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WCROC's organic dairy program underway

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Sometimes research facilities are on the cutting edge and sometimes they are working hard to get there.

By implementing an organic dairy program, the West Central Research and Outreach Center is doing both.

The University of Minnesota, with help from the Land Stewardship Project, received funding through the 2007 Legislature to create new programs for sustainable and organic agriculture.

Through that funding, the WCROC conceived of its organic dairy project, said Dennis Johnson, head of Dairy Production Systems at the WCROC.

"There's a growing organic community in Minnesota," Johnson said. "Consumers and producers very much wanted to see the U do more work with organics."

Organic agriculture is not new, and it's not, as many believe, merely a return to past production practices, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has extensive rules that must be followed in creating or converting to organic production. Producers must be certified through the National Organic Program to be able to sell as an organic producer.

"It's not the idea that you turn back the clock," Johnson said. "It's making use of another set of good resources."

The WCROC's organic dairy program is just one facet of resources the state money will pay for. A new faculty position for organic and sustainable food systems in the U of M ag school will be established. An alternative livestock coordinator position will be funded to work within the ag school and Extension. And a faculty position will be established at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton that will be devoted to organic crops.

At the WCROC, about 150 acres will be converted to corn and alfalfa production, and pastures will be utilized for grazing. There will be 70 cows in the center's organic herd and 90 cows will remain in its conventional dairy herd, Johnson said.

According to organic production rules, there will be a three-year preparation period to convert the land for the organic herd, and one year to convert the herd, he said.

The goal in organic agriculture is to eliminate virtually all chemical inputs in the production process. That means creating a system that promotes ecological balance and conserves biodiversity.

The advantages are premium prices for organic products that a growing segment of consumers are demanding. Also, farmers save money on inputs, improve soil and water quality and reduce handling of possibly hazardous chemicals.

However, the disadvantages are a more labor-intensive operation, and higher costs for feed approved for organic production, and possibly higher medical expenses.

Carmen Fernholz, an organic producer from the Madison area, is also Organic Agriculture Coordinator for Research at the SWROC in Lamberton.

Producers often shy away from organic production because of the dramatic changes needed to be certified, the uncertainty of converting from practices they've used all their working lives, and the uncertainty of finding viable markets, he said.

But that's slowly changing, he said.

"In the early days, we were writing the book on how to do it," said Fernholz, who moved to organics in 1975 and now rotates corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, flax and barley. "Now, there's a lot of people who have information to work off of."

And organic producers are not reluctant to share with others in the same boat, he said.

"That's always been a characteristic of organic producers: they've always been willing to share information," Fernholz said. "There's a lot of give-and-take."

Johnson sees that as both a benefit and a mission for the WCROC project.

It's one of only two organic dairy research projects on-going in the U.S. A program at the University of New Hampshire was certified for organic dairy research a year ago. The two research arms are committed to sharing information, Johnson said.

"In a very large sense, this is a national program because of the limited funding," Johnson said. "We have to share information."

As such, the WCROC program will be gathering and sharing, too.

"There are very progressive organic dairy farmers in Minnesota," Johnson said. "We have the advantage of that knowledge base so we don't have to start at zero, and (producers) have an interest in gaining information that is much harder to get working on the farm."

An organic dairy advisory board will be formed to offer assistance to the WCROC's research. And as it grows and more information is disseminated, the number of producers who commit to organics could swell, too.

"There seems to be an increase in organic producers, but what's different is the number of people thinking about it," Johnson said. "They may not do it, but at least more people see it as a viable ag system. It's an exciting time."