Category Archives: Organic Certification

Shagbark Seed & Mill is changing the way restaurants use grains

By Beth Stallings, Columbus Crave, Fall 2015

Brandon Jaeger and Michelle Ajamian sit across from each other at the center of a long table they’ve haphazardly strung together from four-tops at Athens’ hippie Mexican eatery Casa Nueva. One by one, as their friends arrive—a recent college grad in a maxi skirt, a toddler-wheeling couple sporting dreadlocks—Jaeger and Ajamian jump up and smile with arms outstretched. Every guest is treated with an enthusiastic hello or a strong-armed embrace that lingers with familiarity.

The convivial air carries through dinner. Familial teasing is directed at the father figure of the group. Remember that one time Jaeger had to learn to drive a combine on the fly, and then it ran out of gas on a hill? Or when, having never operated a forklift before, he had to reverse it off the bed of a truck?

The goateed Jaeger laughs along as he takes it in stride, adding to the stories with hand gestures that mimic gear-shifting. Amused, Ajamian sips on a can of Jackie O’s beer as she good-naturedly disputes small details in every tale.

Among the baskets of tortilla chips and sauce-covered enchiladas that decorate the table, the real reason for this dinner takes shape. The staples of this meal—chips, black beans, tortillas—would not be possible without this ragtag group of community do-gooders who learned how to run an organic grain and seed mill on the job. Since opening in 2010, Shagbark Seed & Mill has become a source to which organic farmers can sell corn that turns into food, not feed, and from where area chefs find grains, beans and flour grown and processed in Ohio.

Brandon Jaeger at the Shagbark mill in Athens

That’s a tougher feat than it may seem. Until Shagbark began selling black turtle beans, Northstar Cafe had to look to the West Coast to buy the essential ingredient for its veggie burger. One corn farmer confesses he had never tasted his own crop in a product before Shagbark began making tortilla chips.

“Brandon and Michelle are really, in a very direct way, changing the world and Ohio for the better,” says Darren Malhame, partner at Northstar Cafe. “People like to talk about organic like it’s some sort of elitist thing. There’s nothing elitist about providing healthy food for everyone. They’re using corn for really what it should be.”

Sustaining the masses is exactly how the idea of the mill started. At the peak of the local food movement, as consumers began obsessing over heirloom tomatoes and kale grown nearby, Jaeger fixated on a single question: Why are we looking elsewhere for staple foods like corn and beans?

“We’re just not going to survive on tomatoes and lettuce and kale and heirloom squash. We’re going to need to rebuild our staples,” says Jaeger, who calls this conundrum his existential anxiety. “Someone needs to be focusing on organically producing the foods that have been a staple in our diets for so long.”

That someone, it turned out, is Shagbark.

An Origin Story

Shagbark Seed & Mill was never intended to be a business. It was an experiment that started with a two-year grant application to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a U.S. Department of Agriculture organization that promotes agricultural innovation.

At the time, Jaeger was on a monastic training retreat at the San Francisco Zen Center. Ajamian, a community activist with a design background, came out to stay with Jaeger—planning the getaway to work on a grant proposal to support a perennial-annual education lab. But after Jaeger first uttered the phrase “existential anxiety,” Ajamian suggested a second proposal.

The question that won them the $5,800 grant in 2008: Could they create a model staple food system that would make high-nutrient grains and beans local again? It started as test plots on four farms to identify which ancient grains—quinoa, amaranth, millet—and beans would grow well in Appalachia. But as they conducted studies and consulted with members of the collaborative they’d created, Jaeger and Ajamian found one glaring piece missing from the staple food network: a processing facility. Even if a farmer wanted to grow black turtle beans, Jaeger says, he’d have no outlet through which to process them.

“We were ready for a blissful life with our hands in the soil and walking through test plots with clipboards noting pollinator activity and stem girth,” Jaeger says. “But we realized there are plenty of farmers around us with the soil and equipment and know-how to grow the right crops. But they need a reason for it.”

If you wanted to open a coffee shop, you could walk around a single city block, find a handful of java-slinging storefronts and get a feel for how the business is run. But, five years ago, if you wanted to start a regional organic grain mill, you’d come up short with examples to follow.

That was a big challenge in the beginning as they launched their prototype regional mill, Ajamian says. They consulted with any experts they could find, cobbling together the necessary equipment. An organic farmer in Oregon recommended the kind of French mill they needed. They found a seed cleaner for sale in Westerville. The wooden Austrian sift box they use now to grind polenta, grits, spelt flour and buckwheat flour is still technically on loan from a farmer.

And of course, they needed to persuade area farmers this would work—and it would be worth working with the little guy who needed a few hundred pounds, not tons, of corn.

Thankfully, the right farmer followed Ajamian out into the hallway. She had just delivered her stump speech to a group of grain farmers at an Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) meeting.

“I’d like to come down and see what you’re doing,” said the anything-but-shy Chris Clinehens. More than a decade earlier, the third-generation Bellefontaine-area farmer had his conventional 210-acre farm certified organic. Shagbark intrigued him.

That first trip, he brought 150 pounds of corn. Now, he supplies the more than 100,000 pounds of corn needed annually to make Shagbark’s signature tortilla chips and corn crackers. Talk to him about his commitment to Shagbark, and he speaks as if he’s a partner in the business, wishing his farm wasn’t 250 miles away so he could help more day to day.

“They’ve got a lot of guts,” Clinehens says, admitting he’s given them a lot of leeway on when they pay for product. But it’s worth it, he says, because he believes in their mission. “I can see where they’re headed. It’s pretty outstanding that they’ve accomplished what they have.”

For a company that runs on part-time employees and volunteers, Shagbark’s growth has been explosive—from selling corn meal and spelt berries at the Athens Farmers Market to tortillas and chips at Columbus-area Whole Foods. Clinehens is one of eight farmers—a mix of certified organic and Amish—who supply the mill with high-nutrient organic goods to produce roughly a dozen products, including buckwheat flour, spelt, popcorn, stone-ground grits and polenta and pinto and black beans.

Shagbark went from selling $10,000 worth of product its first year to $125,000 the next. By 2013, they reached $321,000 in sales. It’s leveled out a bit, Jaeger says, but is still on an upward swing. This year, they’ll go through about 150 tons of Ohio bean and grain crop—with corn for chips, crackers and tortillas making up 60 percent and black beans another 30 percent.

Much of this growth is owed to Shagbark’s ability to diversify products and adapt a wholesale business that distributes product around the state.

Jaeger and Ajamian created their three-ingredient tortilla chips (corn, sunflower oil and sea salt) in 2011 to help one of their favorite restaurants, Casa Nueva, which didn’t have the manpower to make chips in house. Now lovingly referred to as their “gateway product,” the chips have become their most recognized creation.

The chips first attracted Katalina’s owner Kathleen Day to Shagbark in 2012. After sampling their chips at a Dine Originals event, Day persuaded them to sell her individual-sized bags she could serve alongside sandwiches at her Harrison West cafe.

“Once you eat their chips, you are a convert for life,” says Day, who also uses Shagbark black beans. “You can taste the difference in the corn. It’s what Michael Pollan would call heritage corn. It’s much more filling and good for you, and it’s not overly processed. It’s what real corn chips should taste like.”

Shagbark’s latest product is just as everyman-friendly—corn tortillas, which they started producing at the Koki’s Tortillas plant in October 2014. Shagbark tortillas stand out not just because organic corn is used, but also because the corn is soaked in an alkaline solution before it’s hulled—an ancient process known as nixtamalization that’s been proven in some scientific studies to increase nutritional value, flavor and aroma in corn. (The corn for their chips is also nixtamalized.)

It’s also a nod to the way corn has been treated in Mexican culture for centuries, Ajamian says. The two had a chance to experience this process first hand. Earlier this year, she and Jaeger traveled to Mexico with the owner of Koki’s to visit her family. There water was electric blue, rich with limestone. This is the water in which corn is soaked before it’s ground into maize for tortillas.

When the food culture relocates, Ajamian says, swiping through pictures of her trip on her phone, a lot of people bring the food, but not the cuisine. “We’re doing our tortillas the traditional way—calcium added into the water and pressed into the tortillas,” Ajamian says.

“It was a really nice reinforcement of the concept—how important food is to culture,” Jaeger adds. “Maize is the perfect example of culture of food. Nixtalimization in tortillas and chips—it’s a process that’s community-oriented.”

The tortillas, which will be on retail shelves later this summer, are becoming popular with chefs at area restaurants including Skillet, Casa Nueva, Acre and The Worthington Inn.

The product is twice as expensive as conventional tortillas, admits chef Tom Smith of The Worthington Inn, but it’s worth it. “You can taste they’re doing the right thing,” Smith says. “It’s good corn they’re using. It’s processed well and fresh. Like in the tortillas, you don’t get that fresh corn flavor unless it’s just been milled.”

When he started using Shagbark tortillas on his pork tacos earlier this year, Smith says the whole dish came together. “It’s very rare you bite into your own food and go, ‘Wow.’ ”

Shagbark polenta at The Worthington Inn

Personalized Products

It’s no surprise why Jaeger is so trim as he effortlessly limbers up and down a flight of wooden stairs. He disappears into the scaffolding, and then re-emerges with a gray tub of heirloom corn. Tipping it over, the red and yellow kernels buzz loudly like a hive of bees down into the funnel at the top of a blond wooden mill.

He bounds down to the concrete floor, flips a switch and put his nose to the now-grinding mill stone. Soon, granules of corn that have been pumiced into grits and corn meal begin to fill up large bags. This is the most processing any of Shagbark’s products receive. There’s no stripping of nutrients for shelf stability, or re-enriching. To ensure freshness, they mill and bag products to order.

It’s Tuesday, and a big production day inside the Athens mill. The warehouse space they rent might be small, but it’s efficient, Jaeger says. With gravity on their side, they could unload a ton of grain in 30 seconds if they’re not careful.

Today, a few part-time employees will help sort and bag 2,000 pounds of black beans as Jaeger grinds corn. On the floor at his feet are a few scattered red hulls, remnants of the buckwheat flour freshly milled for Taste of Belgium the day before.

Two years ago, when Whole Foods stopped carrying the brand of flour the Cincinnati-based restaurant needed to make their signature buckwheat crepes, owner Jean-François Flechet turned to Shagbark.

“I didn’t realize you could mill things so many different ways,” says Flechet, who expects to source up to 20,000 pounds of buckwheat flour this year. “Brandon sent us maybe 15 samples of buckwheat flour with different coarseness. It’s like a custom mill.”

Flechet speaks highly of the quality. He brought in the best flour he could find in France, and then made two crepes—one with the French flour, the other with Shagbark’s. The result was a draw. “For our application, it’s perfect,” he says.

Chefs throughout Central Ohio share similar experiences of Shagbark’s willingness to produce the product they need—and they say working with the company is as much about believing in the people behind the concept.

“They’re just characters. They are amazing, unique people, and they have these wonderful, optimistic, energetic personalities,” says Malhame, of Northstar, which has been buying Shagbark black beans for all its restaurants for three years and committed to buying 14,000 pounds this year. “They are just really great people who want to change the world for the better.”

Opting out: Farm bill exempts more organic farmers from checkoffs

Farm and Dairy
1/14/2015
By Brian Lisik

SALEM, Ohio — Circleville, Ohio-based dairy farmer Perry Clutts has been farming 100 percent certified organic since 2005.

Since transitioning from a conventional dairy operation, Clutts has not had to pay into the national dairy checkoff order, thanks to a 2002 farm bill provision exempting 100 percent organic operations from conventional checkoffs.

A proposed rule change announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Dec. 15 would expand that exemption to include 95 percent organic farmers, handlers, marketers and importers — otherwise known as “primary organic” operations.

The USDA recently fast-tracked its efforts to expand the exemption, part of the 2014 farm bill. A 30-day public comment period on the proposed rule change ended Jan. 15.

There are 22 national research and promotion checkoff programs. Under these programs, producers of a particular agricultural product pay assessments to fund marketing campaigns and research initiatives that benefit their commodity.

The USDA estimates the organic exemption has freed up $13.6 million for the organic sector, which produces an estimated $35 billion in annual sales, according to the USDA.

Not far enough

Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of Organic Trade Organization, applauded the USDA’s efforts to implement the rule change so quickly.

“The 100 percent exemption solved some of the problems, but was drafted in such a way that it was restrictive,” Batcha said. “Communications from some of the commodity orders were bordering on disparaging to organic. They were not promoting organic a lot.”

The USDA’s proposed rule change, Batcha explained, would apply to split operations, those that farm both organically and conventionally. It would also address instances when non-organic agents are used in processing, such as sanitizing agents on a production line or milk processing line.

Carol Goland, executive director for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said the USDA’s proposed rule change corrects the 2002 rule’s inequity in defining different types of organic operations.

“In a sense, what this farm bill does is better define the multiple foods and crops of organic as a single commodity,” Goland said, adding that OEFFA fully supports the proposed rule change.

Public comment

A number of conventional commodity organizations, including the United Soybean Board and the Almond Board of California, have requested the USDA extend its 30-day public comment period due to the complexity of the issue.

Organic checkoff option

The 2014 farm bill grants the USDA authority to not only expand the organic exemption in the 2002 farm bill, but to also explore options for an organic-specific checkoff order.

Maggie McNeil, director of media relations for the Organic Trade Association, said the organization has been working on the framework for such a checkoff for three years.

McNeil said they hope to have the application out within the next two months. If accepted by the USDA, it then has to go through a comment period, and a referendum — an actual vote of all organic stakeholders in the industry.

“A lot of people know the word organic, but don’t know really what it means,” said Clutts, who also sits on the board of the Organic Trade Organization. “It is based on a very specific criteria like no other food process anywhere. I think the collective pool could do something bigger (to promote organic agriculture).” Gaining majority support for an organic checkoff order, however, could be challenging.

Goland said OEFFA recognizes the need for organic research and promotion and feels the organic sector should “be able to spend its money as it sees fit.”

“But I would not necessarily go so far as an organic checkoff,” she said.

Several comments on the USDA’s rule change proposal also cautioned against an organic checkoff.

“Please stop the start of a checkoff plan for organic products,” wrote Roger Pepperl, of Wenatchee, Washington-based organic fruit farm, Stemilt Growers. “Our organic world is too large and diverse to have an organization work on our behalf. We grow organic tree fruit and have nothing in common with organic cotton, organic beef, etc.”

Organic farmer Ted Weydert, of DeKalb, Illinois, added, “Contrary to popular belief, the Organic Trade Association only speaks for a very small number of actual organic farmers. This checkoff is not needed.”

Does Fracking Threaten Future of Ohio Organic Farms?

Public New Service
10/13/2014
Mary Kuhlman
PHOTO: Certified organic farmer Mick Luber of Bluebird Farm in Cadiz, Ohio, says he's concerned about what possible contamination from nearby fracking operations could mean for the future of his business. Photo credit: Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Assn.

PHOTO: Certified organic farmer Mick Luber of Bluebird Farm in Cadiz, Ohio, says he’s concerned about what possible contamination from nearby fracking operations could mean for the future of his business. Photo credit: Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Certified organic farming is a growing business in Ohio, but some farmers warn that the threat of contamination from hydraulic fracturing could dampen its future. Some of the chemicals used in fracking have been identified as naturally-occurring toxic substances, metals, and radioactive materials.

In eastern Ohio, Mick Luber is a certified organic grower and owner of Bluebird Farm in Cadiz. He says several well pads and a compressor station are located near his land. He is worried about contamination of soil, water, and air, and what it could mean for his organic certification.

“I’m in a quandary about the production on my farm being of good quality,” says Luber. “Do I lose my business? I’ve put 30 years into this soil to make this soil grow. You don’t just go someplace and oh, well it’s bad here, I’ll just go over the hill.”

If prohibited substances, including some fracking chemicals, are detected on a certified organic farm, the producer may have to wait at least three years before becoming eligible for recertification. Ohio is home to more than 700 certified organic operations and nearly 57,000 acres of certified organic land.

Luber says an air-quality monitor showed high levels of particulate matter on his farm. He says one time, he discovered water running white from springs coming out of a well pad near his land.

“The Ohio EPA had a 165-day investigation, supposedly, and said there was no problem,” says Luber. “But from my estimation, somehow they fractured the rock structure so that anything spilled on that well pad site will get into that water and flow down through the stream.”

Besides drilling sites, there are pipelines used to transport gas, and injection wells that store fracking waste throughout the state. In the event of an accident or spill, Luber says it’s impossible to know the full extent of the danger.

“What they’re doing is a bad idea,” he says. “Any cement you put in is going to crack sometime. So, all these wells are eventually going to leak. And if they have all these chemicals in these wells, they’re going come up and they’re going to affect the groundwater, and they’re going to affect people’s health.”

Supporters of hydraulic fracturing say it is an economic boon for the state, but opponents argue the risks outweigh the benefits.

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

 
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.

Making sure what you are buying is truly organic

WDTN Channel 2 TV
By Pam Elliot
6/25/14

Okra, tomatoes, broccoli, and basil, are just some of the fresh items you’ll find at Mile Creek Farm in New Lebanon.

Emily Jackle and her husband Ben started turning land in Montgomery County into an organic farm in 2007. It took three years to get the USDA to approve it because they had to document a three-year history with the land.

Jackle told 2 NEWS it’s worth the extra work to be able to use the USDA seal and it’s a good way for consumers to know they are getting produce that was not genetically modified or sprayed with chemicals.

“Looking for the certification is my biggest piece of advice, like I said, we think it’s the gold standard. We don’t feel it’s burdensome to us. We are a really small farm and we find time to do the certification,” said Jackle.

The Jackles grow flowers and vegetables.  They start packing the greenhouse in March, then when it’s warm enough they move plants into the hoop house. It all starts with non-treated seeds and homemade potting mix.

Jackle told 2 NEWS, “We had a surprise visit from our certifier who came and took soil samples from our tomato crop and he was looking for pesticides.

Their certifier is the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association which the USDA says checks organic farms at least once a year.

“It would be illegal for us to have the certified organic if we weren’t certified, but we are, so we’re allowed to display this on our farm stand at market,” she explained as she showed 2 NEWS the banner she uses at farmers’ markets.

The USDA reports those who label their produce “organic” and are not certified can be fined.  You can actually file a complaint, if you suspect someone.  The USDA does make exceptions for people who make less than $5,000 a year from their produce.

You can also check on the status of a farm that claims to be organic by using the website http://apps.ams.usda.gov/nop/.  You can put the farm’s name under “operation name.”

Jackle suggests you talk with the actual farmers and pick their brains, have them explain why they consider their products organic.

USDA reports record growth in organics

by Kristy Foster Seachrist
Farm and Dairy
March 27, 2014

WASHINGTON —  The U.S. organic industry now encompasses a recordbreaking 18,513 certified organic farms and businesses, according to new figures released by the USDA, a 245 percent increase since 2002.

The figures show the organic industry continues to grow domestically and globally, with over 25,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries.

Through the Agricultural Marketing Service’s National Organic Program, USDA has helped an additional 763 producers become certified organic in 2013 alone, an increase of 4.2 percent from the previous year.

Record

The 2013 list of certified USDA organic operations shows an increased rate of domestic growth within the industry, resuming previous trends.

“Consumer demand for organic products has grown exponentially over the past decade,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“With retail sales valued at $35 billion last year, the organic industry represents a tremendous economic opportunity for farmers, ranchers and rural communities.”

Ohio picture

Carol Goland, executive director for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said the report mirrors what is happening in Ohio.

OEFFA has witnessed an increase in the number of certified organic farms year after year.
Goland said growth in the organic food sector has outpaced its conventional counterpart for more than a decade.

“This industry signal means that we can expect to see more farms transition to organic production, and more new farmers begin their businesses as certified organic,” said Goland.

Now that the farm bill has passed and the National Organic Cost Share Program will be reinstated, Goland expects more farmers to chose to complete the organic certification process.

New programs

USDA has a number of new efforts to connect organic farmers with resources that will help develop the growth of the organic industry.

The USDA is helping organic stakeholders access programs that support conservation; providing access to loans and grants; funding organic research and education; and mitigating pest emergencies.

Funds are currently available for research projects under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and extension initiative to solve critical organic agriculture issues or problems.

The program also funds research projects to enhance the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market their products. Additional information is available online, and request for proposals are due by May 8.

Organic Livestock Feed Shortage May Hinder Growth Of Organic Food

WOSU

Dairyman Perry Clutts with one of his organic milk producing jerseys

More small farmers are turning to the production of organic meat and dairy products. But a looming shortage of organically certified animal feed might be limiting the expansion of the organic market.

On a central Ohio dairy farm, 20 jersey cows stand patiently inside the milking parlor.

“So all the milk is coming down that pipeline from the cows,” says dairyman Perry Clutts. “It goes from the cow into this big pipeline here. It gets chilled and every other day the milk truck comes and picks the milk up. It’s a special dedicated milk truck; organic milk only.”

Clutts is a former North Carolinian who returned to Ohio and the family farm near Circleville. Clutts designed and built a modern dairy parlor that can milk 100 cows per hour. While they’re milked, the cows munch on certified organic feed.

“They always get organic feed which means no pesticides, insecticides, herbicides, no added hormones to make them produce more milk,” Clutts says.

Converting to organic farming is a lengthy process. So is obtaining organic certification. But there’s a new challenge facing producers. As Clutts and others scale up production of organic milk and meat they face a looming shortage of organic animal feed. The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association – known as “OEFFA” – is an Ohio based group that does organic certification. OEFFA’s Eric Pawlowski says there are too few acres devoted to growing organic grains and other feed components.

“Right now the demand exceeds the supply here in Ohio. We have more of a demand than what our producers can grow,” Pawlowski says.

Take the 3 million acres of corn that are grown in Ohio to feed livestock. Pawlowski calculates that less than 100,000 of those acres is certified organic.

According to another dairyman, the demand for organic feed is driving prices up.

“If you’re willing to pay the price at this point in time you’re able to find feed. It is a lot more expensive. It is getting harder to find,” says Ernest Martin.

Martin runs a 55-cow dairy farm northwest of Mansfield. He says that several years ago, there was not much of a price difference between organic and conventional hay. But that’s changing. And as feed becomes more difficult to find, Martin says he’s had to search for suppliers outside the Mid-West. And there’s yet another problem, says Martin.

“There’s been a reduction in organic acres which has hurt dairy or any organic livestock producers.”

It makes sense, then, that organic meat and dairy producers raise their own organic feed. Again Eric Pawlowski.

“They have seen a greater challenge of sourcing as they have been trying to grow their business if they aren’t already producing their own feed for their livestock which the vast majority of our farmers do, they view their farm as a complete organism so that the less that they have to input from off their farm the more stable their business model is,” Pawlowski says.

Dairyman Ernest Martin says he sees a bright spot in the not-too-distant future.

“I think that it’ll eventually straighten out again. With the feed prices as high as they are right now it’s a little hard to make a profit but I think that if we’re steady at it, I think things will turn around again. I think things will look better in the near future,” Martin says.

Managing Weeds on a Midwest Farm: A Profile of Ken Rider

By Patrick Lillard
The Rodale Institute
October 17, 2012
Ken Rider

We’ve all probably played with modeling clay at some point in our lives, making pottery or a sculpture in school. Well, imagine trying to grow a plant in it. That analogy came to mind as Ken Rider described farming in his Hoytville clay soils.

Rider grows organic corn, soybeans, spelt and wheat on almost 500 acres in the Great Black Swamp region of Ohio. As part of an Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI) project looking at organic farmers’ weed management, an undergraduate student from Purdue University and I interviewed Ken. When we asked him about how he manages weeds, he quickly replied cover crops, crop rotation and cultivation, but we learned those practices were best explained through stories and experiences.

Cover crops

Rider’s favorite crop is alfalfa. He grew up among alfalfa fields, but, beyond the nostalgia, the crop has significant benefits on his farm:

  • Its deep-penetrating roots open up his heavy soils and access deep nutrient reserves.
  • It serves as a significant source of nitrogen for subsequent crops.
  • Its thick canopy suppresses weeds.
  • Its ability to be mowed provides a measure of control over challenging perennial weeds.

While alfalfa is his favorite cover crop, Ken is continually researching and experimenting with new cover crops and techniques. He currently has funding from NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to evaluate the use of crimson clover and oilseed radish as a technique for reducing the amount of moldboard plowing he does. Ken’s thought is that as oilseed radish will winterkill and crimson clover is not as winter hardy as other clovers, spring incorporation will not require inverting the soil.

While cover crops do provide numerous benefits, they aren’t without their own management requirements. Ken once had an outbreak of Canada thistle in his alfalfa cover. He figures the thistle took hold because the field was in alfalfa for an extended amount of time and there were gaps in the stand. He addressed the outbreak by changing his rotation and mowing the thistle several times in a season, which put significant pressure on the thistle’s rhizomes and lessened the population.

Ken stresses that in organic agriculture, weeds are controlled but never eradicated. Therefore, organic farmers must be diligent managers.  “My father-in-law used to say ‘mind your business,’” says Rider. “He didn’t mean ‘mind your own business,’ which is something everybody should do. He meant mind your business—be attentive.”

Observation is essential for successful cover crop and weed management. “Observation in a timely manner so you don’t get behind,” says Rider.

Crop rotations

Crop rotations are another integral component in Ken’s weed management system as they allow him to disrupt weed life cycles, minimizing any windows for weeds to flourish and reproduce. Ken’s rotation was outlined in Michigan State University’s publication Integrated Weed Management: Fine Tuning the System, but crop rotations are flexible structures, providing opportunities for controlling outbreaks.

Figure of Ken Rider’s Crop Rotation on p. 19 in Integrated Weed Management:
Fine Tuning the System
from Michigan State University Extension

As described earlier, when Ken had an outbreak of Canada thistle in an alfalfa field, he changed his rotation, planting a crop with a thicker canopy that could outcompete the Canada thistle. He is using the same strategy to battle weed pressure created by this year’s drought. The lack of moisture after seeding slowed germination, which allowed the weeds to get established ahead of his crop. He is changing his rotation from beans-wheat to beans-corn, since the corn can better compete with weeds.

Cultivating conservatively

The last weed management strategy Ken reaches for is cultivation. While it is an effective tool, Ken is very conservative in his cultivation. He warns that the conventional mindset of wanting extremely clean fields can be detrimental for soil in general, but especially for clay soils.

“The biggest problem with [working the soil] as an organic farmer is the tendency to overwork it,” says Rider. “You want to go out there and get rid of all the weeds and make a real fine seedbed. When you do that, you’ve tightened your soil up. In our situation, that’s compacting it…You learn that when you get your next rain, it’s so sealed over and so tight that the water won’t drain through it.”

Ken minimizes this risk by limiting his cultivation and selecting implements that remove weeds with the least damage and compaction. There are several great resources on implements in their uses, one of the most well-known being Steel in the Field,  which is available free online. It describes each implement, its effectiveness on different size weeds and provides case studies. One of the farmers profiled is Rex Spray, a pioneer of organic farming in Ohio and one of Ken’s mentors.

Observe and learn

Even after 40 years of farming, Ken is still perfecting his farming system, learning from experience and experiments as well as from other farmers and organizations. Ken’s mentor Rex Spray was an important source of knowledge over the years. Rex was an extremely well-known organic farmer who, in addition to appearing in Steel in the Field, was profiled in several articles over the years. Ken noted Rex had one of the most important skills for an organic farmer: observation.


Rex Spray (Photo by Danielle Deener)

“[Rex Spray] was very observant and knew what he was looking for,” says Rider. “If you’re perceptive and have a discerning mind, you can pick out a lot of things you need to know about your cropping just through observation.”

Ken noted another important source of information as the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA) and its grain-growers chapter. The chapter meetings and email listserv provide opportunities for farmers to discuss the topics most pertinent to them in the context of their own specific farms and share what has worked for them. Ken also acknowledged the benefits from collaborating with faculty at the Ohio State University on research trials and participating in organizations like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Ken served on North Central SARE’s advisory board and is a strong proponent for the organization, advocating for farmers’ continued involvement in SARE and utilization of its producer grants.

Weed management wisdom

As I thought back over our interview with Ken, I began to understand and appreciate the skills of a successful organic farmer:

  • observation,
  • experimentation, and
  • adaptability.

Ken’s observational skills have given him an understanding of the characteristics of his soil, weed life cycles, the attributes of different cover crops, and how all of these different elements interact on his farm. He then uses these observations to experiment, to develop and test new approaches that will hopefully improve his farming system. His observations and experimentation also provide him with the knowledge to be able to quickly adapt his system to respond to challenges.

Eating organic: If you’re looking only at nutrition, you’re missing other benefits

The Marietta Times
September 26, 2012
By Evan Bevins

Supporters of organic farming say a study suggesting little nutritional advantage in organic foods compared to conventional items misses many of the reasons why people go organic in the first place.

When organic farming began, “the emphasis wasn’t on nutrition, it was about producing food in an environmentally … sustainable way,” said Lauren Ketcham, communications coordinator for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, a coalition of farmers, gardeners, researchers, consumers and others who focus on building a healthy food system that includes economic opportunities.

“If the focus is only on nutrition, you’re really missing all those other benefits,” she said.

For the study, published this month in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, doctors from Stanford University examined nearly 240 studies over the last 40-some years that compared organic and conventional foods. While the organic foods did not prove more nutritious, the researchers noted that organic fruits and vegetables pose a lower risk of exposure to pesticides and antibiotic-resistant germs.

That the pesticide amounts in the conventional produce were within what are considered safe levels is little comfort to Vincent resident Amanda Hearn, 29.

“Just because they meet FDA regulations doesn’t mean it’s” healthy, said Hearn, who writes a green-living blog at theecofriendlyfamily.com. “These things are neurotoxins. … They’re designed to kill organisms.”

Joe Pedretti, organic education specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, a nonprofit organization promoting organic and sustainable agriculture, said individual pesticide residue may be at safe levels, but some produce is exposed to more than one type.

“So the issue is really what are the effects of exposure to multiple pesticides?” he said.

Hearn said she and her family try to buy organic food when they can out of concern for their own health as well as the environment. Chemical fertilizer can affect plants and wildlife as well, she said, noting she even feels some apprehension about eating venison from deer her husband has hunted.

“It’s organic meat, but at the same time, they may be eating crops that are GMO (genetically modified organisms),” she said.

Pedretti noted that organic farming doesn’t expose farmers and workers to the chemicals in some pesticides and fertilizers.

He questioned other aspects of the study, including the lack of uniformity between studies. It’s only been 10 years since a national standard was established for organic farms, so what was considered organic in some studies may not have qualified in more recent ones.

“I think ultimately what the organic industry is trying to say is we need more new research,” Pedretti said.

He said the Stanford study did note more of a nutritional advantage in organic milk and other studies have found more of some nutrients, like vitamins and antioxidants, in organic items.

Farmers must go through an extensive process to receive the federally approved organic certification. Gary Smith, president of the River City Farmers Market, said none of the people who sell produce at the market Saturdays at the Washington County Fairgrounds have that certification but many of them avoid the use of chemicals.

Smith is among those, saying the potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes and more from his garden in Lowell are grown with chemicals 90 percent of the time. He only uses them when he can’t overcome a pest problem or other challenge in another way.

“If you don’t use the chemicals, it’s got to be better,” Smith said.

One of the doctors that conducted the Stanford study told the Associated Press there are other reasons people may choose to buy organic, including environmental concerns and taste preferences.

Bucky Lee, co-owner of Food 4 Less, said those are among the factors customers consider when they buy organic items at the Marietta grocery store.

“It depends on the consumer, what they feel safe eating and what they feel comfortable buying,” he said. “A lot of people are concerned about what (chemicals) they’re putting in it.”

Price is also a consideration, with Lee saying he only orders organic items when the price is close to that of conventional products.

Chris DePugh, with the Vienna, W.Va.-based catering company The Staged Fork, said she knows from experience at culinary school and working in food services at Camden Clark Medical Center that organic food doesn’t really boast a higher nutritional value than conventional food. Her focus when purchasing food for the business is on buying local rather than buying organic.

“I feel that’s better, to support our local people,” she said.

 

About the study

The study by Stanford researchers examined English-language reports of comparisons of organically and conventionally grown food or of populations consuming these foods.

Two studies reported significantly lower urinary pesticide levels among children consuming organic versus conventional diets, but studies of biomarker and nutrient levels in serum, urine, breast milk and semen in adults did not identify clinically meaningful differences.

Phosphorus levels were significantly higher than in conventional produce, although this difference is not clinically significant.

The risk for contamination with detectable pesticide residues was lower among organic than conventional produce, but differences in risk for exceeding maximum allowed limits were small.

Escherichia coli contamination risk did not differ between organic and conventional produce.

Bacterial contamination of retail chicken and pork was common but unrelated to farming method. However, the risk for isolating bacteria resistant to three or more antibiotics was higher in conventional than in organic chicken and pork.

The conclusion was that published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Source: Annals of Internal Medicine, annals.org