Organic Farming: A Model for Best Business Practices

Every parent likes to brag about their kids! And even though mine are all grown and married, I still enjoy every opportunity to share in their accomplishments. My son, Adam, is a senior studying food science at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. He recently wrote the following article, which was published in one of the university’s school newsletters and I thought he captured the topic quite well. Enjoy!

ORGANIC FARMING: A MODEL FOR BEST BUSINESS PRACTICES

by Adam Quinn

Americans are eating organic food more now than ever before. In a survey conducted by Pew Research, in the past 30 days, 68% of households reported purchasing food that was labeled as organic. This impressive trend is less impactful though since, according to BFG (a brand consultancy), out of the 70% of shoppers who buy organic food, only 20% were able to define the meaning of the term “organic.” Although we as Americans are purchasing organic food more often, we are largely ignorant to what differentiates these products.

The organic system of farming has been developed to combine the best practices of the past with emerging knowledge and technology of the present. These best practices are not only based in good science, but also great business strategy.

An organic farming system applies best business practices by diversifying to minimize risk, increasing control of inputs, and investing in current assets. All of these activities help to ensure the sustainability of the food that we eat.

Diversification of Activities

All industries face a certain level of risk from economic uncertainties and changing consumer demands, but farming often deals with the addition of natural problems such as pests, disease, and unpredictable weather patterns. Crop rotation and diversification are age-old ideas that can decrease the chances of a total crop failure. Crop rotation is practiced by changing what crop is planted in the same area each season. Diversification comes by increasing the variety of crops that are grown. The combination of these two principles has been used in the past to hedge against the unique risks that farmers face.

Diversification and crop rotations are fundamental principles within organic agriculture; the main body of current research has this as its focus. In the last century, advances in technology and industrialization have shifted the common practices of farmers so that these methods are not a focus. In a comparison study of farming systems, Barbieri et al. reported, “Crop rotations have been dramatically simplified over the past 50 years (e.g., through the reduced number of crop species in crop rotations…) due to the advent of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.”

The 20th century saw a rapid adoption of these new technologies that farmers accepted as the silver bullet for their problems. But like many things that seem too good to be true, these “advances” were a step in the wrong direction, one case being weed management. Similar to the way modern medicine now faces the threat of “superbugs,” or antibioticresistant pathogens, chemical agriculture has led to the development of “superweeds” and pests that are resistant to pesticides.

Instead of participating in a chemical arms-race against weeds, organic farmers have maintained their focus on the concept of diversification. Diversification has several other key advantages in agriculture:

  • It decreases the risk of total crop failure.
  • It increases the overall yields of the crops.
  • It keeps farms flexible to the changes of consumer preference.

Clearly, the phrase “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” has not been forgotten by organic farmers.

Controlling Inputs

Organic farming is sometimes called low-input farming because it prohibits the input of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic farmers compensate for the lack of these inputs through greater labor and management expenditures.

Farmers can use several different methods to reduce expenditures on external products. Instead of buying synthetic fertilizers, they can grow legumes that build nitrogen in the soil (this is known as green manure). Careful observation and crop management can replace the need for chemical pesticides. The organic system also encourages farmers to save their seed from harvest to harvest. This way the crops can adapt to the local environment, and farmers can avoid everchanging costs from seed suppliers.

If farmers can increase their control over inputs, they can then better control expenses.

Investing in Current Assets

For farmers, the soil is their greatest asset. The Organic Trade Association states that organic farming begins with “practices to help build healthy soils, which nurture the plants and help decrease the incidence of plant disease.” The principle behind this is that if you feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants and the plants will feed you. Chemical agriculture focuses on delivering as much nitrogen as possible to the crops through the use of synthetic fertilizers, in effect attempting to feed the plants directly, rather than the soil. The practice of building healthy soil is more expensive, but it can pay great dividends in the future.

In normal conditions, the high availability of nitrogen in chemical farms results in higher yields when compared to organic farms. However, in times of great stress in the crops (e.g. drought) the results are reversed. The Rodale Institute, which conducts agriculture research, explains in their published research why this is the case. Several factors can explain this change, one being that organic farming focuses on increasing organic material in the soil which leads to greater water retentions and increased microbiome health.

Conclusion

While the organic farming system is not perfect, we need to be able see its power. An article in the Huffington Post comes to this same conclusion:

“Organic agriculture shows significant promises in many areas. We would be foolish not to consider it an important tool in developing more sustainable global agriculture.” – Huffington Post

The success that the organic industry has seen attests to the soundness of the business practices that it follows.

Stubble, Stalks & Snow Fences: Keeping Moisture in the Fields

It should come as no surprise that moisture is always a concern in dryland farming, most especially on the semi-arid plains of northern Montana. During the spring, we pray for steady, frequent rains—heavy downpours or cloud bursts can bring rain down faster than the soil can absorb. (Though, it should be said, since our conversion to organic, the water absorption in our fields has increased!) During the winter, we pray for snow. Snow insulates our winter crops from the bitter cold and, of course, provides moisture when it melts in the spring. But on the wide-open prairie, snow will go where the wind takes it. Organic agriculture, at its most basic, is a farmer’s attempt at emulating nature. While there’s not much we can do about the rare torrential rainfall here on the farm, nature gives us clues on how to outsmart the wind and keep the snow that does fall on us—an important contributor to moisture for the next growing season—in our fields.

Here on the farm, there are grasslands as far as the eye can see in almost every direction. The prairie isn’t some barren desert. Grass provides resistance, it’s nature’s way of keeping both soil and moisture on the plains. Cultivated fields are not naturally occurring and if they are left completely bare, they offer no resistance against wind and water erosion. And no farmer wants to lose the soil that took thousands of years to accumulate.

Stubble—the short, dry stalks of the crop left in the field after harvest—provide excellent erosion resistance. Not only does stubble help protect the soil from wind and water erosion, it helps to keep at least some snowfall from blowing away. Which means more moisture in your fields come spring. And around here, that’s always good news!

But sometimes leaving stubble in a field isn’t an option. Sometimes cultivating a field in the fall is necessary. If we have a severe weed problem, for instance—we never want to let weeds to go to seed. Or, if we’re incorporating plants into the soil from a green manure field. In that case we will till the field as a normal part of our crop rotation. And while all the organic material, like leaves and stems, helps bind the soil together providing protection from wind and water erosion, it doesn’t help much with snow catch. This past fall, Charley had some concerns along these lines. The field where he’ll be planting this year’s corn patch had been recently tilled to incorporate a cover crop of peas. There was little stubble on the surface, and after the dry season we had last summer, moisture was in short supply. But, as the old English proverb reminds us, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Charley’s solution was a few strategically-placed snow fences, and boy, did he pick a good year for that experiment! The snow fences are 4-feet tall and have nearly disappeared beneath all the snow we’ve received this winter.

Thoughtful preparations in the fall to catch snow can mean the difference of several inches of snow—or in our case this year, several feet! Here on the farm, last year’s corn patch, with its stalks still in the field, have more than a foot of snow. Whereas the neighboring field, which we tilled in the fall, has no more than a couple inches and in some places, you can see the soil. After such a dry season last year, I am very grateful for all the snow this winter and hope it will melt slowly and all soak in, providing lots of moisture for the coming spring.

Fresh Garden KAMUT® Chili

National Chili Day could not have come at a more opportune time. We have had an unusually cold and snowy winter, with snow drifts almost as tall as I am! But this fresh, simple chili recipe with a twist is enough to make any chilly day a little warmer. Instead of beans, we use softened KAMUT® wheat grain, which provides a unique texture and a satisfying meal. Give it a try and be sure to let me know what you think!

1 pound grass-fed ground beef
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups tomatoes, chopped (for this time of year, we like to use frozen peppers, onions and tomatoes from our garden)
1 red pepper, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 cup KAMUT® wheat grain, softened (soak grain overnight)
1 tablespoon chili powder
2-3 teaspoons ground cumin

Melt butter in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Sauté onions for about 5 minutes or until they begin to soften.

Add garlic and ground beef. Brown beef for about 8-10 minutes.

Add remaining ingredients, cover and reduce heat to a slow simmer.

Simmer for at least an hour.

Serve hot with a sprinkling of cheddar or a dollop of sour cream.

Big Plans!—A Sneak Peak at 2018

With just over two weeks already gone in 2018, I thought I’d share a sneak preview of what I expect will be a busy, productive year! Personally, I will be looking at some big changes as I start to wind down my active career over the next 3 years toward retirement. This includes finishing several projects in 2018 that have been ongoing for quite some time, including renting out the farm to two of my able employees, Seth and Chad.

One of the projects I’ve been working on for a few years is donating a part of our farm to establish an organic research institute. Last year I applied for a grant to help start the process and hope to hear about it by the end of the month. I’ve also been working on a documentary film about our farm, organic agriculture and the KAMUT® project, which will be premiering soon. (Stay tuned!) And by the end of the year I’m hoping to have finished a book describing what we’ve done to remove the value of wheat over the last half-century and what we can do to recover that value. This particular project means a great deal to me and I’ve found an excellent co-author to help me work a lifetime of experience into an informative first draft. Now we just have to find a publisher.

And, after years of planning and discussion, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t extremely excited about the First International Conference of Wheat Landraces for Healthy Food Systems this July in Bologna, Italy. I’m hoping it will attract participants from all over the world.

Naturally, there will be all the great food shows and conferences to attend, as well as lectures to speak at, mainly in North America and Europe. And there may be a few lobbying trips to Washington DC. (More on that later.) I will also continue to monitor our medical research comparing ancient and modern wheat in Italy, while launching a similar endeavor here in the states.

That said, I’m hoping to reduce my travel in favor of a few more skiing, fishing and camping adventures close to home with the grandkids, as well as participating in more of their events.

I have started this year the way I’ve started most years: full of hope, optimism and lots of big plans.

I’ll be sure to keep you posted as these plans develop and evolve over the coming months, so be sure to check back! I wish all of you a very happy, healthy and successful New Year and hope your plans and dreams will turn out as you hope.

KAMUT® Brand Khorasan Wheat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Today is National Cookie Day! And what are the holidays without a big plate of fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies and a tall glass of milk? Santa Claus isn’t the only one who enjoys a warm cookie or two in December! These egg- and dairy-free KAMUT® wheat cookies are an excellent option at my house when the grandkids come to visit. Give them a try and be sure to let me know what you think.

1/2 cup oil of choice (we, of course, recommend The Oil Barn® high-oleic, organic safflower oil)
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cups rolled KAMUT® brand khorasan wheat flakes
1 cup KAMUT® brand khorasan wheat flour
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda

In mixing bowl beat oil, syrup, water, and vanilla until emulsified. Combine flakes, chocolate chips, salt, and soda. Stir into syrup mixture and mix just until everything is evenly moistened. Let rest 5 minutes.

Drop onto baking sheets. Dough will be crumbly. Gently press dough so cookies hold together, should be about 1/3-inches thick. Bake at 350 degrees for 18 minutes.

For more delicious KAMUT® grain recipes, be sure to visit kamut.com

Tuscan Vegetable Soup

I have the opportunity to travel to Italy fairly regularly and I always enjoy the tasty, satisfying local cuisine. One of my favorite things about Italian food is how easy it is to recreate so many of their delicious dishes right here on the northern plains of Montana.

Here at the farm this past season, we were blessed with bountiful vegetable yields that will last us the winter. And with winter just around the corner, what better way to put our fresh, organic veggies to use than a warm, flavorful soup?

1 onion
2 carrots
1 tomato
1 zucchini
4 garlic cloves
1 handful fresh parsley
2 Tablespoons The Oil Barn® safflower oil (can substitute with olive oil)
A pinch of dried chili flakes
10 sage leaves
1 1/2 cups cannellini beans, cooked
4 cups vegetable stock
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Parmesan cheese

Dice the onion, tomato, and zucchini. Mince the garlic cloves. Chop the carrots. Remove the leaves from the parsley.

In a large saucepan, heat the safflower (olive) oil. Add the onion, carrots, chili flakes, and sage and cook over low heat for 20 minutes until softened but not browned. Add the parsley, tomato, and zucchini and cook for a few minutes.

Add the beans (drained, if canned), and cover with vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Season with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

To serve, top with Parmesan cheese shavings and enjoy!