Organic grower gets fresh start

Twenty-three-year-old Glen Elsbernd is using USDA’s Organic Initiative and higher payment rates on conservation practices as a beginning farmer to help transition his 88-acre Winneshiek County farm to organic vegetables much sooner than he expected, and in doing so is protecting valuable natural resources on the farm.

For now he’s growing dozens of certified organic vegetable varieties and organic soybeans on about one-third of his land, and working to transition the other portion with a crop rotation of cover crops and organic corn, along with about 20 acres of forage.

Key Points

• Young grower gets started with a small organic farm in northeast Iowa.

• USDA EQIP program provides assistance to growers transitioning to organic.

• Organic producers need to use new conservation practices like cover crops.

Elsbernd is in his third growing season operating the farm, following a one-year stint learning about growing organic vegetables at Harmony Valley Farm in Wisconsin. “My original goal was to have the entire farm in vegetables in 20 years,” he says. “I think I’ll have it within 10 years now.”

A goal of the 2008 Farm Bill is to make financial and technical assistance available to producers of all commodities. It specifically includes help to organic farmers through the Organic Initiative, a part of the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.

The Organic Initiative is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and offers already-certified organic farmers assistance for applying new conservation practices to treat natural resource concerns, and offers participants transitioning to organic agriculture assistance to protect natural resources while meeting their organic certification goals.

Young farmer gets started

A native of Spillville, Elsbernd also received higher payment rates on conservation practices for participating in EQIP as a beginning farmer. USDA says a beginning farmer is one who hasn’t operated a farm for more than 10 consecutive years. “This program has been a big help for me to get my operation going,” he says.

Elsbernd markets his produce under the name “G It’s Fresh.” He and his crew of at least six workers grow everything from romaine lettuce to carrots to parsnips. He says his biggest sellers are potatoes, lettuce and broccoli.

During his first growing season, he sold produce through Grown Locally and the Winneshiek County Farmers Market. Grown Locally is a cooperative of more than 20 local farms and producers who work together to deliver a variety of locally produced food. He says Grown Locally markets the group’s food to many schools and restaurants.

His operation is expanding, so this year he is also marketing his produce to Organic Valley, a farmer-owned Wisconsin-based company selling organic products nationwide. “At first I had a problem with too much produce, and now I don’t have enough,” says Elsbernd. “It’s a good problem to have.”

Todd Duncan, district conservationist with NRCS in Winneshiek County, says there are many organic farmers in the area. In fact, Winneshiek County led the state in EQIP Organic Initiative funding in its first year. “Winneshiek County farmers are ahead of the curve in a movement toward organic agriculture,” says Duncan. “Our landscape fits these types of small farms. We’ve found ways for the Organic Initiative to help them protect their natural resources and complement their operations.”

Conservation practices help

Organic is big business across the river in Wisconsin and that has influenced the growing number of organic farms in the area. “We have a lot of the same terrain here,” adds Elsbernd, “and our proximity to Wisconsin adds more marketing opportunities for organic products.”

If he weren’t operating the farm, it would more than likely be row-cropped fencerow to fencerow. “Glen is making good use of the land,” says Duncan. “Using cover crops, crop rotations, mixed with vegetable production fits well here. The land’s resources are being protected by the way he’s farming it.”

More than 20 conservation practices are available to farmers through the EQIP Organic Initiative. Elsbernd rotates crops and uses cover crops to help control erosion, return organic matter to the soil, and improve and maintain soil tilth. “Cover crops help build up organic matter in the soil,” he notes. “And cover crops provide the nutrients I need since commercial fertilizer is prohibited.”

Elsbernd uses compost from his father’s dairy farm and fish emulsion for fertilizer. He’s interseeding alfalfa into a four-seed mix of triticale, hairy vetch, oats and a grass mix. Triticale is a cereal rye and winter wheat cross that’s easy to establish. It controls erosion effectively and suppresses weeds. “When I plant triticale I also add hairy vetch to provide nitrogen,” he says. “I’ve seen very good results with this cover crop.”

For early spring produce, Elsbernd plants an Austrian winter pea and oat cover crop. “Austrian peas are winter hardy, but easy to kill off in the spring,” he says. “I’ll go with triticale and rye for summer to build up nitrogen in the soil.”

For more information about the EQIP Organic Initiative, contact the NRCS office at your county’s USDA Service Center, or visit

Johnson is a public affairs specialist for USDA-NRCS in Iowa. This is the second in a series of five articles featuring farmers who have taken advantage of USDA’s EQIP Organic Initiative in Iowa.

High tunnels

This fall Glen Elsbernd plans to install a seasonal high tunnel for crops through the EQIP Organic Initiative. High tunnels, or hoop houses, are polyethylene-covered structures that extend the season by providing more favorable conditions for vegetable and other specialty crops.

High tunnels benefit natural resources by improving plant, soil and water quality by reducing pesticide use and keeping vital nutrients in the soil. Through the EQIP Organic Initiative, NRCS will fund a high tunnel per farm.

High tunnels are used year-round in parts of the country, providing steady incomes to farmers — a significant advantage to small, limited-resource farmers and organic producers. These structures shouldn’t exceed a 30-foot width, and should be at least 6-feet tall to allow cultivation, harvesting and other farming operations.

Elsbernd is planning a 30-by-72-foot high tunnel. “It’ll help me get an early start on the growing season and a higher-quality crop. The high tunnel will give me a head start on the competition,” he adds. “It will also allow me to diversify. I’ve considered growing some berries or cherries. A high tunnel works great for keeping rain off fruit when it ripens, allowing for a longer shelf life.”

COVER CROPS: Todd Duncan (left) and Glen Elsbernd examine a cover crop stand of triticale, alfalfa, hairy vetch, oats and grass, which helps protect against soil erosion and improve the amount of nutrients in the soil.


spud student: Glen Elsbernd began growing potatoes and other vegetables in high school while working at Ladybug Landscapes in Decorah. “I planted bedding plants and sold them to my teachers,” he says.

This article published in the September, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.