by Dave Campbell, Lily Lake Organic Farm
Sorting through some paperwork on my desk recently (bills of lading from a recent sale of food-grade corn, certification paperwork from last month’s farm inspection—okay, I operate from a cluttered desk from April through December), I came across the preview galleys of John Bobbe’s new book, Marketing Organic Grain – A Farmer’s Guide, which I had been asked to review. Looking at the title, it dawned on me that this may be the only book I’ve ever seen published on this topic. John’s book is easy to read, and, with slightly less than 100 pages, serves as a handy reference book with agronomic information on a variety of grain crops grown in the Midwest and beyond.
How I wish John’s book had been in print when I transitioned from an organic dairy operation to a certified organic grain and hay operation during the drought of 1988. The book covers a variety of topics, such as the importance of organic standards, as well as addressing the actual nuts and bolts of contracting organic grains.
The book’s introduction begins with the story of John’s ancestors who, like many others, migrated from Europe to the Midwest during the mid-1800s. The rigors of homesteading, followed by the Great Depression a number of years later, were a challenge to all during those days prior to the opening of the floodgates of agricultural technology, which came bursting onto the scene some 50 to 60 years ago.
He goes on to explain how he got started in agriculture, noting that he studied agricultural economics as well as rural sociology as a graduate student at the University of Missouri. His graduate research showed that dairy farmers acting together could influence the price they were paid for the milk they produced. This research attracted the attention of the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA). At that time, the official position of the USDA was that there was nothing a farmer could do about the Minnesota/Wisconsin (M/W) series price of milk they produced. USDA’s position was that farmers were “price takers,” not “price makers.” John’s research verified that farmers strategically marketing together could influence prices in ways that led to better lives for them, their families, and their communities.
John was hired as OFARM’s (Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing) first executive director in 2001. OFARM is the umbrella organization which oversees the marketing efforts of six member cooperatives that serve hundreds of organic grain and livestock farmers over a region spanning 19 states.
In Marketing Organic Grain, John includes a chapter with a chronological checklist of steps to follow when planning, producing, and marketing organic grains. This chapter offers invaluable advice for beginning organic farmers. John lists 12 points, along with a detailed explanation of each point, describing virtually everything a farmer needs to know to be successful in organic field crop management.
Developing and following an organic farm plan is of utmost importance here. John reminds us that patience is a key component of growing quality organic grains and forages. He also points out that developing a rotation that balances economics along with soil biology is at the very heart of organic farming.
John’s book also includes a list of common grains grown in the Midwest, as well as descriptions and desired characteristics for marketing these crops. This section will be especially helpful to farmers who are new to growing organic grains as they choose the right crops for their farms.
Farmers who have had some experience marketing non-organic (conventional) grains, but not organic grains, will quickly come to realize that the marketing activities for these two sectors have very little in common. John points out that when pursuing organic grain markets, a farmer will need to find a buyer, settle on a price, and also negotiate other important points. Carmen Fernholz, who farms the prairie of far western Minnesota states that these issues can result in huge challenges for any organic farmer, especially for one who is at the front end of the learning curve.
Nonetheless, there are farmers who have the time and also enjoy doing their own marketing. John warns readers that, should they decide to do their own marketing, they should keep in mind that they will most likely spend more time on it than what they may have expected. Certainly not all farmers have the time that’s needed to effectively market their grains.
To guide farmers who want to try to do their own marketing, John suggests a good primer on organic grain contracting called, “Farmer’s Guide to Organic Contracts,” published by the Farmers’ Legal Action Group. (See www.flaginc.org.) This helpful guide covers the “Seven Rules of Contracting.” I suggest you read over these rules very carefully. The information gleaned here will be of utmost importance as you negotiate contracts. Like John, you may have seen the advertisement that utters, “In business, you get what you negotiate, not what you deserve.”
Many organic grain farmers have come to realize that having an experienced marketing agent working on their behalf is the way to go. Organic grain and livestock farmers Oren Holle from Kansas and Charlie Johnson from South Dakota are two examples of farmers who agree wholeheartedly with John’s viewpoint on working closely with an experienced marketing agent. Both men understand the importance of having someone working for them every time they go to market their crops or livestock.
I like the way John uses his introductory chapter titled “A Lifelong Journey to the Other Side of the River” as a bookend to his concluding chapter titled “The Other Side of the River.” The journey he shares with us is that of crossing the river from non-organic to organic farming. John made that “crossing” in 2001 and never once has he looked back.
I did not see any mention of John referring to organic crops, whether food or feed grade, as organic commodities. The use of the word “commodities” is, of course, common within the non-organic sector of farming. My guess is that, like me, John understands that none of us relish the idea of eating commodities.
In John’s closing chapter, he alludes to what he has witnessed during the past 40 years in agriculture. He expresses concerns over the family farm. He also reminds us that farmers and their families have been preoccupied with their self-concerns. They, like almost all of their non-farm supporters have failed to understand what is necessary in order to preserve, not the individual farm, but rather family farming as a system. John has witnessed non-organic farming trade its soul for a mantra of “being the most efficient.” John believes that organic farming gives us a second chance to “get it right.”
Dave Campbell and his wife, Mary, own and operate Lily Lake Organic Farm, a 224-acre certified organic farm in northern Illinois. They grow a variety of small grains, along with corn, soybeans, and hay.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Organic Broadcaster