For a good part of his life, Dennis McDonald was teaching journalism and English students to write. Now he’s teaching everyone about the benefits of organic farming.

Estherville Daily News (Iowa)
By Michael Tidemann – Staff Writer

When Dennis McDonald and his wife planted their first good-sized garden in their back yard in the 1980s, little did they know where those first efforts would lead.

Thursday, McDonald, marketing director for Soper Farms, an Emmetsburg-area organic farming and gardening concern, told Estherville Rotarians how he found himself in the organic farming industry and the benefits of organic food.

McDonald, who initiated the Lakes Area Farmers Market, at one point had a 20-acre organic farm, delivering to restaurants and stores.

Then in 2009, when he retired from teaching at Iowa Lakes Community College, he decided to re-enter vegetable farming. He raised tomatoes in hoop barns last year, along with onions and potatoes, with the vision of inspiring others to start small farms that were viable of maintaining a family income.

He developed a network of 11 small-scale growers, founding Little Sioux Growers Cooperative, and later got in touch with Soper Farms where he was offered a job as sales and marketing director, augmenting with the efforts of the other growers.

Since joining Soper Farms last fall, McDonald has lined up Hy-Vee and the Iowa State University Food Service as customers.

McDonald said Soper Farms has 350 acres in organic row crows, including corn, oats and alfalfa. Soper currently has 50 acres of vegetables in production which is plans on expanding to 100 with 160 acres of pasture.

McDonald said Soper bought McNally’s Bake Shop in Emmetsburg where they’ve opened the New Shoots restaurant, bakery and farm store – all featuring organically grown foods.

Next year they plan on setting up a manure composting system for the vegetable farm – both aerobic that generates methane and anaerobic. They’re also working on an aquaponic system which will help produce fertilizer as well.

They’ll also rotate 100 700-pound calves between 40-acre paddocks, returning them to the original pasture every 40 days which should help ensure pathogens have dissipated from the manure.

McDonald noted a number of benefits of organic agriculture:

n It’s good for the local economy. With one person handling five acres of vegetable garden, the 10 acres currently in production provide jobs for 10 employees.

n There is little yield difference between organic and nonorganic agriculture.

n Organically grown produce is picked at the height of freshness, maximizing vitamins and minerals.

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