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.
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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