RIDGEWAY — If one thing was clear at the Organic Field Day July 21 at Bickford Organics, it was that there is lots of interest in what Paul Bickford and John and Halee Wepking are doing on their Iowa County farm.
About 150 people attended the event focused on diversified organic grain rotations, where topics ranged from food-grade small grain production to on-farm grain storage, farming for water quality, planning a diversified crop rotation and growing organic seed corn.
Interest in small grains has been growing now only as soil-protecting cover crops but also as bakers and consumers have been seeking more locally grown small grains for the food they make and eat.
Bickford and the Wepkings are on the front line of that trend with Bickford Organics and the Wepkings’ Meadowlark Farm, where they grow malting barley, hard red winter and spring wheats, open-pollinated flint corn and spelt along with traditional feed crops. The Wepkings are also getting started with an organic grass-fed beef herd on the 900-acre farm.
The field day was sponsored by the Michael Fields Institute and the Iowa County Farmer-Led Watershed Initiative, with the help of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service and the Organic Grain Resource and Information Network at UW-Madison.
Margaret Krome, Michael Fields’ policy program director, said attendees weren’t only organic farmers but also conventional farmers interested in learning more about organic grain production.
“I want people to consider things they haven’t considered before,” she said. “We weren’t preaching to the choir. We were truly creating cross-community interaction.”
John Wepking, who with Halee hopes to eventually transition into ownership of the Iowa County farm, said he believes growing organic small grains is a “strong idea” that could gain traction in the years ahead.
“It was nice to have some positive feedback (at the field day), that’s for sure,” he said. “The demand certainly seems to be there for what we’re trying to do.”
Building the infrastructure for the processing and marketing of small grains is no small chore, Wepking said. Lonesome Stone Milling of Lone Rock is processing much of the southwest Wisconsin small grains, but Wepking said the company is overwhelmed with cleaning, grinding and marketing the grains out of a small facility with a small staff.
“We hope to take some of that cleaning off of his plate within the next year or so,” Wepking said. “We will be doing custom (grain) cleaning for farmers in the area and for grain buyers and brokers who struggle to find those services.”
Plans call for construction of the cleaning facility to start this fall, Wepking said, and will include small-bin storage to store a variety of grain species that will need to be handled separately.
Wepking said he and his wife hope to eventually take over the Bickford farm in a “relatively seamless way.” The equipment will be leased and eventually purchased and the farm name will likely change along the way.
“Paul has a big farm, so it’s a pretty daunting challenge to think about,” Wepking said. “We don’t come in with considerable assets or cash, so (making the transition over time) is a much better way to do it.”
Wepking said corn and soybeans are still a staple of the farm’s crop rotation, covering about one-third of the farm’s crop acres. Some of the farm’s corn acres are used to grow hybrid seed, which is a separate venture.
The farm’s crop rotation is being stretched by adding winter wheat and other small grains, which are good not only for soil health and limiting erosion but also as an additional cash crop, Wepking said.
“With these bigger rains we’ve been getting, erosion seems to be a bigger issue,” he said.
Krome said it was a good project for the Iowa County Farmer-Led Watershed Initiative to be a part of, as it was another way to show farmers the importance of keeping soil on their farms and not letting it flow down the Mississippi River and create problems for fishermen and shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico.
“I believe some of the (farmers) who might have been inclined to think, ‘Yeah, this is just one more thing,’ could see that small grains could actually build their soil, help them keep profits on their farm and reduce runoff to other regions of the country,” Krome said. “That was the goal. We wanted people to hear that and I think they did.”