In Midwest, organic farming puts down deeper roots

An innovative farm in western Iowa could signal that producers have a real alternative to conventional farming.

Ron and Maria Rosmann run the kind of farm one rarely sees in the Midwest anymore. He raises corn, soybeans, barley, oats, hogs, and chickens, among other things, all within walking distance. She sells the farm's meat products.

"We have 130 people who order from us," Mrs. Rosmann says, rummaging through one of the farm's freezers to show off organic hamburger and roasts packaged in old-fashioned white paper. "I've got bratwurst in here somewhere."

And unlike many farmers these days, they're making a go of it – mainly because they're almost completely organic.

The success of the Rosmanns here in the middle of the prairie stakes a new claim for the future of America's depressed agriculture. If they can make organic farming work out here in western Iowa – more than 1,000 miles from either coast and an hour from the nearest big city – then producers just about anywhere have a real alternative to conventional farming.

Low returns are motivating many to look at alternatives, including organic farming, that could begin to change the face of the rural Midwest. Although a rapid transition looks unlikely, this method of farming is putting down permanent roots in this region more accustomed to meat and potatoes than sprouts and soy milk.

"When the [organic] market has expanded 20 percent a year for the last 20 years, I think you can't call it a fad anymore," says Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames. "The organic market will be here to stay."

This method of farming has already made big strides. The acreage devoted to organic pasture and crop land more than doubled between 1992 and 1997, according to a US Department of Agriculture report. This fall, USDA will release new estimates for 2000 and 2001 that should show equally dramatic growth.

"Perhaps a growth rate that's even accelerated," says Catherine Greene, agricultural economist with USDA's Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C.

Of course, conventional agriculture so dominates the US that organic agriculture can explode and still barely generate a ripple. Although some European nations now devote 10 percent of farmland to organic production, US organic acreage stands at far below 1 percent, Ms. Greene says.

While a conventional Iowa grain farmer might specialize in corn and soybeans, spreading out machinery and other costs over more acres, Mr. Rosmann raises smaller amounts of half-a-dozen crops and cares for livestock. Instead of using pesticides, he runs each field through a six-year rotation of various crops, which builds up soil fertility and cuts down on weeds.

On this small scale, the Rosmanns can't hope to match the efficiencies of their larger, more specialized neighbors. It takes an extra week, for example, to bring their organically fed chickens to market weight. And their 620-acre farm gets only about a third of the federal subsidies a similar-sized conventional operation would, Mr. Rosmann says.

Fortunately, the family has other advantages. First, since they don't buy chemical fertilizer or pesticide, they spend less to plant a crop. Second, by raising so many products, they smooth out the boom-and-bust cycle of traditional farming. Third, many of their products fetch a premium.

For example, the Rosmanns can sell organic soybeans for $10 to $15 a bushel, nearly triple the price of conventionally grown soybeans. "We've reached the level of stability," Mr. Rosmann says. But "there are some worries."

Organic meat, for example, is having trouble competing against similar but less-expensive "natural" meat products. And since the 1990s, many organic farmers have seen their profit margins narrow.

"All the organic-grains premiums have softened some," says Thomas Dobbs, professor of agricultural economics at South Dakota State University in Brookings. That's one reason he doubts that Midwestern farmers will flock en masse to organic farming.

Another reason: the new farm bill. Since it expands price supports for current crops, Professor Dobbs thinks it will keep conventional farmers hanging on to what they know rather than trying something radically new. The current economic squeeze doesn't help either.

"You have to be in a somewhat viable economic position to make a true transition," says Theresa Podoll of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, based in Fullerton, N.D.

Some observers, in fact, think this industry could shrink somewhat in the next few years. "I feel we're going through a little bit of a contraction," says Doug Stengel of Stengel Seed & Grain Company in Milbank, S.D. "We're picking up competition from China.... Since the Soviet Union collapsed, [Russians] have caught on very quickly to the premiums in organic."

That assessment may prove too glum. "We have to have lots of different marketing and production strategies," Mr. Rosmann acknowledges. And rising US consumer interest in organic food looks unlikely to disappoint.

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