Organic Consumers Association

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Organic Farming -- Just Right for South Dakota

Man, do I have smart readers! On yesterday's commentary on food deserts and local food policy, Flying Tomato cites Wendell Berry, and Anon submits a link to a great Sam Hurst article on a Walworth County family that's working hard to make organic farming work, despite all the sheer land-wrecking nonsense of federal ag policy. The Stiegelmeier family are no commune of airy headed dreamers like yours truly: they're sixth generation farmers of the unforgiving 100th meridian, bucking the push for "Corn corn corn!":

Like his neighbors, Matthew [Stiegelmeier, 25] did just fine last year, but he did it without growing a single ear of corn, and that’s where his family’s story begins to diverge from that of the other farmers. “I’ve got a philosophical problem with growing corn. Most corn goes to livestock. I prefer to feed grain to people, and I prefer for cattle to eat grass.” He also has practical reasons. “I hate to cultivate. We’ve got rolling land. We’re always dealing with erosion problems. In Iowa, they have four feet of top­soil. We have four inches. Besides, I can’t use pesticides" [Sam Hurst, "Betting the Farm," Gourmet, April 2008].

The Stiegelmeiers also reject the notion that the only way to survive in farming in South Dakota is to follow the industrial model of pumping the land full of chemicals and genetically modified crops. Their methods are informed by higher principles:

Grandpa Milton gave land to his son and his new bride, and they tried industrial agriculture. But Jim hated the farm program, thought it made farmers dependent on the government. “Grandpa Mil­ton thinks Roosevelt walked on wa­ter,” Matthew offers. “Daddy thought he was a Communist.” Most of all, Jim hated pesticides. Several times in the late ’60s and early ’70s he got sick from them.

“One night at dinner, my sister-in-law told him, ‘I don’t see how you can be a Christian and put poison on food.’ That was the clincher,” Emily remembers. It was the early ’80s. Jim and Emily converted the farm to organic. They home-schooled the children and put them to work. “I’d rather sit on a tractor than in front of a computer,” Ben insists [Hurst 2008].

But again, these folks aren't dreamers: they're using organic farming and good land stewardship to make money:

Jim and Emily turned the logic of the farm program upside down. Instead of planting one or two commodity crops and accepting whatever price the elevator offered, they went looking for organic processors who, ideally, would lock in a premium before they planted. Matthew shrugs. “Why put a crop in the ground that no one wants to pay for?”

The Stiegelmeiers diversified into organic spring and winter wheat, flax, rye, barley, and buckwheat and relied on age-old ways to fight weeds and fertilize the soil. They certified their pastures as organic and grew alfalfa to feed a herd of registered British White beef cattle. Dan­elle started a small herd of sheep.

This past year, Matthew made $11 a bushel on winter wheat at mills in Kansas and North Dakota, at the time a four-dollar premium over commodity wheat. Organic flax sold for $19.50 a bushel, a premium of ten dollars [Hurst 2008].

The whole article is a good, no-nonsense read on how we can and should do ag differently. (Note in the article Professor Tom Dobbs's comments about "multifunctionality" and tying farm payments to public services beyond cranking out corn for cows, cars, and candy.) Federal farm policy, like so many other farm policies, comes out looking like a market-skewing sop to the rich and an enemy to the family farm, the small town, and the land. Maybe the Stiegelmeiers show us that the farm bill should just be plowed under and left fallow to let the land recover.


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