From GENE LOGSDON
The Contrary Farmer
I just ran into more evidence that farmers who took a deep breath and became certified organic growers a few years ago made a smart move. I attended a meeting of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association Grain Growers Chapter, a group seeking to improve and strengthen certified organic agriculture. I think the meeting was held here (in Upper Sandusky) because it is sort of centrally located, not because there is as yet a lot of local interest in commercial organic farming. Only a few years ago, the general view in my neighborhood was that an organic farmer might have a tinge of commie pink in his or her veins not appropriate for red-blooded Americans.
The farmers at this meeting were sophisticated and articulate and extremely aware of how influential supply and demand can be in farming. One of the main topics of conversation was the high price of certified organic hay and grain. Some prices I heard included oats at $6.88 a bushel, barley $8.60, corn around $12 a bushel, wheat even higher, and spelt at 30 cents a pound. Good quality organic hay was just not to be had. “The phone doesn’t ring anymore,” one buyer said. Prices quoted for good organic alfalfa hay at the farm gate were around $300 a ton which is high but non-organic high quality hay is expensive right now too. Organic alfalfa is almost bound to go higher because of the alarming news circulating about how GMO alfalfa is causing problems in cows. Farmers at the meeting went out of their way to tell me that all livestock producers, not just organic ones, are concerned. They say maybe GMO grain for ethanol might continue, but they are convinced that GMO feeds for livestock are not going to last. One certified organic farmer told me (not at the meeting) that organic farmers are switching to red clover for hay because it is not as yet contaminated by the gene fiddlers.
Even the price of non-organic commercial oats has been soaring partly because so many farmers especially in Canada decided to switch their oat acres to corn last year. But mostly the situation is a result of few farmers and farm forecasters anticipating the demand for organic feed that would occur as organic and natural farming took hold. Some who did see what was coming decided to invest in large confinement operations and buy their organic feed rather than grow it. This was probably a mistake because weed problems make it very difficult if not impossible (my opinion) to grow organic grains on a large scale. Successful organic dairies, for example, are usually small and grow their own grains and hay. The big boys who jumped into the market hoping to make a killing assumed that they would be able to buy large quantities of organic feed. Now the cupboard is bare. I find it hard to sympathize with them. To me part of the definition of “organic” should include the word ‘small-scale’.
Spelt is high priced because, I was told, it is hard to grow and even many organic farmers have quit trying. But the demand is still there. One problem is that spelt has a somewhat undeveloped market and farmers have found it hard to find reliable buyers. Again, I see a lesson here. When you raise organic grains for your own operation, you are in control. When you raise them to sell beyond your own local market, things can get complicated. I know of a spelt crop grown in Ohio that ended up going to Europe and the grower had a hard time getting paid.
There is sort of an amusing side to the sudden resurgence of spelt in recent years. One of the reasons for its popularity, as more than one organic farmer has told me, is that there isn’t enough quantity involved to make the GMO folks interested in it. Organic farmers can buy spelt reasonably assured that it is not contaminated by foreign gene modification.
Another indication of changing times at the meeting was the speaker, John Kempf. He is a young Amish farmer who is founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture. He has only a grade school formal education, as I understand it, but he was so brilliant on the subject of making natural farming work that I was totally overwhelmed. I don’t know enough about the details of soil science to judge whether his claims are always going to apply, but he surely had some impressive results to share. And his bottom line rang out clear as crystal. The era of industrial food farming with pesticides, heavy soil-compacting equipment, high-powered, commercial fertilizers and GMOs etc. is coming to an end and there is a huge future for those with the guts to change to more naturally and ecologically produced food.
But the story doesn’t end there. Another intriguing market is developing in growing food for America’s spoiled pets. At one of our local stores, little packages of timothy hay— ten ounces worth— are selling at $4.49. That’s about $350 for a standard small bale, or about $10,000 a ton. I wonder how much it would cost if the timothy were organic?