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Project Milwaukee: In-depth reporting on vital issues in the region.

Organic Farming Factor

Wisconsin is second only to California, in the number of organic farms operating in the state.

The numbers, though, are still fairly low.

Of Wisconsin’s 78,000 farms, less than two percent are managed organically.

As we continue Project Milwaukee: What’s on Our Plate?” WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence digs a little deeper into the variety and spirit among the state’s organic farmers.

Ed Schoenberg grew up in the farmhouse just beyond the field we’re standing in off Highway 120 in Walworth County.

In fact, the 49 year old has spent his entire life here.

For many of those years, he worked 12-hour days just like his father and grandfather did, tending the dairy herd.

“Then in 2002, 2003 we started the transition to organic,” Schoenberg says.

“What brought that about,” I ask.

“To get more money, make more money,” Schoenberg says.

Today, Schoenberg continues to farm organically, but there is not a cow to be found.

He sold the animals a few years ago.

Now he sells the organic crops that used to sustain his cows when they were not grazing on grass.

“I was growing wheat and barley,” Schoenberg says.

We’re surrounded by countless swirling rows of wheat that Schoenberg planted last month – just bits of green life right now.

We circle behind the old milking barn. Last season wheat grew here, in spring soybeans will go in.

That’s part of the organic model – eliminating the need for chemical treatment by rotating crops.

“Soybeans put nitrogen in the ground, because they’re, what’s the technical term? Nitrogen fixation they do. So we run soybeans one year and then wheat is a grass, so they actually need nitrogen,” Schoenberg says.

Schoenberg says he has had no problem finding a market for his wheat – a company in Virginia gobbles it up to produce organic cattle feed.

“At first they were talking, oh this isn’t going to affect the organic, people will still buy organic. Well it, hit it really hard. I’m hoping now that the conventional prices have come back. I’d like to think it’s going to push the organic up some,” Schoenberg says.

As for his soybeans?

“They go over to to Super Soy over here in Brodhead by Janesville. They make soybean meal,” Schoenberg says.

When Schoenberg sold his soybean crop last month, he fetched $16.50 a bushel.

That’s about five dollars more per bushel than he would have gotten for a conventional crop, and despite the drag of a floundering economy.

It was not financial gain that led Deirdre Birmingham to create her organically-managed apple orchard in Iowa County.

"I think everybody should have access to organically grown foods, I think it’s better for the environment, it’s better for our human health,” Birmingham says.

Over the last four years Birmingham has hand-planted baby apple trees.

So far 1200 of them are growing on her gently rolling acres.

“We planted our trees on the contour there,” Birminham says.

“Is that ideal for trees,” I ask.

“Well, a sloping is good because you want cold air to drain away to help prevent frost, the early season frost,” Birmingham says.

Then there are such jobs as gauging moisture conditions in the orchard and trapping and monitoring insect populations.

I ask if it costs her more to start up and run her orchard, compared to a “normal” operation.

“It can cost more for some of the trial and error because there are some things I may have to figure out myself, that university research can’t necessarily help with because they’re more oriented toward conventional farming. In fact, in organic apple production, it’s not a no spray or a low spray situation as some people might think. I’m using natural materials that biodegrade quickly as so I might have to spray more often,” Birmingham says.

In order for this orchard or any organic farm to be certified, they must operate under a specific set of standards and inspected every year.

Birmingham’s passion for organic stretches beyond her dream of producing sought-after hard apple cider. She’s also president of a national group called The Organic Farming Research Foundation, a farmer-driven advocacy group. “

The federal government was not funding organic farming research so we started a small grants program 20 years ago and then also started a policy program to get the USDA to fund organic farming,” Birmingham says.

“Is that now happening,” I ask.

“Yes, the USDA has had a research program for I believe four years, maybe going on five now,” Birmingham says.

Birmingham calls the grants a start.

In Wisconsin, the state agriculture department assigned Laura Paine the job of helping to promote organic farming.

She’s says infrastructure would help existing and future farms to extend the value of their harvest.

“There’s been some discussion about developing some processing capacity for organic vegetable producers, for example to, not necessarily to put their product into a can or something like that, but in order to sell to restaurants or that sort of thing you might need to wash and bag lettuce for example,” Paine says.

Despite lagging resources, Paine says over the last five years in Wisconsin, the number of organic farms increased by thirty percent.

Audio File

Susan Bence also visited an organic dairy farm in southeast Wisconsin.
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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.