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Look for markets before leaping into organics

DANIEL LOOKER 09/02/2010 @ 6:05pm Business Editor

The Farm Progress show might seem an odd place to set up a booth on organic farming. The Varied Industries Tent is a bastion of the latest technology for conventional agriculture. Several farmers were looking at a high-capacity anhydrous ammonia pump at the JBI Enterprises booth.

At the booth rented by Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, or MOSES, Jeff Gunderson sits quietly. But first appearances can be deceiving. A signup sheet for more information shows about a half-dozen farmers interested in organic production.

“It’s steady interest. It’s been a little slow this morning but people still remain interested,” says Gunderson, a technical specialist for MOSES who earlier in his career spent several years working as an organic farming research specialist at North Dakota State University.

Gunderson has statistics to back him up. A 2008 organic production survey by USDA found 14,540 organic farms and ranches in the U.S. Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin rank in the top 10 states with organic farms. MOSES’ own conference in LaCrosse, Wisconsin drew 2,700 farmers last February.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture also showed higher net cash income for organic farms -- $45,697 a year, compared to the average for all farms of $25,448.

But getting there isn’t easy.  Farms that make the transition often see a decline in yields but they can’t sell in the organic market until fields have been chemical–free for three years.

Gunderson says he gets lots of questions about making that switch, on how to control weeds and insects.

“Generally, most organic farmers will tell you insect pests and diseases are not a problem if you have healthy soils, but weeds are a problem,” he says.

Many farmers have made the switch by converting only part of their farm to organic crop rotations at first, he says.

“The more biologically active your soils are before you begin that transition, the better off you’ll be,” he says.

You can start by building up organic matter in the soils with cover crops that are a mix of grasses and legumes, he says.

On its website, MOSES offers fact sheets on transitioning to organic crop production and to organic dairying.

MOSES also coordinates mentoring for farmers interested in making the switch. Established organic farmers visit those of the novices to offer advice.

The technical challenges aren’t the only ones for organic farmers. Even with higher prices for organic crops and the potential for a higher net income, business planning is essential.

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