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.
Watch this highlight video featuring OEFFA Executive Director, Carol Goland, and Mike Laughlin of Northridge Organic Farm. They joined Jack Lessenberry on WGTE’s Deadline Now on August 16, 2013 to talk about organic food and farming issues. The full 30 minute interview is available here.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Above: Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia stand in front of the barn on today’s Peach Mountain Farm. The Silo is covered in Virginia Creeper, a vine that creeps into their barn and prep area. Below: Leslie Garcia shows us one of the last strawberries of the season. Doug Seibert inspects beneficial insects in a cover crop of flowering cilantro that is roughly four feet high. He is conscious of not seeing bare ground on his land and cover crops grow in any row that is not currently in production.
An easy-to-miss driveway juts off a county road north of Spring Valley, Ohio. The gravel lane leads to a modest house tucked in amid tall shade trees. Across the yard stands a barn that’s seemingly held together by its contents: old machine parts, stacks of plastic nursery pots, seed packets, bags of soil amendment. A stooped yet graceful white-haired woman pushes a walker slowly down the pebbly drive, taking in the cool morning air.
This 17-acre Greene County spread is home to Doug Seibert and Leslie Garcia (along with Garcia’s 93-year-old mother and a big ol’ farm dog). On seven acres, the pair —business and life partners since 1991 — cultivate a huge variety of vegetables and cut flowers under the Peach Mountain Organics banner. Their farm, certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association (OEFFA), produces enough for Seibert and Garcia to create a simple, sustainable lifestyle on the land.
The farm’s bounty also graces dining tables throughout Montgomery and Greene counties: Seibert and Garcia sell to restaurants in nearby towns, including the popular Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs and The Meadowlark in Dayton. Their ever-changing salad mix is a must-buy at the Saturday morning Yellow Springs farmers’ market; Peach Mountain sells out of its offerings in an hour or two. “I once saw a woman in high heels running across the parking lot to get the last bag of our salad mix before we sold out,” Seibert says, laughing.
Peach Mountain is surprisingly productive: last season, they harvested just under a ton of salad mix. More than a thousand bunches of kale (“we did kale before kale was cool,” Garcia says). More than 4,000 pounds of tomatoes came out of just one greenhouse. Last fall, they planted 1,000 pounds of garlic, which this summer will yield perhaps five times that. Squash, greens of all kinds, onions, strawberries, herbs, potatoes … the list goes on. Organic certification requires detailed record-keeping of every input (seed, soil amendments, pest control, planting dates) and output.
The Business of Farming
Think about the business model for a moment: About 22 tillable acres (Garcia and Seibert have a nearby property with 15 acres under cultivation). The expenses of organic seed, soil amendments and pest management. Two highly limited sales channels: a single farmers’ market stand and a handful of restaurant accounts. A seasonal production cycle.
How in the world can anyone make even a bare-bones living raising vegetables organically? The secret, says Seibert: no debt.
By purchasing their land outright (the latest parcel at auction for a favorable price), buying used equipment and a secondhand greenhouse (deconstructed, moved and rebuilt by Doug), and keeping their staff to a minimum (two full-time summer employees), Seibert and Garcia have withstood the variability of weather and the volatility of expenses. They haven’t raised their market prices since 1991.
To be sure, the couple have a huge “soft” investment in the farm — namely, in their own labor. Farming, organically or not, is a 24/7 venture pretty much year-round. The couple seems content to take no more than they need, maintaining a simple lifestyle, and even managing to put away a bit of money to buy a small farm property in Washington State near Seibert’s grown son. They have a tidy nest egg; what’s left of any profit is reinvested in the farm. “We’ve never had a losing season,” Garcia says. “Our worst season, we each got about $365.” “It’s never been about the money,” Seibert says.
What it is about, though, is satisfying customers and being good stewards of the land. Standing in an open field behind a large triple greenhouse, her salt-and-pepper hair in two braids, Garcia says she and Seibert never for a minute considered farming conventionally. “I read ‘Silent Spring,’” she says. “I saw what happened in Bhopal, India. How many clues do people need?”
At 59, she’s a veteran of organic agriculture. Wary of the dangers of agri-chemicals and dismayed by the conventional teachings of the Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, where she spent a year, Garcia began organically farming a few acres in Adams County in her early 20s. That farm was near Peach Mountain, reputed to be Ohio’s second or third largest peak, depending on you you ask, and it lent its name to the current operation.
Neither Garcia nor Seibert come from farm families; Seibert, 62, is a Cincinnati native who attended Wilmington College, where he lived off-campus in a “shack” with a big garden. His early career as a machinist comes in handy; someone’s gotta build the hoop houses and keep the tractor running.
In a large greenhouse and several smaller structures, Seibert and Garcia start nearly all their crops from seed, then transplant directly into the ground in hoop houses or open beds. In addition to the salad mix and Garcia’s gladiolus, which Peach Mountain is well-regarded for, and a whole host of organic produce, the farm sells vegetable and herb plants. Until a few years ago, Garcia also grew bedding plants for retail sale; while that was profitable business, the work was exhausting and the two decided to scale back.
Fooling Mother Nature
On a cool May morning, rows of healthy tomato plants reach nearly four feet high in a greenhouse. The farm uses a clever rope-and-pulley system to corral the vines: As the tomato plants grow taller, the rope is lowered so the heavy bottom stems coil on the ground, containing the plants and keeping the tomatoes in easy reach for harvesting. Growing tomatoes under cover is expensive, Seibert says, because the close conditions are heaven for aphids, which must be controlled by introducing insects that feed on them.
In a creekside field near the main farm, Garcia picks flowers to arrange for a weekend wedding. Rows and rows of hardneck garlic, planted by hand in the fall, are already sprouting their springtime curlicue scapes. Seibert walks past a patch of cilantro that he let go to seed as a bee pasture; the tall, spindly plants are recognizable only by their strong scent, and they’re humming with insects. Seibert and Garcia use plants like clover, vetch, and field peas for all-season cover, to add nutrients to the soil. “I don’t like bare ground,” Seibert says. “You want that microbiology going on in the soil all the time.”
Organic farming is a carefully managed ecosystem — and while it tries to work within the natural order of things, it’s also a constant battle against nature. They tried raising chickens a couple of years ago, Garcia says, but the raccoons systematically picked off the flock. She points to a bed of lettuce that’s speckled with maple sproutlings, thanks to the huge trees that frame the farm. “Mother Nature wants to take over all the time,” she says. “We try to have a lot of crop diversity, but in the end, farming isn’t all that compatible with nature.”
Trial-and-error and sharing knowledge help Seibert and Garcia in this constant struggle to both sustain and control natural forces. Their success with the former and generosity with the latter have earned the two recognition and admiration from their fellow farmers. In February, OEFFA awarded them the Stewardship Award, its highest honor. Growers throughout the region cite Seibert as a mentor. “People ask me questions all the time, and I’m always happy to share what we’ve learned,” Seibert says.
On a warming Saturday morning, there’s a line at the Peach Mountain Organics booth at the Yellow Springs farmers’ market. Seibert has pulled up a panel truck full of produce; customers snatch up salad mix and other seasonal goodies.
This single market pulls in three-fifths of Peach Mountain Organics’ annual revenue. “When we first started, farmers’ markets were at the bottom of a downward trend,” Seibert says. They’ve taken a calculated risk by investing in a single retail venue rather than participating in multiple markets or launching a CSA program, which they feel would compete with their Yellow Springs presence. “We do one market, and we do a big deal,” he says. “We spend two days getting ready for Saturday.”
Customers are loyal to Peach Mountain because of their organic, high-quality product. Like the environment, a farmers’ market is its own ecosystem, with vendors working in concert to draw big crowds that benefit everyone. Too few farmers and customers don’t come; too little variety and the farmers compete. Seibert and Garcia are always evaluating what to grow, in what quantity, and how much to bring to market. They raise cost-intensive crops like herbs and greenhouse tomatoes because they know demand is high. “A farmer can’t stand there all day and sell $100 worth of produce,” Doug says. “We want to sell out. It’s a fragile balance.”
Bryn Mooth is an independent journalist and copywriter focused on food, wellness, and creativity, and she shares recipes on her amazing, consistent, and timely blog Writes4food.com. Cultivators is her standing column in Edible Ohio Valley, where she brings you the stories, in words and pictures, of the growers, producers, bakers, cooks, and vendors who bring great local food to our Ohio Valley tables.
CADIZ-Many people have a sense of history about their families-ancestry, old photos, memories of grandma’s house. Holly Herbold is living her history. “It feels like I belong here, like home. It’s come full circle.”
She says this from the porch of a large, old farmhouse overlooking one of her newly-certified organic gardens. In 1805 her great-times-four grandparents acquired this family farm under the Land Act. The farmhouse was moved from a rise, bringing it about 50 yards closer to the spring house from which the women folk carried buckets of water for washing, cleaning and cooking.
Holly’s earliest memories begin here. Her grandparents lived in the house, and her parents fashioned the former granary into living space. “I picked daisies. I remember riding in the horse and buggy. My mother drove the horse and buggy everywhere. She took me to school down the road.”
Holly Herbold and dog Corso take a break on the farmhouse front porch. “My grandmother used to sit in that corner and rock, and my grandfather sat on the steps.”
Holly moved to California when she was eight and to Hawaii when she was 20, where she surfed, worked at a Four Seasons hotel and “began really learning about food.” A move to upstate New York in 2002 furthered her food career. She opened a health food store and added a cafe, which then became a successful restaurant featuring local foods. Among all of this activity she managed to acquire three degrees in anthropology, deaf studies and teaching, but whenever she visited the family farm in Ohio she dreaded saying goodbye. Holly took an opportunity to return to her roots in 2009 and hasn’t looked back.
Her interest in actually farming the land grew when she began working for neighbor Mick Luber, owner of Bluebird Farm. “He’s amazing. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s always encouraged me to succeed.” The next year, she decided to grow some produce on her own and is now in her second year as Her Bold Farm. Starting small, she has developed two acres for planting, using one at a time. But there are thousands of plants-vegetables, herbs and flowers-that Holly and employee Ellie Myslinsky tend and prepare for sale.
Tomatoes, beets, peppers, potatoes, onions, garlic, basil, dill, radishes, carrots, okra, kale, Swiss chard, peas, “really good lettuce,” gladiolas, cosmos, zinnias, pumpkins and squash-a partial list of more than 70 items that will make appearances at her market booth this year.
“It isn’t just ‘beets’ for me. I have five kinds of beets. I like the variety. People ask me if I have Swiss chard, and I’ll show them three different types of Swiss chard,” says Holly. “Maybe one type will work better for what they’re doing, or maybe they’ll be open to trying something new.”
Other parts of the 188-acre farm on Brushy Fork Road are home to the requisite two farm dogs and a cat, in addition to pasture for a horse, four beef cows and 11 Boer-mix goats. The plan is to breed the goats up into quality meat stock. Two flocks of five types of chickens free-range it. The older group is kept closer to the hen house and pasture land while the younger pullets’ portable coop and large pen is moved around a flatter area every two days.
Holly’s fresh egg business is taking off with Black New Jersey Giants, Rhode Island Reds and Golden- and Silver-Laced Wyandots. Another chicken she decided to add as a novelty, the Araucana, lays blue and green eggs. She places one of these in each dozen pack as available.
Her father, John, has two bee hives, and Holly captured her first hive this spring. The bees not only provide sweet honey, but pollinate the crops. They’re part of the farm’s history, too, as Holly points out a hive that has lived between the walls of the farmhouse for more than 50 years.
As if produce, goats, eggs and bees weren’t enough, Holly puts on her grandmother’s apron and makes home-baked bread, too. One day a week Holly and Ellie (who worked for a bakery while living in Maine) create 50 to 80 loaves by kneading and stretching the dough, no electric mixers involved.
In February, Holly and John submitted the nearly 30-page application for organic farm certification. The process is technical, specific and all-encompassing. Fences must be constructed from untreated wood. Inspectors test soil for chemicals, and farmers have to keep a paper trail beginning with seed packets and receipts for each plant and ending with harvest dates. Because the farmland had not been utilized in 30 years, the process was streamlined to an extent for the Herbolds. Why insist on certification, in effect, to farm the “old fashioned” way?
According to Holly, “The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) is a reputable certifying agent with over three decades of service as a vital resource to farmers, gardeners and citizens who value a sustainable, local and ecological organic food system. Knowing that our family farm is certified by OEFFA gives my customers a credible guarantee that our products are organically farmed using natural processes that benefit not only environmental health but the health of my community. I can give back to my community by growing quality vegetables, baking organic and homemade artisan breads and sharing this wealth with my neighbors.” More than 70 acres have also been approved for organic hay farming, one of John’s projects.
OEFFA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program Organic Initiative awarded Her Bold Farm a $10,000 grant for a “hoop house,” the first of its kind in Harrison County. Plans involve running an irrigation pipe from the spring house to a site above one of the garden plots-just next to the former site of the farmhouse. For four years Holly is to plant “a little of everything” in the nearly 2200 square foot house while developing and monitoring conservation practices.
As idyllic as the setting is, running a 200-year old farm in the 21st century presents its own issues. After signing the contract for the hoop house grant, Holly was told that Governor Kasich’s budget cuts may eliminate the program’s new projects-possibly hers.
Stringent organic certification requirements aside, selling her wares in a largely rural community means traveling to a farmers market over 60 miles away, selling produce with Bluebird Farm’s booth at other weekly markets as well as finding customers through less traditional outlets.
Updates have been made throughout the years to the farmhouse her great, great grandparents built in the late 1800′s, but there are nine other old buildings on the farm, including the spring house, a smokehouse, a stable, a pig pen and a chicken house. An architect has drawn up plans to restore the granary to living space again, eliminating “holes that birds fly through.”
Of particular concern to the Herbolds is a historic hay barn that John’s grandfather purchased from the Cope farm when Clendening Lake was formed. He had it reassembled on its present site. Still in use, the foundation is deteriorating and will be costly to rebuild. Preserving it means not only preserving part of the farm and family history, but the community’s history as well.
These family acres have never been mined or drilled, and Holly worries, “Ours is one of the few remaining treasures of natural beauty in Harrison [County.] I’m concerned about the fracking planned for so much of our area. If the undisclosed chemicals used for fracking seep into our water table or watershed, they may also seep into my vegetables. I wonder how much longer I’ll be able to take a drink from the springhouse that has been used by my family for nearly 210 years.”
Odd little gifts tilled from the gardens keep her grounded: an old spoon, an arrowhead, an 1825 penny. Someday, Holly speculates, she’d like to have four or five acres of production with vegetables on all the hillsides; interns working the farm, learning about organics, staying in cabins along the woods; and opening the farm up as a writers’ retreat (Holly is also a writer.).
A friend is creating a website for the farm, but Holly does have a Facebook page. For information on Her Bold Farm products or working part-time on the farm, call (740) 942-8042 or email Holly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I think my ancestors would be proud of the way our farm seems to breathe life into the food produced here. You can almost taste the fog rolling in off the bottom when you take a bite. I’m hoping in some small way of my own to show that keeping the farm alive is an important part of keeping the community alive and history alive.”
Farmers are right to demand legislators take swift action on the 2012 farm bill (“Farmers vent over farm bill,” New York Times article, Aug. 13 Dispatch).
Because of inaction by the U.S. House of Representatives, important farm-bill programs stand to lose funding on Sept. 30, including the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program. This very valuable program covers up to 75 percent of annual organic-certification costs.
Without the program, many farmers say they would not be able to afford organic certification, which requires an operation to comply with strict production standards.
Consumer demand for organic certified meat and produce has risen steadily for several years. This is largely because the organic label is a trusted indicator that a product was raised with care for the health of consumers, animals and the environment.
The 2008 Farm Bill funded the program at $22 million over five years, a small fraction of the farm bill itself, which costs around $300 billion.
This is a small investment that will help our economy to grow and keep American farmers in the business of growing good food for the rest of us.
Those interested should call their U.S. representatives and tell them to preserve funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program in the 2012 farm bill.
For Dave Benchoff, of Ashland, what began as a backyard garden has grown into a full-time business with Banzhaf Garten Organic Farm.
Dave Benchoff checks his parsley plants in the high tunnel.
“We weren’t always health conscious, but having kids made my wife and I study where our food comes from,” Benchoff said. “My wife has food allergies to MSG and other preservatives, and our kids were starting to have them too. Our oldest son would break out into hives if he ate eggs from the store, but yet when we raised our own, he had no problem.”
The Benchoffs have three children, a son (21), daughter (16) and son (10). Benchoff and his wife, Lori, were living in Mansfield, where he was working as an EMT instructor and firefighter, handling 911 calls.
“When we turned 40, we decided it was time for a change, and we moved to the country in 1999. We got a good deal on a 20-acre farm, and I wanted to find something to do with the land besides mow it. I started out with a garden, but it got out of control,” he said with a laugh. “Then I realized that I might be able to make a living at it.”
Soon, the Wooster native with a masters in history found himself immersed in the study of organics. His research led him to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
“The OEFFA began in 1979, and had been certifying organic production since back in the early 1980’s,” Benchoff said. “They started well before the national movement, and it wasn’t until 2002 that the USDA developed its own certification program.”
Benchoff received organic certification for his farm in 2003.
“At that time, the national standard was new,” he said. “I had several people tell me I was crazy for pursuing it, but I knew there was an interest in naturally grown produce, and it has only increased since then. It is a good marketing tool for produce growers.”
The certification process was initially extensive.
“The inspectors look at everything from your seed packets, to invoices, to harvest records and sales receipts,” he said. “You have to maintain records and document everything that goes into or out of the ground. And you have to use substances approved by OEFFA or the Organic Materials Review Institute. The first inspection took a whole day here at our farm.”
Benchoff developed his own recordkeeping system that has been well received by inspectors as well as other growers.
“I’ve actually taught my system at OEFFA workshops,” he said. “I create forms in Word that can be printed out with a computer, but you don’t have to have a computer to do this system. In fact, some people have taken my system and tweaked it to meet their own needs. The inspectors love it because they don’t have to take all day to do their records audit.”
He credits his EMT/fireman training for helping him develop the system.
Dave Benchoff shows his customized system for feeding fish emulsion fertilizer through his drip irrigation system.
“When you do EMT work, you learn to look at things in a logical way, and put it into a matrix as you survey the scene,” Benchoff said. “I like to keep things simple, so I basically took that mindset as I developed my record system for the plants.”
On a recent farm visit in late April, outdoor planting was just beginning. Cabbage and snow pea plants were in the ground in the outdoor planting beds, as well as garlic. Mown grass was already being used as mulch.
“We use it to help keep weeds down, and it breaks down into organic matter that goes back into the soil,” he said.
In addition to its outdoor planting beds, the farm is using a high tunnel structure.
“2011 was the first year of production with it, and we were still learning what we could grow in it,” Benchoff said.
The farm received a cost share grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA) to build the structure. During the farm visit, the high tunnel housed bok choy, kohlrabi, lettuce, beets, Swiss chard, oriental turnips, kale, radishes and parsley.
“What I like about the high tunnel structure is the ability to control everything from water, to nutrients to temperature,” he said. “In 2011, we had such a wet spring, where it rained for two months and there was no sun. It really hurt our production, but what we grew in the high tunnel really saved our production last year.”
Benchoff said the farm achieved 5,000 pounds of produce in 2010, however the growing conditions in 2011 dropped production in the same beds to about 4,000 pounds.
“The high tunnel gave us about 700 pounds of produce, which essentially kept us even with the year before,” he said. “Without it we would have been hurting.”
To get the most efficient production, Benchoff employs a succession planting system.
“I do very little direct seed planting,” he said. “It’s mostly snow peas, green beans, garlic and potatoes. Everything else gets started in the greenhouse, with the heirloom tomatoes being from my own seed stock.”
The successive planting concept goes to work when harvesting begins.
“It’s all in the timing,” he said. “For example, when cucumbers go into the ground, it’s time to start the next set of seeds. I know that it will take two to three weeks for those seeds to germinate and be ready, and I will have harvested the existing plants in the mean time. I’ll pull them out and plant the newer plants. It maximizes production.”
A drip irrigation system runs throughout the farm.
“It’s more labor up front, but it is so easy once it is in place,” Benchoff said.
He has also incorporated a system to run his fertilizer — fish emulsion — through the drip irrigation system as well, getting just the right nutrients to the plants.
“I use very little chemical input on the farm,” he said. “I’ve consulted with the researchers at OARDC on specific issues, and I do have corrective measures that are organic approved. For example, I use copper hydroxide for tomato blight. It is a mild fungicide that is an approved treatment.”
Benchoff produces more than 40 species of organically grown fruits and vegetables, as well as a wild-crafted raspberry and blackberry stand, and a wood sales operation.
Most of the farm’s marketing efforts have concentrated on farmers markets, which has also led Benchoff to other leadership roles, including volunteering at the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy in Peninsula and Akron. The Countryside Conservancy advocates community agriculture through markets, networking and workshops to help guide new farmers.
Initiatives like the Countryside Conservancy fit well with Benchoff’s strong belief in building local economies.
“The small entrepreneurs, the cottage industries, are what America is supposed to be about,” he said. “It’s sad to me that so many of us are no longer making a living off our land.”
That passion for entrepreneurship has also led Benchoff to become involved in local producer causes. He served as an original steering committee member in 2009 when the Wooster Local Roots store was formed. The food store is open daily and features produce, textiles and crafts from local growers. The store also includes a café, which features menu items that are seasonally based on the local produce available at the market.
Now, an Ashland Local Roots store is on the horizon.
“For now, we’re holding a farmer’s market every Saturday in the building, but we’re waiting for permits and approval of the architect’s rendering,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll have a second store in Ashland based on the same concept as Wooster. And we’ve already had requests to develop a Local Roots store in Mansfield and New Philadelphia.”
Back on Banzhaf Farm, there is more to do.
“There’s always something to learn,” Benchoff said. “You have to be dynamic and adapt to change. The world is changing. Our economy is changing. And we have to be ready.”
Organic dog treats ready for purchase at Heidi’s Homemade, Inc.(Photo: Debbie Holmes)
Organic farming in Ohio could get a boost from a new trade agreement between the United States and European Union. The deal allows organic products to flow more freely between the overseas markets.
Organic sales are a $50 billion dollar industry in the US and Europe, combined, and that figure could grow.
Lisa Weate stamps the expiration date on bags of dog treats at Heidi’s Homemade on Columbus’ west side. The treats are part of a test sample that will be sent to a company in London, England interested in selling the organic dog snacks. Most of the treats are made with spelt, a form of wheat that has a sweet and nutty flavor that is non-allergenic to dogs. A variety of flavors are added, like peanut butter, rye carob, white cheddar and parsley. Owner Rochelle Lavens says expanding overseas makes sense.
“We think we could probably grow our business 30 to 40 percent a year opening up to European markets. The fact that we can now have one London company opens up all kinds of opportunities for us with other countries in Europe,” says Lavens.
Lavens company benefits from the new trade agreement between the U.S and the European Union. Both sides agree to accept each others’ organic certifications. Prior to the agreement countries in Europe could opt out of the EU standard and force companies like Lavens to get separate permits from each nation to export organic products.
“It allows us opportunities to sell into the European markets whereas before if I wanted to I had to get special certifications, which becomes very expensive for small businesses,” says Lavens.
The streamlined process also means that organic farmers, like Gary Mennell of Medina County in northeast Ohio, can potentially sell more of their crops to Europe. Mennell and his brother have been farming organically for 30 years. They work about 200 acres growing spelt and soft red winter wheat, corn, alfalfa, and soybeans.
“ The more streamlined that becomes the easier it is for us to move grain across international lines,” says Mennell.
Mennell says he sells organic tofu soybeans to Japan that can make up to 60% of his income. Japan has its own certification process that Mennell says is stricter than Europe’s. But prices will be the deciding factor to where Mennell sells his crops.
“If the EU market is good this year and Japan’s not I’ll sell to EU, if Japan’s higher and wants our grain and EU doesn’t have the prices I can get from Japan, it goes to Japan. I’m going to be certified to go anywhere in the world I can,” says Mennell.
Carol Goland the executive director of Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association or OEFFA says a national organic certification program has only been in place for 10 years.
“It’s a great opportunity for organic farmers to broaden their horizons and go overseas and it provides a great opportunity for people to get into farming and organic farming, I mean right now quite honestly demand is outstripping supply,” says Goland.
OEFFA certifies about 700 organic farms and food processors in the Midwest…half of those are in Ohio.
“Where we really, really see growth is in organic processed foods, so I’m thinking convenience foods, organic TV dinners, organic mac and cheese,” says Goland.
Goland says the EU agreement also makes it more affordable and easier for small and midsized producers to reach the European markets with their organic certification. Consumers will also be able to access a larger variety of organic products year round. And prices could drop as quantities increase.
COLUMBUS, Ohio – “Free-range,” “natural,” “authentic” – with so many labels on foods these days, it can be a bit dizzying for consumers to figure out what they all mean. Experts say the “certified organic” label stands out from the pack, because it is the only one that verifies that a product is produced and processed without pesticides, artificial ingredients, preservatives or irradiation.
Carol Goland, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, explains that farmers and processors have to go through a very involved process on an annual basis to use the label, and it is highly verified.
“‘Certified organic’ is really kind of a prestigious label. By and large, unless it says ‘certified organic,’ it is not organic, and consumers can’t have that assurance.”
Goland says “certified organic” food is grown in healthy soil, and there is increasing evidence that it is nutritionally superior. Because of the emphasis on environmental protections, consumers also know when they purchase “certified organic” they are safeguarding environmental health, she adds.
Adam Welly runs Wayward Seed Farm, Marysville. He says he has been using organic practices since the beginning and felt it was an important step to become verified.
“‘Naturally grown’ is a term that’s just being used so loosely. We ended up certifying organic because we felt it was our strongest step toward creating complete transparency with our customers.”
By becoming “certified organic,” Welly says he has learned more about weed control and pest management. And he says consumers should know that a lot of work goes into organic growing.
“Just because it’s becoming more mainstream to have ‘certified organic’ vegetables, we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that there is a lot of due diligence. In fact, in this climate that we have here in Ohio, there are a lot of challenges.”
Ohio has more than 500 “certified organic” operations and nearly 53,000 acres of “certified organic” pasture and cropland.