Organic methods bring new life to local farm
Costs higher, but so are profits and the environmental benefits
By Tony Staley
PITTSFIELD -- Don and Dianne Jaworski knew it was time for a change. For 20 years, they had been dairy farmers, growing additional cash crops in peas, sweet corn or snap beans.
"We were seeing and hearing about so many people coming down with industrial diseases, like Parkinson's, cancer and fibromyalgia, and we started thinking about it," said Don, who also is associate dean of agriculture services at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Green Bay.
Don was undergoing medical tests for what was eventually diagnosed as Parkinson's disease.
"There are a lot of Parkinson's patients who are farmers," Dianne said. "He always did all our own spraying. When you're mixing the stuff up you're inhaling the dust. When you're out there spraying, you're inhaling it. Not that we know 100 percent that's where it came from, but there are a lot of statistics out there. The farmer is in a lot of chemicals."
promotes crop rotations to interrupt pest, disease and weed cycles;
uses cover crops to minimize soil erosion;
uses compost, manure and legume crops to improve the soil;
minimizes agricultural pollution and use of nonrenewable resources;
does not use genetically-modified organisms and non-approved herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or growth hormones, antibiotics and slaughter by-products in livestock production.
That, coupled with a desire to be better stewards of their 190-acre farm, convinced the Jaworskis to go organic. They have been certified organic for 12 years under U.S. Department
of Agriculture rules. Organic certification requires documenting every step of production from soil preparation through harvesting and sale. Records are checked annually in a four-hour, on-site organic re-certification review.
The record-keeping is not hard if they keep up on it, the Jaworskis said, plus it gives them a tool for business analysis.
It's a three-year process to go from conventional to organic farming. That's how long it takes for products such as pesticides, herbicides and heavy metals to get out of the soil. During the transition, the Jaworskis, members of Ss. Edward and Isidore Parish in Flintville, fed their crops to transitional livestock.
Jaworski Organic Farm now grows organic rye, oats, feed corn, hay, soybeans, sweet corn, beef and poultry. They've found that the change has been good for the livestock.
As traditional dairy farmers, Dianne said, they always needed vets in for herd check, but it also seemed there were many other health issues with the cattle, from respiratory problems to hoof rot. Now?
"We haven't had a vet on the farm in 12 years," Dianne said. "They're not confined. They're always out. How did they make it through this winter? They do. They're never sick."
Calves born in winter stay indoors for a few weeks. After that, they're outdoors with their mothers, provided their mothers have enough milk to nurse them.
"We've never lost an animal due to the cold weather, or snow storm, or whatever, because they're healthy to begin with," Dianne said.
While they've seen health changes in cattle since going organic, they refrain from making any broad health claims for themselves. While Don said that Parkinson's has stabilized and he feels healthier and has fewer colds, he has no scientific data proving that going organic is the reason.
"I look at organic agriculture as a way to produce a crop that's safer, to produce a crop that's kind of a health food," Don said, "(and) a way of preventing illness, not necessarily curing illness. I don't think we're there. I think we could do a lot for our society if we follow practices that prevent us from getting sick."
Going organic has other benefits as well, he said. "We feel a lot safer since we're not using pesticides on land and environment. I am more conscious of my environment and what I expose myself to every day. I feel safer in an organic environment."
Organic does require more labor, because genetically modified seeds, herbicides or synthetic pesticides cannot be used. But, the Jaworskis added, they also don't have the expense of buying and applying those products.
Besides using crop rotation and cover crops to prevent weeds, they use a rotary hoe, cultivating around plants, burning weeds with a flame while using a shield to protect plants, clipping weeds and, in cases where there are only a few weeds, pulling them out by hand.
Still, the Jaworskis insist that organic farming turns a profit.
"You may not get the yield of the conventional farmer," said Don, "but when you sit down and figure out what it costs to grow that crop and the time you invested producing that crop, organic looks pretty good. There's something left over when you organic farm, in my opinion, from a profitability standpoint. You don't send it down the road."
For example, conventional dairy farmers typically get three to five years production from a cow, compared to 9-10 years on a well-run organic farm, Don said.
As for dollars and cents, Don offered this comparison of income for conventional and organic products: soybeans, $5-6 a bushel versus $17 for organic; hay, $50 a ton versus $135-150 for organic; oats, $3.50 a bushel versus $5; corn, $5 a bushel compared to $10.
Yields stay about the same - 135-150 bushels of corn and four tons of hay per acre as long as organic farmers rotate their crops.
Crop rotation is probably the most important organic management practice because it builds soil nutrients and breaks up disease cycles and weed patterns and controls insects, Don said.
The Jaworskis follow a four-year rotation cycle in each field. Each fall, they plant a cover crop of rye to prevent erosion and provide feed for their cattle.
And organic has other benefits.
"You're not polluting the rivers. You're not polluting the soil," Dianne said.
The Jaworskis are preparing to turn the farm over to their son, Andy, who is majoring in finance and supply chain management at UW-Milwaukee.
Don believes Andy has a better chance of success managing an organic farm than in traditional commercial farming.
"Commercial farms have gotten to the point where they're oversized, in my opinion," Don said. "They're not really family farms anymore because you look at the labor force to run those places and they've got one employee for every 50 animals. A lot of those employees are not family members; they're from the outside. Pretty soon you've got a situation where family is not operating the farm."
For anyone considering organic agriculture, Don offered this advice: "If they enjoy record keeping. If they enjoy being profitable. If they enjoy being a steward of the land, especially the soil, and if they want to stay healthy, try organic agriculture."