La Crosse Tribune (WI)
By Nathan Hansen / Lee Newspapers
While Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford only farm a few acres on their organic Blue Fruit Farm in Winona County’s Wiscoy Township, their impact to local, sustainable and organic agriculture has had international impact.
Over the decades, the husband and wife team have helped set up Winona’s farmers market, influenced organic inspection and training, and even had a say in crafting federal organic standards and regulations. But all that started with a desire to farm without chemicals and a place to sell their produce for good prices.
Jim and Joyce first started farming their land in the early 1980s and have always farmed organically, even if it wasn’t certified.
The fruit farm is a new venture for Jim and Joyce. When they first started the farm, they grew organic produce, and the Winona Farmers Market grew out of a need they and three other farmers had to find a better way to sell their product.
“We wanted to bring fresh food to the people,” Jim said. “We also wanted to give the growers a chance to sell their produce at a retail price. I feel good about the energy we put into it. It became a thriving local foods market.”
Today, Winona’s farmers market has more than 50 vendors and the state boasts more than 160 markets, including one in La Crescent, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s most current directory. But in the 1980s, Jim and Joyce were one of the early promoters of locally grown food.
“We were definitely ahead of our time,” Jim said. “We set rules and started an association.”
But the market wasn’t an overnight success. Joyce said it took a lot of hard work to get support and advertise the market in an era before social media and Facebook.
“It was always a challenge to get enough shoppers,” Jim said. “We had to do a lot of creative promotion.”
Jim said he lined up a deal with KWNO radio. He would do a 7:30 a.m. spot on the radio and would walk over to Prime Steak and Cake to use the payphone, praying someone else wasn’t on it. He would then do a small promo spot outlining deals and new produce for sale. And it worked.
“Crowds would come down to get what they were hearing about on the radio,” he said. “They would say I heard you have fresh sweet corn or cucumbers.”
Jim and Joyce’s farm was certified organic in 1987. It was also around this time both decided to learn about organic inspections. Jim said the inspectors make sure farms follow the rules, but it was also interesting to see other farms’ unique solutions and ways of doing things.
“It was interesting to go to farms where they do things differently,” Jim said. “They open up their farms to you.”
But while Jim and Joyce had a collegial attitude to the inspections, they also noticed a lack of professional qualifications for inspectors. Quality could be all over the place, and many times, neighbors would just inspect each others’ operations.
“It was very informal,” Jim said. “If this market was going to grow, we needed to up our game. We needed to be more professional.”
As a result, they founded the International Organic Inspectors Association in 1991, and remain members. The organization was born in their Wiscoy farmhouse, developing curriculum and writing training manuals for organic inspections. They codified and unified professional training that is used around the world.
As the amount of work grew, Jim and Joyce spent more and more time with the IOIA, and carving out time for their family. By 1993, the vegetable farm had become a garden, and the couple had stopped selling at the farmers market.
Both had also started to branch out in terms of the organizations they were involved with and projects they spearheaded.
Joyce stayed active as an organic inspector, and authored the Organic Trade Association’s 2001 “Good Organic Retailing Practices” manual, which provides guidance to retailers on how they should handle organic products.
In 2003, she joined the board of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, and also implemented Minnesota’s Agricultural Impact Mitigation Plan, which helps protect organic farms from the negative impacts of pipeline and power line construction and maintenance.
“I try to give back at least a little bit,” Joyce joked. “I like to get things done.”
Jim stayed heavily involved with IOIA training all over the world, including China, Russia, Canada, Mexico, Taiwan and other countries. And it was during a training session he was leading in Finland in 2001 that Jim got an offer for the next chapter in his work with organic farming.
Jim was appointed that year to the 15-member National Organic Standards Board, and served on the board until 2006. It was here that he helped craft federal guidelines and standards about what was allowable in organic farming and processing.
The first farm bill to mention organic standards was passed in 1990. By 1997, the standards were being fleshed out, but Jim felt they were overly permissive in what they allowed in organic farming and processing.
“It was a bad first draft,” Jim said. “I wrote a series of comments on it, and those became the core of the new rules and standards.”
Teaching the next generation
After nearly two decades involved in policy and professional work, Jim and Joyce are now mainly involved in education. Joyce still trains organic inspectors and from 2006 until earlier this year, Jim was the University of Minnesota Extension organic outreach coordinator.
As part of that position, Jim has written publications, designed websites, planned educational events and manned booths providing resources and education on organic farming.
Most recently, Jim took a position with the Ceres Trust, a private organization with a focus on organic agriculture, to manage their research grant programs. This year, he has worked to give out $2 million in grants to academic and private researchers across the central United States.
But in all they have done over the years, the focus has been on three things: local, sustainable and organic agriculture.
“We’ve always tried to produce good, healthy food, educate and empower others to do the same, make sure that the word “organic” has meaning, and protect the beautiful planet that we’re lucky to live on,” Jim said.
“I see organic as our roots,” Joyce added. “It’s been fun and it’s been an adventure.”