Organizing Efforts Help Farmers Make a Living in Montana – Organically

January 30th, 2018

Cornucopia’s Take: The Montana Organic Association‘s (MOA) mission is to advocate and promote organic agriculture for the highest good of the people, the environment and the state’s economy. Because organic market prices are higher than conventional, and the cost of inputs for organic farming is often far below that for conventional, MOA finds that organic farming is often more viable for new farmers. As these farms face increasing competition from cheap “organic” imports and industrial domestic supply, organizations like MOA in communities across the country are increasingly vital to ensure long-term sustainability of organic producers and their local food economies.


Organic farming oftentimes most viable for new producers
Great Falls Tribune
by Amy Grisak

The Montana Organic Association is a valuable resource in this burgeoning realm of agriculture providing information and support for growers and conscientious consumers. This vibrant organization is there to help producers by cultivating networks to sell their products, assist those transitioning from conventional systems, and continue to work on the regulation aspect of organic production, along with offering educational opportunities for everyone.

“We represent, educate, and support organic growers and interested citizens,” said Doug Crabtree, board chairperson of the Montana Organic Association.

Conventional agricultural undoubtedly dominates the Montana landscape, yet according to Crabtree, “The market for organic has been growing in double digits for years.” 

The primary impetus behind this trend is the consumer. Jamie Lockman, secretary of MOA who also was key in organizing the annual conference in Great Falls, pointed out, “There is a growing awareness of health and what chemicals are being dumped on our food.”

As people are learning how foods affect them, whether it’s a gluten sensitivity or an issue with other foods, more consumers realize that the quality of their food translates to potentially better health. For those who wish to eat foods without the chemical footprint, besides growing their own, organic is the best option, particularly when a relationship between the customer and the grower is part of the equation.

Growing organically is also oftentimes the most viable choice for new producers for a variety of reasons.

Crabtree and his wife, Anna Jones-Crabtree, started farming full time in 2009 with Vilicus Farms in northern Hill County where they raise grains and pulse crops, balanced with more than 20 percent of the land used for non-crop systems to build soil and enhance the habitat.

“The only way to make it work was to go organic,” he said. “The market prices are significantly higher.”

He cites the example of currently deciding upon contracts for 2018 where they are considering offers of $12-$16 per bushel of red spring wheat. Compared to the roughly half of that amount per bushel in the futures market (if prices go high this year) for the conventionally grown wheat, it makes economic sense.

Lower production costs, particularly during climatically challenging seasons, is another key factor. For instance, drought limits production regardless of whether a crop is grown organically, or not. The difference is the amount of money sprayed on the crop before the harvest.

Although he doesn’t personally price out the costs for their operation, Crabtree noted that his neighbors often spend about $100 per acre for fertilizers and other chemicals needed in conventional farming. Spending twice as much to create a crop that brings in half (or less) of the price of an organic crop doesn’t make sense to Crabtree. He says conventional growers can sometimes make up the input costs during high-yield years, but with the erratic weather patterns, it’s becoming more of a gamble.

Crabtree also appreciates the business model with organic production. He says, “In the organic world it’s a lot about relationships. There is no future market in organics.” Contracts are made between the producer and the buyer who is looking for the best product.

Environmental responsibility is a significant piece in the reason many farmers opt for organic production. “I don’t believe you can have healthy soil when you spray poison on it,” says Crabtree.

After testing the soil and water, he said, “There are definitely traces of Round Up in our rain water. That makes me sad, frightened, or just angry. We have an agricultural system that is drug addicted.”

And while subsidies often make it possible for conventional producers to retain the status quo, the MOA is there to help operations who wish to make the switch to organic production.

Lockman noted that it takes three years to transition the land to be certified organic, unless it is already in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) where it is taken out of production to enhance wildlife habitat. But during this transition period, where the farmer is focusing on building the soil and not relying on synthetic fertilizers to boost production, there are companies that buy the crop at a better price than conventional ones.

The shift is not easy, partly because of tradition and the opinions of other producers, as well as the fact that it takes a different mindset to farm organically. “You’re not mono-cropping. It does take a lot of effort,” she said.

This is where the MOA is there to help. Crabtree noted that through this organization, producers support each other and work on solving problems together.

Educating consumers, as well as those who raise the food, is an equally vital aspect of the organization. With a monthly newsletter providing a voice to the industry, along with an annual conference and farm tours, it’s easy for educated citizens to understand what it requires to increase the availability of organic food.

Lockman said the 2017 annual conference, held in Great Falls in December, was a terrific success for both producers and interested customers. “Attendance at the conference was the best ever,” she noted, as well as how impressed they were with the support from the Great Falls’  community.

“Everybody is an eater,” said Crabtree. “Whatever your beliefs, it’s good to know how it’s grown. We’re there to help.”

With $30 membership fees, joining the MOA is within reach for anyone who wishes to stay up to speed with changes, both on the state and federal level, with the organic food market.

For more information, visit their website at www.montanaorganicassociation.org.

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