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Large-Scale Community Farming — PrairiErth Shares Strategy, Lessons on Organic Transition

Large-Scale Community Farming

The team at PrairiErth Farm includes (from left): Annette McKeown (apprentice), Jon Clayschute (crew leader), Cassidy A. Dellorto-Blackwell (apprentice), Carly Ambrose (apprentice), Leslie Gravitt (harvesthand), Craig Tepen (farmhand and wholesale coordinator), Katie Bishop (farmer/owner) Hans Bishop (farmer/owner), Graham Bishop (“pig guy;” helps Dave with chores and manages the pigs) and farmer/owner Dave Bishop.

by Tamara Scully

PrairiErth Farm’s 400 acres of Illinois fields are home to corn, soybeans, oats, wheat and alfalfa. They are also home to a diversity of livestock, 10 acres of vegetable crops, 10,000 square feet of hoop house growing areas and beehives. And they are certified organic. The farm, nestled within the Big Ag world of the Midwest, promotes a globally local food system. Their stated mission of “working to develop sustainable life systems on the farm,” extends well beyond the farm. Not only do owner Dave Bishop and his family promote sustainable agriculture to local politicians, the family regularly advocates in Washington, D.C. They continually work to develop a food system in which organic agriculture, independent farmers, regional processors and local agricultural systems work together to grow food transparently, fostering lasting connections between farmer and eater.

“I believe a diverse mix of plants and animals is the foundation of a sustainable farm, and the emerging globally local food systems offer the best — and perhaps ultimately the only — real path into a food secure future,” said Dave Bishop.

FROM CONVENTIONAL TO ORGANIC

Bishop is no stranger to farming. Bishop’s father was among the generation that began utilizing chemical crop protectants. Bishop himself was eager to “employ all the latest technology expected of a successful up-and-comer,” and in 1980 began farming a conventional corn and soybean rotation.

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Bishop recalls Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture during the 1970s, offering farmers two choices: get big or get out. “Since the Earth refused to expand, getting bigger usually meant taking land that was your neighbors’,” creating enemies of old friends, causing small businesses to close and leaving abandoned homesteads among acres of cornfields.

Bishop had misgivings, remembering tidbits of wisdom from pre-1950s farmers who were wary of chemicals and much more diverse in their farming operations. After a dry and devastating 1988 season, his concerns about conventional chemical agriculture and his recollections of a different way led him to make some big changes on the farm.

“I loved farming. The only thing left, it seemed to me, was to get different.”

Wheat was added into the soybean and corn fields, as a rotational crop. A clover crop was frost-seeded for fertility. Both provided feed to the newly added livestock. This decreased the use of chemical inputs, as weed and pest issues declined.

Soon Bishop realized that diversity doesn’t only add spice to one’s life, it adds resilience to one’s farm and health to one’s soil. PrairiErth Farm was born anew. With the rise of the buy local movement and growing interest in organic farming, becoming certified organic — beginning in 2004 — was the next logical step.

“Over the past 15 years, we have not used any purchased pest control products on our row crops or small grain fields,” said Bishop. “And, with the exception of a few applications of small amounts of trace elements to rebalance soil biology, we have not applied any fertilizer that was not produced on the farm.”

Fertilizers used are natural: green manure from cover crops; composted livestock manure; and manure from the grazing animals. Tough weed or compaction issues are managed through the use of alfalfa, over multiple years. A legume cover crop is an essential step prior to planting a corn crop, providing nitrogen.

The cover crops are not only valuable from a soil biology and crop rotation standpoint; they also provide needed feed for livestock. Alfalfa and corn, too, function as crops with dual marketing outlets.

“If the plan is to sell high-quality alfalfa, a beef cow enterprise is ideal for using rained-on or lower-quality hay,” said Bishop.

SMOOTHER TRANSITION

While going against the attitude of Big Ag was tough enough for a conventional Midwestern soybean and corn farm operator, transitioning to certified organic production was “shocking,” Bishop said, both for himself and for the land. To undergo such a drastic change in procedures in a mere 36-month period was stressful. “From my own experience in transitioning, I think we could make the process less dramatic — agronomically, economically and psychologically — by designing transition options that better reflect the specific challenges faced by different kinds of farm operations,” said Bishop. “A corn/soybean farmer in Illinois, versus a ranch in Colorado or a dairy in Minnesota, faces different issues in the transition process.”

Bishop has created a preliminary plan for a more gradual transition process, designed for farms that, like his was, are intensive grain production operations. His seven-year alternative plan would give farmers the option of gradually adjusting their practices, making the process less traumatic for land and farmer alike. His hope is that discussions of alternative transition pathways will be a next step in the forward progress of certified organic agriculture.

“Soil ecosystems, accustomed to regular applications of water-soluble nutrients, require more than 36 months of recovery and rebuilding to once again ‘feed the crop’ adequately,” Bishop explained. “Pesticide residues need to break down, and the soil biology needs time to re-establish and re-balance itself.”

And the farmer needs time to regroup, rethink and reevaluate his business plan, so the farm remains profitable through the transition. Family members, landlords and lenders are other key players, and creating a transition option that lessens the risks would go a long way in convincing more farmers to certify, without compromising the integrity or consumer confidence in certified organic production, Bishop said. During the extended transition, crops would not be certified organic, but would be sold for non-GMO premiums as the fields are transitioned in a gradual manner.

His seven-year plan for grain farmers would include non-GMO crop and cover crop implementation the first year, during which identifying and correcting soil imbalances would be a primary concern, along with weed and pest issues. In year two, applied nitrogen would be decreased, a rotational small grain or forage crop required on one-third of the acres and allopathic cover crops selected to address soil pathogen issues. Organic weed control would be primary, but herbicide application allowed if needed. Years three through six would further reduce applied nitrogen allowance and the herbicide rescue treatment allowance.

By year seven, the farmer would have a plan in place which fully addresses the specific concerns of his fields. The regulations of the National Organics Program would be followed in full, and farm products would now be certified organic.

Another important part of this equation is lenders, who are also a vital part of the transition. A longer transition can negate some of the risk of reduced crop yield during the transition. Bishop has seen more lender interest in organic agriculture, and a more gradual transition option could make that trend more pronounced.

“One thing that has changed significantly over the past six months or so is the level of involvement of lending institutions in the organic movement,” Bishop said, giving the example of one local lender who actively encourages clients to explore organic production. “This is a game changer.”

CHANGE IN MINDSET

While grains remain an important part of PrairiErth Farm, they are no longer the entire focus. Cattle, hogs and chickens now roam acres where corn/soybean rotations reigned. The grass-fed and finished beef cattle graze corn stubble in the fall and cover crops planted into wheat stubble in the spring. The farm’s grain production supplements pasture for the poultry and hogs.

The pigs also prepare rough ground for planting. They help create compost from accumulated cow manure from winter feeding areas. The pastured Berkshire pigs are raised by Bishop’s son, Graham, and are sold to customers directly in halves or wholes.

Any excess grain not needed for feed is sold on the organic market, via trading companies. While this price is constantly in flux, it allows the farm to adjust livestock numbers. If the price is very high, they reduce the number of hogs being fed, while low prices mean more grain available for feed.

Grains fed to the livestock are part of a more stable system, as direct-to-consumer meat sale prices are not volatile. For each pound of grains grazed, the beef cattle gain weight. This gain is eventually captured when the meat is sold via direct marketing channels. Bishop has calculated that this has increased the income per acre by about $500. Adding heritage grains, to be processed and sold locally, creates another market stream for the grains.

“I find it hard to talk about grain and livestock production systems as separate entities,” said Bishop. “Both are needed to provide the ecosystem services required to make an organic system work.”

With livestock as an integral part of the field crop rotation, every acre is utilized year-round. Unlike a conventional model, where land is used only a portion of the time, “cover crops and livestock keep our land working all year,” said Bishop.

The system adds resilience. According to Bishop, the 2010 season represented “a crop failure if you’re a grain farmer; a bonanza if you’re raising grass-fed beef.”

The corn crop was lush and green, but no grain developed. The pastures turned brown and dry, but the corn was wrapped for feed, and the cover crop planted into the wheat allowed the cows to graze despite the dried-up pastures.

“Rather than thinking in terms of the value of a particular crop, we think in terms of the profitability of an acre,” he said. “An acre of rough ground should be as profitable as a flat, black acre. It’s a matter of finding the right combination of things to inhabit it. Our objective is to find the most profitable and most sustainable use of each acre on the farm while building soil equity. In my opinion, this requires a diverse mix of both plants and animals.”

INTEGRATED SYSTEM

Adding livestock and diversifying the market stream for grains was a big change, creating a more ecologically balanced and economically stable system, one which can adapt to fluctuations in weather and market conditions. But it was not the only production change for PrairiErth Farm.

“When my eldest son and daughter-in-law decided to join the operation in 2010, we added more diversity with a vegetable operation,” said Bishop. “We created a separate vegetable ‘enterprise’ so that each family could manage a separate business and still take advantage of the whole farm’s agronomic diversity.”

The vegetable crop shares most of the acres with the other crops, via rotation schedules. The cover crops, compost, irrigation system and soil health benefits from the grazing livestock enhance the vegetable as well as grain production.

“We share the acreage with Dave, so we have access to most of that land for field rotations,” Katie Bishop, who farms with her husband Hans Bishop and father-in-law Dave Bishop, explained.

Fields are drip irrigated, and fertigation with liquid fish-based fertilizer is used occasionally when required. Soil is amended with compost, and diverse cover crops — oats, alfalfa, rye and clover — along with the livestock, add fertility.

“Our livestock grazes fields previously in vegetable production,” said Katie. “This adds fertility, breaks up pest cycles and gives the land a rest from intensive vegetable production.” If pest or disease pressure becomes intensive, such as during the current very wet season, they will utilize OMRI-approved pesticides, such as Bt or pyrethrin spray, in moderate amounts and only if more holistic approaches have failed to provide adequate control.

“Taking good care of the soil can go a long way toward good pest and disease control,” she said.

The farm has an acre of restored prairie to attract pollinators, birds and wildlife and also hosts a registered monarch butterfly habitat. Numerous acres are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. An acre of land is devoted to a “food forest,” with fruit trees, brambles, perennial herbs and vegetables co-existing in a diverse, productive forest environment. This area is used to teach small-scale food production, and the fruit is harvested for sale.

Other ecologically minded practices on the farm include solar panels to power the electric fencing and well pumps. A composting toilet — human waste is never applied to vegetable fields — and a sink where the wash water is recycled to irrigate an asparagus patch are other eco-friendly measures used on the farm.

“We never just decide we’ve reached the point where we are ‘sustainable enough.’ We are always considering our impact,” said Katie.

That impact continues off-farm, where plastic bags are not used for purchases at the farmers’ markets. Wax cardboard boxes are reused for produce packing and transport. Coconut husk pots, rather than plastic pots, are utilized for vegetable starter plants, and rags are used for clean-up and sanitizing.

SALES & MARKETING

Direct-market sales to the local community are the backbone of the farm. Located in the small town of Atlanta, a small agricultural community on historic Route 66, tourist traffic helps to keep local businesses alive. The town has a large agricultural equipment dealer serving the big farms, but continues to support a small equipment repair shop to service the older farm implements favored by some organic farmers. With the larger Illinois communities of Springfield, Champaign-Urbana and Bloomington-Normal nearby, the local foods movement is strong.

“These communities also really appreciate local food and love their farmers, so we receive a tremendous amount of support,” said Katie. “If you know how your farmer raises their crops, you can make your own decisions about what’s important. Many of our customers choose us because we are organic, and I think certification helps to ease their minds. So they want local and organic, which is great, because we can give them both.” Visitors are welcome at the farm. Members from their CSA enjoy on-farm events; interns and beginning farmers learn the trade; community members take classes on food production, preparation and preservation; University of Illinois researchers conduct field trials; and participants in the 50 or more tour groups which are hosted on the farm each year can be found around the farm at any given time.

Local connections continue as the farm supports musicians and artists, who bring local culture onto the farm. Currently, a shipping container, one of three the farm uses as walk-in coolers, or to store boxes, bags and packaging materials, is being painted with a mural. The farm supports local food pantries and donated more than $40,000 worth of fresh produce last year, as well as garden plants for community and school garden projects.

The farm uses social media to stay connected with the community. Volunteers recruited via Facebook help glean at the farmers’ markets and distribute food to low-income areas. The diversity of the farm’s sales venues is as important as the crop diversity. The farm’s use of the CSA model was crucial to its expansion into vegetable production, Katie said, allowing them the needed “financial security to take the plunge.”

Growing from an initial 30 members at its inception five years ago, the CSA now has 120 members and runs from May through October. A winter CSA is a new addition, offering product grown year-round in their hoop houses. It currently has 40 members. Another new CSA innovation, the Roots Box CSA, takes advantage of the farm’s unique root storage, housed in a shipping container with a space heater temperature control system. “Our members love the CSA for different reasons,” Katie said. “Some like the ease of getting fresh vegetables and eggs weekly rather than trying to get to the farmers’ market. Some love the unpredictability and the chance to try new vegetables. Some love the connection with us. Some find that it’s easier to eat healthy if they commit to our CSA. Eighty percent of our members sign back up again, so I’d say it’s a program that really resonates with people.”

For customers who aren’t open to the traditional CSA model, the farm has a “Market Bucks” program, offering more control over food selection. Customers load up a gift card with money, and in return receive discounts on produce, while being able to select whatever they want, whenever they want it, while shopping at the farmers’ market. This offers the farm money up-front, as with the traditional CSA, but provides customers a more traditional shopping experience. These customers are also invited to members-only farm events and other perks.

“We believe there is security selling at farmers’ markets, wholesale and through a CSA,” Katie said. “We are not just diverse in the crops we raise, but also very diverse in our marketing avenues.”

No matter what the sales venue, PrairiErth Farm is dedicated to connecting the customer directly to the farm. In one small initiative, which has become extremely popular, they began asking customers if they could cut off the green carrot tops after purchase. The farm’s pigs and chickens are fed the produce waste, they explained to perplexed customers. Soon, it became commonplace for customers to remind them to cut off the tops for “the girls.”

“We take our presence in the community pretty seriously,” Katie said. “We choose to use our knowledge, the gifts God gave us and our influence to help promote our communities through our pursuit of growing good food. We believe in education. We teach our customers, fellow farmers, ourselves and our community. Inviting the community to our farm throughout the entire year allows us to be transparent, which is something our food system really needs right now. We think it’s really easy to just say ‘I grow using organic standards,’ but we think people should see what that actually means.”

This article appears in the October 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

NEED MORE INFORMATION? For more on PrairiErth Farm visit www.prairiErthfarm.com or call 217-871- 2164.

 

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