Longtime organic farmer Carmen Fernholz frets that the movement could be pulling away from its roots.
“My fear is that organic food systems are moving too much to industrial models that conventional agriculture gives us, with larger and larger farming operations,” the Madison, Minn., farmer said.
It’s one of several themes Fernholz will deliver during his keynote speech this morning at the 24th annual Organic Farming Conference at the La Crosse Center.
The three-day conference, sponsored by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service in Spring Valley, Wis., has drawn more than 3,000 farmers and organic advocates.
“The organic food system has to be an egalitarian food system — the people’s food system,” said Fernholz, who farms 400 acres in western Minnesota.
“We have to decide what size we want to be. My dad used to say, ’If you don’t know how big you want to be, you’ll never be big enough,’” he said.
If the system follows the industrial agricultural model, he said, “one of the consequences is it will deprive more people of the opportunity to be food producers.”
Although organic farming often gets a rap as being more expensive, “it’s easier to achieve a profitable bottom line, if you do it correctly,” he said. “You can get comparable yields, generally at more of a premium, and generally with less of a capital investment.”
Organic seeds are less expensive, and not buying pesticides and chemical fertilizers saves money, said Fernholz, an organic research coordinator for the University of Minnesota.
“I might invest $5,000 to $10,000 more in equipment” for increased weed management and tillage, he said, “but it will last five, 10, 15 years or more. If I spent $5,000 on herbicides, that would last for just one year.“
At market, he said, “Conservatively, my neighbor might get $14 for soybeans, and I could get $28. It’s a demand thing, and an incentive for organic producers.”
Even though organic food costs more at the retail level, it’s a good health choice for consumers, Fernholz said.
“From a young family’s perspective, the residues of toxicity are taken care of through organic foods,” he said. “I mention younger families because smaller children are more susceptible to toxicity.”
In addition, he said, “Some limited research indicates that organic foods have higher nutritional density.”
The conference attracted more than organic farmers and advocates, such as Patricia Hagen of Onalaska, a dietician with the Women, Infants and Children public health program in Monroe County.
“I wanted to learn more about the food and farming system and also have the opportunity to develop relationships with local farmers,” Hagen said.
Among other things, the WIC program provides checks to families so they can buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, she said.
“As a dietician, I believe strongly in knowing where food comes from,” she said.
As the debate over the cost of organic food continues, she said, “I think organic is becoming more mainstream, and more affordable.
“It’s also an investment in your health,” Hagen said. “It may not be your whole diet, but whatever you can, and it supports local farmers.”
Organic farms, by the numbers
With more than 1,200 certified organic farms, Wisconsin ranks second only to California, which has more than 2,700, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Washington state is third, at nearly 900, while New York is fourth at about 850, and Oregon, fifth at about 650.
A large portion of the Badger State’s organic farms are in the Coulee Region, with the heaviest concentrations in Monroe and Vernon counties, both of which have more than 60, according to the USDA’s 2011 National Organic Program data.
The program estimates that Jackson and Trempealeau counties have between 31 and 60 certified organic farms and La Crosse, between 11 and 30.
In Minnesota, Winona County has between 26 and 50 organic farms, and Houston County has between 11 and 25, according to the state agriculture department.