30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Organic

My Generation

Day 29: No, the Spangler farm hasn't gone organic, but we have friends who have! Here's why they do what they do.

Published on: November 29, 2012

Last month, I was in Chicago to cover the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance's research summit. I sat down at a table, and thought to myself that the woman across from me looked familiar. Then I checked her name tag and I'll be darned if wasn't Emily Zweber. We're Facebook friends! We'd just never met in real life. She looked and me and apparently thought the same thing, because we commenced to introducing ourselves in real life (or IRL, as the kids say, which is kind of fun to say in itself). 

I've written before about finding Emily to be so well-spoken and thoughtful, and a true advocate for agriculture and for her farm, while simultaneously managing not to bash other types of agriculture. I really enjoyed talking with her that day.

Does this not look pretty as a picture? Photo courtesy of Zweber Farms/David Nevala and ploddingly obedient cattle.
Does this not look pretty as a picture? Photo courtesy of Zweber Farms/David Nevala and ploddingly obedient cattle.

So with that in mind, I felt like we couldn't cover "30 Days on a Prairie Farm" without touching on organic agriculture. And being that the Spangler farm is decidedly non-organic, I couldn't exactly present first-person knowledge. So I posed a few questions to Emily and her husband, Tim. Here, their replies:

HS: Describe your operation in a nutshell?

E+T: Zweber Farms is a fourth-generation dairy farm located 30 miles south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our farm is owned by Jon and Lisa Zweber and ourselves (Jon and Lisa are Tim's parents). In addition to the dairy, our farm sells meat (beef, pork, chicken and eggs) directly from the farm. 


HS: When and why did you go organic?

E+T: Our official organic date is February 13th, 2008. When Tim decided to return to the family farm, the farm had to find a way to support to two families. Like all family farms faced with the same situation, the options were to increase the operation or increase the value of the current operation. In our situation the first was not an option. Our farm is completely land locked by urban development and finding additional land is a challenge. Also, we are capped by county zoning regulations on how many buildings and animals units we can have on our farm. So, the option was to increase the value of the herd. At the time the organic market was very strong. Also, we were already a grazing herd and 90% to being organic. It made sense to capture a premium on what we were already doing.


HS: What do you think consumers really want to know about organic food? And the food supply in general?

E+T: Consumers really want to know that you care and that your values are similar to theirs. 


HS: What does organic milk mean? Or in other words, what do you have to do for it to be certified organic?

E+T: To start with, you have to feed the cattle (all age groups) organic feed for one year before the milk will be considered organic. The cattle born before that year's end will never be considered eligible for organic meat production. For feed to be organic, the land it's grown on has to be free of prohibited substances for three years. Prohibited crop inputs would be things like treated seeds, some mined and all synthetic fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia, pesticides, etc. 

Antibiotics and hormones are prohibited for use in organic dairy cattle but treatment for illness may not be withheld from cattle to maintain organic status at cost of undue suffering. If an animal is treated with prohibited substances, its milk must be dumped and it must be culled from the herd when healthy enough to leave.


HS: There’s a lot of confusion about what can and can’t sprayed and used on organic crop farms. Can you describe your fertility program and what you use to control weeds and insects?

E+T: Our fertility program consists mainly of composted and raw manure from our farm. We also work with an agronomist familiar with organic agriculture and a fertility company that can get approved minerals for correcting imbalances in the soil manure alone will not fix. More important than our external fertility program is the internal fertility from our crop rotation. We grow corn, barley/peas and alfalfa/clover/grass hay mix, in that order, for our rotation, which adds nutrients like nitrogen to the soil and breaks pest cycles. The corn part of the rotation provides a year of high forage yield and takes advantage of nitrogen deposited by the legumes and also breaks cycle of legume/grass pests. We cultivate to control weeds in the corn and plant a high population to outcompete weeds also. Barley/Peas function as a cover crop to reduce erosion and shade out weeds while the hay crop establishes. We harvest the small grain cover as forage before weeds have a chance to mature. We take three years of hay then plow down for corn again. Weed control is achieved entirely through mechanical means and planned rotations that take advantage of their weaknesses. We don't use any insecticides - organic or not - on our farm and I don't know anyone who does on their organic operation so I don't have any knowledge to bear on that part of the question unfortunately. The one insect we occasionally have an issue with is corn earworm late in the season and we will start chopping earlier than usual if there is a high enough population to cause worries about loss of starch value.  


HS: Where do you stand on biotech seed? Does organic certification require you don’t use biotech seed of any kind?

E+T: We are not allowed to use any GM crops or products of GM organisms in organic. Personally I feel that GM crops are a work-around to not rotating crops and relying too heavily on a small number or genetically similar row crops. Eventually this could lead to problems but there is quite a bit of research into the next generations of GM corn and beans when the current ones aren't effective enough. 


HS: Bacillus thuringiensis is a soil born microbe that’s been around for a long time, and was inserted in corn genes some 15-20 years ago. I have heard that organic farmers can spray Bt over crops to control insects. (corn borer, I’m assuming?) Is this correct? Do you use that practice in your operation? If so, at what rate and at what timing?

E+T: I've heard that Bt is approved for organic but have never used it and don't know anyone who has.


HS: What’s the best question you’ve ever gotten about your organic operation/beef/milk/cows? 

E+T: "Do you ever bathe your cows?" Made me laugh then I explained that only the show cows get baths that don't come from the sky.


The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Kickoff: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Day 1: Working Kids

Day 2: Biotechnology

Day 3: Harvest Eats

Day 4: Church

Day 5: Biotechnology, Again

Day 6: Long Haul

Day 7: Hormones

Day 8: Weather

Day 9: Milk

Day 10: County Fairs

Day 11: Harvest

Day 12: Technology

Day 13: Show Ring

Day 14: Leave the Farm

Day 15: Dialogue

Day 16: Store Grain

Day 17: Love

Day 18: Kid Love             

Day 19: Straight Rows

Day 20: Antibiotics

Day 21: Bottle Calves

Day 22: Relationship

Day 23: Big Fun

Day 24: Dogs

Day 25: Family

Day 26: Cattle

Day 27: Sustainability

Day 28: Chemicals


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