible Columbus
8/1/14
 

We couldn’t be more excited for the OEFFA’s gathering on September 7th to celebrate Ohio farms and flavors. The dinner is being held at Jorgensen Farms, one of central Ohio’s most beautiful certified organic farms and, as we all know, our friend Val Jorgensen is a passionate steward of her land and a leader in Ohio’s sustainable agriculture community.

Val’s farm-produced ingredients will be featured in the menu, and guests will be able to tour the farm to see how the food was grown. The OEFFA is working with central Ohio’s finest chefs to create hors d’oeuvres and a four-course dinner that sources ingredients from farms across Ohio. The cocktail hour will feature locally distilled spirits and microbrews. Even the decorations will feature locally grown flower arrangements from the beautiful Sunny Meadows Flower Farm.

Carol Goland, Ph.D., Executive Director, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said, ”[OEFFA's] mission is to ‘help farmers and consumers reconnect and together build a sustainable food system, one meal at time,’ and this dinner is a natural extension of that work, designed to showcase the amazing farmers and chefs that make up Ohio’s flourishing local foods system and the fresh, flavorful, seasonal ingredients of Ohio’s farms. It also give us all a chance to celebrate our farmers, our food, and the successful work that we’ve all done to help cultivate an agricultural future that protects the environment and nourishes our bodies and our communities.”

The event promises to be a special night celebrating the local farms and flavors we know and love, so we hope to see you seated at the table! Get your ticket here.

Twenty minutes with organic grain farmer Dean McIlvaine

August 18th, 2014
Farm and Dairy
by Chris Kick
8/13/14
 

WEST SALEM, Ohio — When you think of organic, you probably think of small-scale farms of about 100 acres or less.
But that’s not always the case.

2wpmDean McIlvaine, of Twin Parks Organic Farm in Wayne County, has operated an 850-acre organic grain farm since 1985. He welcomed guests to his farm Aug. 1 as part of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association’s annual summer sustainability tour.

He grows organic corn and soybeans, spelt, oats, wheat, rye and clover, and markets them nationally and internationally. His father, Dale McIlvaine, bought the farm in the mid 1970s, and the family farmed conventionally up until 1985.

At this same time, Dale owned the area John Deere dealership and wanted to be more involved with that business, so Dean took over the farm.

Going organic

Dean transitioned to an organic operation, following his college dream and his personal beliefs that organic food is healthier and better for the environment.

The farm name — Twin Parks — comes from the two Interstate rest area parks located on the farm.

Today, Dean farms alongside his girlfriend, Mona Frey, and he’s constantly trying new things and exploring new markets.

During the OEFFA tour, he showed some plots of organic no-till corn that he grew for the first time, and talked about how he’s using cover crops to help control weeds and keep nutrients in the soil.

He also explained some of his farm equipment — like his cover crop roller, which rolls and flattens cover crops prior to planting the main crops, and his organic weed puller — a mechanical attachment that mounts on the front of his tractor and pulls and crimps weeds in between the rows.

Following the tour, Farm and Dairy caught up with Dean to talk one-on-one about his operation and the state of organics:

Q: Why organic? Why did you make the decision to leave conventional?
A: I have had a strong aversion to the health concerns. My father and grandfather (were) both active conventional farmers with lots of exposure to synthetic fertilizers and chemicals and both died early from associated, related illnesses — leukemia and lymphoma. There was lots of exposure there that was toxic to them.

I was never really a fan of processed foods. Once I got a taste of whole grains and real food, I recognized how much better it tasted and how much better I felt.

The contamination starts with our air, our water and our soil. And if we want to live a healthier, more productive life, we need to clean up our environment.

Q: What are the biggest challenges to being an organic grain operator?
A: The biggest challenges begin with finding adequate fertility and learning how to manage the microbial life in the soil to facilitate that fertility. And dealing with the weeds and just learning how the whole system works — that we can do it with the resources that nature has provided instead of from the toxic things that we’ve used in the conventional world.

Q: How have people’s attitudes changed toward what you’re doing?
A: They’re much more receptive. People are very curious anymore. Even in the midst of our under-achievement, there’s lots of interest and curiosity.

People recognize the cost of producing food is ever-increasing as our world’s resources are forever diminishing, and the beauty of the organic system is that we try to recycle nutrients that are available more effectively, and try and enhance the biology of the soil, which can help that transfer of nutrients from the soil to the plants.”

Q: What have been some of your biggest successes as an organic grain producer?
A: Personally, the times we’ve had good corn crops or good, clean soybean fields. But learning how to replicate that over all 850 acres has been the challenge to do so consistently. It is sort of a delicate balance and if you try to short-circuit the system, it will backfire in a hurry.

And, there’s always new challenges with the changing weed pressures and changing climate pressures. What worked last year or three years ago may or may not work this year. So, we have to be forever looking forward, to anticipate what we need, to make things grow the best.

Q: What new things are you trying or what things would you like to try?
A: I’ve always had an interest since college days to have a more value-added production system or vertically integrated system. So adding value to the crops that we grow is of interest. (He does do some of that by cleaning his own grain and dehulling, etc. for specific markets.)

… We’ve really gone out on a limb with (organic no-till in corn). It was one thing to make the leap into organics, but to do so with the row crops is equally challenging. But, it matches the overall goal of enhancing soil life by minimizing soil tillage.

Q: What would you tell others who want to begin growing crops organically?
A: Do your homework. Take a soil test to see where you are and address the long-term needs of your crops. Soil drainage and soil balancing are quite a trick, and an art and a science that are of upmost importance.

Think broadly about diversifying. And try to incorporate animal components in as much as possible. I think there’s that cycle of life that is helpful for every farm. …It goes along with the idea of recycling and using what’s nearby.

Q: Do you think you would ever go back to conventional?
A: I think about it when the weeds get taller than the crops. But, at the end of the day, I know that things aren’t always better in that camp, either. Especially with the problems with the Roundup and the GMO grains. The costs are outlandish for that technology and the results are short-sighted and short-term. There’s too many long-term costs of going back to conventional.

Q: What is the state of organic farming today?
A: It’s strong, it’s healthy, it’s vibrant, it’s growing. It’s pretty exciting to be a part of and especially to see the new, young people get involved and even poor people who want a better life. This is one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways they can do something for themselves that improves their life now and in the long run.

The interest that people have in growing their own food and doing it with a minimum or lack of chemicals is very encouraging. The hard part is replicating it over a bigger area and more acres, and day in and day out.

Organically raised food far preferable to genetically engineered crops: Carol Goland, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association

August 18th, 2014
Cleveland.com
by Carol Goland
8/4/2014
 

Organic foods are not just a consumer trend, but vitally important to sustaining our ability to feed ourselves. The absence of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics, irradiation, and genetically engineered (GE) ingredients drives consumer demand for organics foods.

Three-quarters of food shoppers now seek the certified organic label because, as mounting evidence demonstrates, they correctly identify it as the healthier choice—for farmers, farmworkers, the environment, and themselves.

Agribusiness interests may express a benevolence about consumers and farmers who chose organics, but will argue that intensive methods, GE seed, and synthetic inputs are safe and necessary to produce enough to feed a hungry world. In fact, conventional agriculture isn’t doing a very good job of feeding the world, but the problem is not one of yield.

Globally we produce enough to supply everyone on Earth with more than enough food energy per day. The problem is what we produce, how we use it, and how it is distributed.

A growing body of research shows that organic crops can return the same yields as conventionally grown crops, while using fewer inputs. Moreover, they may perform better under drought conditions.

Organic farmers have achieved this through their own refinement of production methods, based on years of careful observation and experimentation and a farmer-to-farmer exchange of knowledge. They have done this largely independent of the billions of federal and industry dollars that have been directed to research that benefits conventional agriculture, with its heavy reliance on petrochemical inputs.

With even a modest increase in funding for research to improve yield, develop seed varieties, and refine preventive practices for livestock health, there’s no telling what organic agriculture could become.

Despite promises that genetic engineering would help feed a hungry world, any yield gains attributable to biotechnology have been modest at best. This is not surprising, given that GE seeds were developed to be herbicide tolerant (HT), not to increase intrinsic yield. Planting HT crops has not reduced the rate of herbicide use, but it has led to a proliferation of HT “super weeds.” Many GE crops—including corn and soybeans—have been developed for livestock feed, biofuel, and for use in high fructose corn syrup, not to improve human nutrition.

Organic is synonymous with GE-free, but it is so much more. Organic farming safeguards water quality, builds soil organic matter and nutrients, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, eliminates antibiotic use, emphasizes humane care and preventive treatments for livestock and poultry, and protects biodiversity. It supports small and mid-scale family farms and reduces exposure to pesticides. Because the organic label is backed up by a rigorous annual verification and inspection process, consumers can have confidence in how organic food and products are produced.

Supporters of organic farming are not driven by anti-technology attitudes nor are they advocating that we go backwards. Far from it. Our collective ability to progress—indeed, our future—depends squarely on our good stewardship of the natural resources on which we all depend. Organic farming is a way forward, and a long-term solution for nourishing our farming communities, feeding our families, and protecting our soil, air, and water.

 
 

What Toledo’s Water Crisis Reveals About Industrial Farming

August 18th, 2014
Civil Eats
by Doug Gurian-Sherman
8/5/14
 

As you may have heard, about half a million people in the Toledo, Ohio area lost their municipal drinking water supply on Saturday because of possible microbial toxin contamination from Lake Erie. A combination of heavier spring rains, exacerbated by climate change, and runoff of phosphorus from fertilizer applied to crops is the likely cause. The good news is that farmers can adopt better practices to eliminate this problem. The bad news is that the agriculture industry, and the public policies that it lobbies for, work against these solutions.

A toxic microbe, or cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae), has been causing big water problems in Lake Erie and other bodies of water around the country for the last several yearsScientific research pointed to the combination of agricultural and climate change as the cause of the historic 2011 toxic Lake Erie microbe “bloom” and subsequent dead zone. And research shows that farm pollution, which feeds the explosion of toxic microbe growth, especially from phosphorus fertilizer, has been increasing since the 1990s. Now, new research published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research has further solidified the connection between industrial ag, climate change, and an explosion of toxic algae.

While the most dramatic news this week is the city of Toledo’s move to shut down public water sources, there are other important impacts such as harm to commercial and sports fishing and recreation at the lake. After the microbes die, other bacteria consume them, using up much of the oxygen in large parts of the lake in the process. The resulting dead zones kill fish and other lake life, and harm fisheries. The toxins close down beaches, and the foul odors and bacterial slime often discourage beachgoers even in places where they remain open.

On Monday, several news sources reported that Toledo residents could once again drink from their taps, but the algae bloom continues. And the recent research cited above suggests that even if phosphorus levels were reduced enough to limit blooms, further reductions would still be needed to bring the dead zone in Lake Erie back to pre-1990s levels.

Dead zones like these are not unique to Lake Erie. Water pollution from phosphorus is harming Lake Winnipeg and many reservoirs. There are also about 400 global marine coastal dead zones, caused mainly by nitrogen fertilizer, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is measuring the size of Connecticut this year and another large one in the Chesapeake Bay.

Yes, we can purify the water, but it costs millions of dollars and does nothing to help the lake itself. For that we need to get to the source.

Industrial Agriculture: Providing Band-Aids for Hemorrhages

Ironically, these toxic microbes are growing thanks to an agricultural practice that is widely touted as an improvement in the sustainability of industrial agriculture—conservation tillage and no-till farming. As their names imply, these are approaches to farming that require farmers not to plow the soil with tractors, but rather to leave it in place and kill weeds in other ways. They are often practiced in concert with the use of herbicides and genetically engineered seeds.

Genetic engineering is sometimes given credit for the adoption of no-till, but the practice actually started to become widely adopted years before genetically engineered (commonly known as GMO) crops were commercialized. Nonetheless, engineered herbicide-resistant crops made conservation tillage easier in many areas (until the advent of glyphosate herbicide resistant weeds, that is). So the tarnishing of no-till also diminishes one of the main purported benefits of GMO crops.

No-till usually reduces soil erosion, which is a very good thing. Many farmers and scientists also believed that it would reduce phosphorus pollution because that nutrient binds tightly to soil. So reduced erosion should also reduce the amount of soil washed into streams carrying bound phosphorus. Unfortunately, when phosphorus fertilizer is not plowed into the soil, it builds up at the surface, and from there it can be more easily washed off soil into streams and lakes. This is because this form of phosphorus, called dissolved reactive phosphorus, is not bound to soil. It is also more easily utilized by the toxic microbes in lakes and waterways.

What About Factory Animal Farms?

Industrial corn and soybean production are clearly linked to the problems in Lake Erie via fertilizers. But factory farming of livestock is also suspect. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have a manure problem. Because so many animals are confined in such as small area, they often produce far more manure than can be applied to the surrounding farmlands without causing runoff. That means more nitrogen and phosphorus gets into streams.

When livestock farms were smaller, and more dispersed geographically, manure could be used to fertilize nearby crop fields in a balanced way, but today CAFOs are large and often located near one another. And it is simply too expensive to transport manure far enough to spread onto fields in amounts that won’t end up in streams or groundwater.

Although the role of CAFOs in the Lake Erie microbial blooms has not been quantified, Ohio has many CAFOs. And the overlap between the location of most Ohio CAFOs and the Maumee River watershed, the source of most of the phosphorus that causes the blooms, is striking.

Here are the maps side-by-side:

cafos_ohio_water_maps

What Now?

We have the solutions to these problems. Agroecology, or farming that uses principles of ecology and includes organic, relies on organic sources of crop nutrients, and integrates livestock and crop production in ways that are much less likely to cause phosphorus or nitrogen pollution. It is possible to use too much manure on organic farms too. But the integration of crops and livestock works against pressure to overuse manure on too few acres, as with CAFOs. Organic farms also often rely on cover crops, which literally cover otherwise bare soil and absorb excess nutrients through their roots and can also make a big difference.

Collectively, these methods have been shown to greatly reduce nitrogen pollution. And preliminary data shows reduction in phosphorus runoff as well. We need more research to examine this further, and to learn how farmers can efficiently use these methods. We also need farm policies that reward farmers for adopting methods with multiple benefits for the environment, society, and public health instead of continuing to subsidize corn and soybean overproduction and pollution. Agroecology-based farming methods not only reduce water pollution, they reduce or eliminate pesticide use, and can reduce global warming emissions. And they have been shown to be profitable and highly productive.

The lesson from Lake Erie is that piecemeal fixes like no-till, though they have some important benefits, will not fix a system that is fundamentally broken. We need systematic change, not band-aids.

 

Addendum: The new paper on the sources of phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie, points to manure as an important source of phosphorus in the eastern part of the Lake, rather than the Maumee River basin in the western part of Lake Erie (Figure 13). The Maumee River Basin phosphorus is predominantly from agriculture sources, as noted in the blog post, but according to the paper, mainly from fertilizer (the post does note that fertilizer is the overall main source of agricultural phosphorus pollution). This does not affect the main points in the blog that agriculture, and no-till combined with heavier precipitation, are major sources of increased phosphorus entering the Lake since the 1990s. But it does strongly suggest that the correlation between CAFOs and the Maumee River basin is just that—a correlation and not a cause.

From Market to Farm: One couple’s commitment to cultivating connections on Ohio’s largest certified organic blueberry farm

August 18th, 2014
Edible Columbus
by Karin McKenna
Summer 2014

In a matchup nearly as inspiring as blueberries and cream, Phillip and Margaret Nabors, well-known food advocates and owners of the venerable Mustard Seed Markets, are now organic farmers themselves. A few miles south of Loudonville, and very near the Mohican Memorial State Forest, blueberry pickers have been making annual treks to Blueberry Hill Farm for 60 years. In 2010, Nabors bought it.

“For years I’ve been wanting to own land,” Phillip explains. The 66-acre property was put on the market and though he and Margaret were on vacation with only the Internet on his phone as a meager research tool, Phillip saw the potential in the property. The rest magically unfolded.

“I didn’t do my normal fastidious research, but it just seemed right,” he says.

The text that he received from Margaret on his way to the auction must have played a large part in the decision. “Let the angels guide you,” it read.

Since then, the large group of Nabors family and close friends (the 40 Hippie Method, Phillip calls it) have been working very hard to clear the land of invaders, grapevines, poison ivy, and a couple thousand trees. As a result, the 5,000 blueberry bushes are breathing a bit easier. At any time there may be six to twenty guests visiting the land and helping out. Large meals are cooked and enjoyed; friendship is shared. There’s a pool, a teepee, a friendly contingent of dogs, hammocks, and a welcoming vibe.

The longtime association with the farmers with whom they work through Mustard Seed Market has made Phillip and Margaret’s transition to the farming life a natural one. “The connection between the earth and our food supply is profound,” says Phillip. “For every bite of food there’s a farm somewhere. There’s a profound process that’s worthy of appreciation. It takes a lot of effort to manage all of the forces to get food to grow out of the ground and get it to market.”

As the land is cleared, they’re planting new trees. Long-term plans include diversifying and focusing on high-nutritional-value super fruits, and aligning with the permaculture model. They’re introducing forest gardening, creating a habitat for mushrooms, ginseng, medicinal herbs, “things that want to grow in the forest,” as Phillip says. Between the forest and pasture are the paw paws, persimmons, and nut trees.

“There are a lot of interesting crops that want to grow on the edges, and we’re going to help them along by planting them,” he says.

Obviously, the food aspects of Blueberry Hill are important, but the spiritual effects of the farm have become apparent as well. “To a person, everybody who goes there feels something,” Phillip says. “We’ve had some amazing experiences with our guests really connecting with this land.”

Visitors receive explicit instructions at Blueberry Hill to taste the berries as they pick, and Phillip likens the joy that comes from this to feeding our inner caveperson’s primal connectivity to the earth. “We take the larceny right out of the equation. By saying that it’s okay to eat as they pick, we take the guilt off the table. Very often, kids will come back, their faces just smeared with blueberries and about 12 berries in their bucket. They come back with these huge smiles. It’s fun for us to enable that.”

The Nabors’ hands these days are quite full with Blueberry Hill and the two grocery stores. Joining locations in Solon and in Montrose, a third Mustard Seed Market is under construction in the Highland Square area of Akron. “I am incredibly excited about the store because it’s not just a new store, it’s a new path for us,” Phillip shares.

The newest market is a smaller store in the dense neighborhood where the Nabors family has lived for 35 years, on the edge of an official USDA food desert. Lacking a grocery store for 15 years, the neighborhood is truly hungry for its offerings and much thought is being put into how to best serve the area.

“What’s amazing is that the category of natural organic stores has evolved to where now we can do a natural organic store and serve as the neighborhood grocery store. That really wasn’t possible as little as 10 years ago,” explains Phillip.

With an eye toward education, a value-oriented mix of offerings, and cutting-edge green building features, there is a lot of excitement about the new store, which could open as early as December of this year. Of course, shoppers will find Blueberry Hill berries in all three Mustard Seed stores.

Blueberry picking begins when the berries are ripe. Watch the Blueberry Hill Facebook page for the latest updates or call the farm at 740.599.5050. Blueberry Hill is located at 23038 Gessling Road in Glenmont. Directions are on the website at BlueberryHillFamilyFarms.com.

Cost-Share Assistance Available for Growers and Handlers of Organic Agricultural Products

July 24th, 2014
 
Ohio Department of Agriculture Press Release
7/22/2014

REYNOLDSBURG, OH  – The Ohio Department of Agriculture today announced it will receive $478,600 to help growers and handlers of organic agricultural products recover part of the cost of their U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certification.

Producers and handlers who incur expenses for obtaining or renewing their organic certification between October 1, 2013 and September 30, 2014 are eligible for reimbursement. Payments will be up to 75 percent of an individual producer’s certification costs, with a maximum of $750 per certification scope (crops, livestock, handling, wildcrops).
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Grant funding is provided by USDA’s National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program. Approximately $11.5 million is available nationwide for organic certification cost-share assistance, making certification more accessible for certified producers and handlers.
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The department is working in partnership with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) to verify the certification of organic operations and to manage reimbursement requests. Those interested in applying for cost-share assistance may do so directly through OEFFA. Applications must be postmarked by November 15, 2014.
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For more information on cost-share program guidelines or to apply, visit http://certification.oeffa.org/costshare or call OEFFA directly at (614) 262-2022.

July 21st, 2014
Public News Service
By Mary Kuhlman
7/14/14
 
 Mud Run Farm in Stark County uses horsepower to reduce emissions linked to a warming climate. Photo courtesy of Mud Run Farm.

Mud Run Farm in Stark County uses horsepower to reduce emissions linked to a warming climate. Photo courtesy of Mud Run Farm.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The National Climate Assessment finds climate stressors, such as weeds and diseases, are threatening the future of farming.

But the report also suggests that sustainable agriculture practices could help slow the pace of climate change.

Mud Run Farm in Stark County is a small organic operation. Owner Alex Dragovich says changes of his farm’s position in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plant hardiness zone maps indicate a shift to warmer temperatures for growing.

And he admits there have been some changes in weather patterns impacting agriculture in Ohio.

“The season went from very cold to warm in a short amount of time and then a lot of rain,” he points out. “Can I say that that’s climate change? Maybe in the long-term but not in the short-term. It’s like a chronic illness, you don’t realize you have it until it’s too late.”

Dragovich says his farm uses earth-friendly practices that reduce carbon emissions.

He’s cut back on the use of diesel fuels by powering his farm mostly with horses and also manages cover crops, which reduce the amount of tractor time needed in the fields.

The National Climate Assessment found that the resiliency of the agriculture system can be increased through sustainable methods such as diversifying crop rotations, integrating livestock with crop production systems and minimizing off-farm flows of nutrients and pesticides.

Dragovich says he’s hopeful the next farming generation embraces sustainable methods, and considers the impact agricultural practices have on the environment.

“I see a lot of young people taking up the organic mantra and trying to save this planet,” he says. “So hopefully these young people will be a little more respective of Mother Earth and hopefully will be better at it than my generation.”

Recent research found organic farming methods that encourage soil health create higher yielding crops better able to cope with weather-related stressors compared to conventional farming.

Ohio cattle ranchers rebuilding herds

July 21st, 2014
The Columbus Dispatch
By JD Malone
7/17/14

On Saturdays at the Worthington Farmers Market, Licking County rancher John Wiley sells every piece and package of beef he brings.

Thanks to historic high prices for both beef and live cattle, Wiley’s grass-fed cuts aren’t cheap, but that hasn’t hurt his sales, and he’s working to produce more.

High prices, unrelenting demand and decent weather have Ohio’s cattle herds once again on the rise. Buckeye ranchers added 2 percent to their stock this year over last, one of the few states to do so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

But unlike businesses that make toys, cars or computers, adding production capacity at the ranch level isn’t as easy as throwing up a new building or contracting with another manufacturer. It’s complicated by fickle markets, biology and weather, say Wiley and other experts.

Beef is a different sort of animal.

Americans have a love affair with beef, and insatiable demand in a headwind of historic prices proves it.

“We’ve seen demand continue to increase,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, which tracks the restaurant industry. “Consumption is up. Consumers like their beef and burgers.”

The U.S. beef herd has long been in decline. The nation’s herd size peaked in the 1990s and has lost 38 million head since. It is now as small as it was in 1951, when there were half as many Americans to feed, according to USDA and U.S. census records.

Recent droughts — the widespread calamity of 2011 and the current rainfall deficit in the West — have prompted ranchers to cull millions from their herds because they have become too expensive to feed.

“We are starting to see signs of some hints toward expansion,” said Elizabeth Harsh, president of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association. “Ohio has been fortunate. … We have been in a different weather pattern. Beef producers are at the mercy of Mother Nature.”

Ohio’s pasture and range lands are in good shape, with 93 percent in fair to excellent condition, according to the USDA’s latest crop report. In major beef-producing states such as Texas, Kansas and Colorado, 20 percent to 35 percent of pastures are in poor to very poor condition. In California, the report rated 75 percent of pasture as poor to very poor.

Partly because of good grazing conditions, Ohio’s ranchers kept more heifers (young female cows) to breed and are looking to grow their herds as their operations allow, Harsh said. Wiley has added 20 cows to his operation, Up the Lane Farm, through the past couple of years, but he is now at capacity.

Wiley said his fellow ranchers struggle with the decision to cash in their cows at today’s prices or hold a few back and grow a bit to see if tomorrow brings even better returns.

“Some of these guys are more likely to hang on when the prices are up,” Wiley said. “The animals are worth so much money, it is almost too expensive to turn them into meat.”

Calves are sold by weight, and weigh between 450 to 800 pounds. Prices for calves in June 2013 ranged from $640 to $1,000, the USDA said. This June, prices ranged from $1,000 to $1,600.

“We keep raising our (retail beef) prices to keep up,” Wiley said. “But everything we do keeps costing more; everything from hay and the price of calves. I would say it has doubled in about five years.”

Because of the high price of calves and low herd count, fewer animals are being sent to slaughter this year, the USDA said. Harsh and Wiley agree that there are fewer cows at local processors.

If true expansion happens, it’ll come slowly.

“Predictions aren’t for a rapid expansion anytime soon,” said Stephen Boyles, a beef expert with Ohio State University Extension. “I see interest, but I’m not sure I have seen a lot of action.”

To hold back a heifer to expand a herd through breeding and raising a calf is a two- to three-year commitment, Boyles said. That is a long-term investment without a guarantee that prices will remain high. Just buying a calf and raising it for slaughter takes 12 to 18 months.

Wiley said his customers often ask why he doesn’t bring more meat to the farmers market when he knows he has a strong customer base.

“What I tell people is that the animals I have now are the ones I bought two years ago,” Wiley said. “I didn’t know you’d be here two years ago.”

Checkoffs: More and more of the same

July 21st, 2014
Farm and Dairy
By Alan Guebert
7/10/14

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there now are federal commodity checkoffs for beef, blueberries, Christmas trees, cotton, dairy products, eggs, fluid milk, Hass avocados, “Honey Packers and Importers,” lamb, mango, mushrooms, paper and paper-based packaging, peanuts, popcorn, pork, potatoes, processed raspberries, softwood lumber, sorghum, soybeans and watermelons.

Let’s see, that’s 1, 2, 3… whoa, 22.

These 22 federally mandated, largely nonrefundable, commodity checkoffs raise most of an estimated $750 million per year from U.S. farmers and ranchers to promote everything from, well, avocados to watermelons.

Wait, there’s more

Long as that menu is, however, it’s not the whole checkoff enchilada. USDA operates another 35 or so federal commodity marketing orders and many states oversee dozens more local commodity checkoffs.

For example, there are at least 22 state corn checkoffs — for varying amounts per bushel; some refundable, some not — that contribute a portion of their money to a coordinated national corn promotion effort.

Also, many state beef groups either now have or are pursuing statewide beef checkoffs to add up to another $1 per head to fund state-specific beef promotion programs on top of the $1-per-head nonrefundable federal checkoff each beef and dairy producer already pays upon sale of their animals.

Combine state and national checkoff collections and it’s guessed — because checkoff data is not compiled — that American farmers and ranchers pay $1.25 billion per year for commodity promotion and research.

Organic checkoff?

That pile will grow if the Organic Trade Association, a self-described “membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America,” is able to sway federal lawmakers to endorse an organic checkoff in the next two years.

OTA claims a checkoff would carry benefits for farmers and industry alike. It sees the money, pegged between $20 million and $40 million per year, as a way to “distinguish organic in the market place, grow demand and help the consumer understand all that organic delivers.” (Links to documents are posted at http://farmandfoodfile.com/in-the-news/.)

To raise the money, OTA is pushing an assessment plan it calls “broad and shallow” for everyone in the organic “supply chain.” Everyone “means not only producers,” according to OTA, but also “handlers, brand manufacturers, co-packers (and) importers.”

Exempted from paying any checkoff, however, would be “organic certificate holders” (most players in the U.S. organic market must be “certified” organic by USDA) with gross annual sales of $250,000 or less.

The proposed assessment advocated by OTA is 1/10 of 1 percent of gross organic revenue greater than $250,001 per year. “For example,” OTA explains, “there would be a $1,000 assessment at $1,000,000 gross organic revenue.”

‘One-sided.’

While OTA’s checkoff plan is relatively broader and cheaper than its federal siblings, most organic farmers see little need for it.

Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, recently posted a lengthy discussion on NODPA’s website on what he calls OTA’s “one-sided propaganda campaign” for the checkoff.

In fact, writes Maltby, the push by OTA, “a trade organization using emotive language and a well-financed program,” will be “counter-productive at a time when the [organic] community needs to be united in the face of many marketplace and USDA threats…”

Most farmers and rancher, however, continued to support state and national commodity checkoffs despite little independent evidence to suggest any of billions spent on checkoffs in the last 25 years has had any material impact on prices received by farmers and ranchers.

Indeed, checkoff detractors often point to the dramatic drop in farmer and rancher numbers over the life of current checkoffs as simple proof that farm- and ranch-financed promotion efforts have had little to no impact whatsoever on farm and ranch prices, profits and lives.

They’re right, checkoffs should be about more farmers making more, not fewer maker more. As such, it’s hard to see how the latest checkoff scheme is little more than more of the same.