Shift to organic on big farm takes new mind-set

posted Aug. 28, 2017 7:57 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Sara Bredesen, Regional Editor |

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    Eric Wallendal explained the operation and advantages of a rigid blade cultivator with finger weeder for organic fields on his family’s 3,200-acre farm in central Wisconsin, where one-third of the land is being converted to organic production.

GRAND MARSH — Organic production has its place on very large farms, but it takes a different way of thinking that the Wallendal and Kosler families have put into place on their diversified vegetable and grain farm in Wisconsin’s Central Sands growing area where they manage 3,200 acres.

You have to change the thinking from farming for profit now to thinking about farming for the soil and what it can do for the future, said Eric Wallendal, Wallendal Farms’ chief executive officer.

“It takes a lot of time, a lot of inputs, and it’s not cheap, but neither is unproductive ground,” he told visitors during a field day Aug. 24 sponsored by UW-Madison’s Organic Grain Resources and Information Network and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

The farm was established by Peter Wallendal who grew up on a Depression-era dairy farm in eastern Wisconsin. As a doctorate student at UW-Madison, he sampled soils around the Central Sands and in about 1955 started buying land, developing it for irrigated cultivation and selling it to finance the next purchase. He bought the current farm in about 1967 and brought in his sons, John and Andy, to help run it.

Andy is retired and acts as an adviser, and John, who is Eric’s father, is easing out of his management position as the next generation directs the move into organic production.

“They’re doing things I always wanted to do and my dad always wanted to do. We were thinking we do not want to continue producing things that the “I” states (Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Illinois) were good at, like grains, etc.,” John said. “We started out with niche crops of cucumbers, and then we went into potatoes, and now we’re looking at our own niche crops, which is organic and into the specialty crops such as pumpkins, watermelons and more. My dad’s goal was diversification.”

Historically, the farm has produced 30 different vegetable crops. Among the specialty crops in the rotation now are forage corn, seed corn, seed soybeans, non-GMO soybeans, alfalfa, snap beans, sweet corn, red kidney beans, watermelon, sunflowers, small grains and pumpkins. In fact, Wallendal Farms is the state’s largest pumpkin producer.

The transition to certified organic production is a challenge in the area’s moraine soil, which can range from very sandy with less than 1 percent organic matter, to gravel and uneven moisture levels, Eric explained. Transition started with the least productive and most problematic fields by continuing the farm’s longtime use of cover crops and then adding organic soil amendments like compost and dairy manure in a planned rotation to build organic matter, healthy biology and natural nitrogen sources.

Data is collected on everything, said Eric’s wife, Megan, who directs research for the farm.

“Historically, ever since this farm has been here, we’ve always been involved in research,” she said. “We have controls and research on almost every field. A control check is important to proof-check that what you’re doing is something that makes sense and gets the results that you hypothesized you would get.”

Data is loaded into a Surface Pro at the field and analyzed along with all other observations and records at the end of the year. Notes are written on what the next steps for the field will be. The planning is long term, Eric said.

“When you’re planting corn or soy, you’re planning out a one-, two- or maybe three-year rotation, but when you’re working with organic, you’re planning out 10 years,” he said.

Profits from transition crops may not be realized for many years because of “front-end loading” and higher costs to improve the soil. Eric recommends negotiating land rental fees downward with the understanding that fees will go up again when premiums are realized from the crops. Contracts should also be long term.

“The last thing you want to do is set a field up great, put all the inputs in ... and two years later it’s someone else’s field when you have it set up for your next crop,” he said.

The farm does not plan to transition all of its acres to organic for two reasons, Megan said. First, pumpkins are a large part of the farm’s rotation through the conventional fields, and there is very little demand for organic pumpkins. Secondly, it is a big risk to transition a huge amount of acres on the tricky sandy soils.

“That’s why we’re going slow,” she said. “Our goal is a third of our acreage. We’re only about half of that.”

They are also trying dry-land farming on some of the organic land and are finding it less of a problem than they expected. The trick is to plant the right crop in the right place, John said.

“One of the things we’re finding is we’re applying a lot of our practices in organic and transition to all our conventional acres,” Megan said. “We’re seeing positive changes right now in terms of what amendments we’re putting on the soil and what we’re getting out of it in terms of consistency.”

The family offered a number of tips for farmers who want to try organic farming.

Start with the sickest or most problematic soil and work in small chunks. If it doesn’t go right one year, it might go right the next year. Consider trials in part of a larger field, but be sure it is similar soil to the rest of the field. Keep copious notes and write down plans for the next year so they aren’t forgotten.

Eric said there are a lot of parallels between organic and conventional farming, and neither is right or wrong, but conventional farming requires high annual inputs and operates on very thin margins.

“If there’s a better way where you’re reducing your inputs and getting the same yield, why not try it?” he said.

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