Organic Growth: More Farms Transitioning in Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin

Iowa Sees 42% Increase from 2008-2015

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Kate Mendenhall is managing director of Iowa Organic Association.

Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2017 9:08 am | Updated: 4:32 pm, Wed Sep 13, 2017.

CASCADE, Iowa — Kim and Marvin Lynch’s dairy farm in Cascade was certified as organic in 2009, but the process wasn’t easy.

The Lynches had to discontinue using fertilizers, insecticides and synthetic herbicides in the fields of their third-generation farm for three years before it could be certified. Their cows could no longer be given a regular regimen of antibiotics.

Kim Lynch said the transition was challenging, but since then, her family’s farm has flourished.

“It’s definitely more labor-intensive. It’s also more financially stable,” she said. “Our only regret is that we didn’t do it earlier.”

The Lynches are part of a growing trend in the tri-state area of Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Iowa experienced a 42 percent increase in the number of organic farms from 2008 to 2015 — the most recent year for which data is available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There were 674 such farms in 2015, but that still only constituted about 0.7 percent of farms in the state.

In that same time frame, the number of organic farms in Wisconsin grew from 994 to 1,205, a 38 percent increase, and in Illinois the count went from 162 to 196, a 20 percent increase.

Kate Mendenhall, managing director of Iowa Organic Association, said the sharp increase in demand for organic products is driving the trend.

“Consumers are definitely driving the market,” she said. “There’s a huge demand for organic products, and we’re not filling that demand locally.”

The process of transitioning to organic certification is challenging, and organic farms must be evaluated every year in order to maintain that certification. But more and more farmers are making the change to reap the benefits of offering organic fare, Mendenhall said.

“We’re seeing all sectors growing,” she said. “A lot of farmers are seeing the benefits that come with going organic, and they want to make that change.”

John Ihm gained organic certification for his farm in Lancaster, Wis., in 2005. For him, selling organic milk was far more financially stable.

“We have prices set throughout the year,” he said. “I know what it’s going to sell for, and it usually sells for a lot more than conventional milk.”

Joseph Ross, of Dubuque, Iowa, transitioned his farm in 2007, growing barley, wheat and corn. He said the move was partly spurred by financial reasons, but he also was attracted by organic’s reputation as healthy and environmentally friendly.

“It’s a type of farming that you feel good about doing,” he said. “You know that you’re delivering a good product.”

But Ross noted that not every “organic” product meets the same standards.

Due to the high demand in the U.S., many organic products are imported from other countries. Ross said those countries often don’t have as strict of a certification process as the U.S.

Mendenhall said that, as the number of U.S. organic farms increases, it could lessen the reliance on foreign imports.

Ihm said he believes more farms will transition to organic as they continue to see the success of existing operations.

“They’re seeing other organic guys be successful,” he said. “For them, organic just seems like the best way to stay afloat.”

Reprinted with permission from the Telegraph Herald.

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