For four generations the Olson family has worked on the land near Cottonwood. The family farm Jonathan and Carolyn Olson operate today achieved Century Farm status in 2013, and in some ways what is done on that farm today mirrors what was being done 100 years ago.
Carolyn Olson talked about the family operation at the Redwood Falls Public Library this past Wednesday as part of a series of agriculture education presentations being provided for the public. The Olsons have a unique operation, as they have transitioned away from more conventional crop production to organic farming, and yet they also maintain a hog finishing operation using more conventional processes. The decision to move to an organic cropping system began in the mid-1990s.
“We were growing food-grade soybeans,” said Olson, adding they started getting questions about whether or not those beans for human consumption were organic.
Seeing an opportunity to move into a different market, the Olsons started exploring the idea, and two years later the move to organic production began.
“We started out with one field,” said Olson. “That first year we kept the sprayer at the end of the field just in case we decided it wasn’t going to work for us.”
Yet, as time went on the Olsons learned that organic farming fit their lifestyle, and so they just kept going, so that today all 1,100 acres they farm are certified organic. That process does not happen overnight, said Olson, as a field that has been growing crops conventionally is required to go through a three-year process before what is grown in that soil can officially be classified as organic.
“During those three years the crops must be marketed as conventional, but you have to grow it using organic practices,” said Olson. The Olsons’ operation is diverse and includes a lot of small grains, which are primarily sold for the seed, but some of what is grown has also been used in organic products such as flour.
The Olsons also grow a unique small grain that is a cross between rye and wheat, and Olson said it has a blue color in the field.
The corn grown on the Olson farm is used in organic alcohol, but Olson said it has also been sold for use in cereals and meal.
When the traditional crop is not in the field, the Olsons utilize a cover crop to help maintain nutrients in the field. Tillage radish not only has a long tuber to break up the soil but it also has green leaves that also hold in those nutrients keeping them in the field rather than having them leach out.
The market for organically grown products is strong, said Olson, as more and more people are looking for it. The prices for products that are certified organic are also much higher – at times triple the conventional price.
Yet, Olson said, organic production is not for everyone. The biggest challenge, said Olson, is weed control, as herbicides can’t be used, which means other methods, such as cultivation, burning and good old-fashioned field walking are used.
Burning weeds is intended to be used alongside cultivation, said Olson, as the cultivator gets the weeds between the rows and the burning gets those next to the plants. Burning as a weed control method is something the Olsons use on their corn only, as it does not have an impact on the growth point.
Olson said when the burning has taken place the corn looks pretty rough for a couple of weeks, but it does come out of it. The paperwork to remain certified is also daunting, said Olson, as the annual organic application is more than 100 pages long. Operations are inspected as part of the certification process, with soil tests required on a regular basis.
“The organic certification process is overseen by the USDA,” said Olson, adding there is a list of national standards that must be kept to remain certified.
Olson added the farmers around the Olson’s fields are not using organic methods, but she said they have been able to maintain a good neighbor policy with all of them, and to prevent any issues they often maintain a buffer around their fields that includes crops grown using the same organic practices but that are sold as conventional.
While the more organic practices hearken agriculture back to the early days of production, the Olsons also utilize technology in their operation, including auto steer in their equipment and GPS. They also do soil typing and testing to ensure their practices are efficient and economical.
“Every farmer today feeds about 155 people,” said Olson, adding technology has changed that. “In the past each farmer fed a lot less.”
Olson added there is a difference between what is labeled as organic and natural. When something has been labeled as natural it really doesn’t mean anything, she said, adding cyanide is natural. Changing people’s thought process in that area is going to take good education, and Olson said producers need to do a better job of providing that education to the public giving them the right information.
Organic agriculture is still a growing industry, said Olson, adding, however, their family is getting a lot more calls and questions about it.
“This is something that fits our lifestyle,” she said. “It excites us.” The next ag series presentation is Tuesday at noon featuring the Breitkreutz family, with Bruce Tiffany presenting Feb. 15 at noon.