Among the myriad of topics organic farmers are discussing at the MOSES conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin is how to stay small and make a profit.
Janet Gamble is one of the MOSES presenters. She runs a 14-acre organic farm in Walworth County.
She's engrossed in a phone conversation with a nearby restaurateur, one of seven sprinkled around the region that Gamble supplies with vegetables and fruit. She’s offering him a new item – a Bloody Mary mix featuring her organic tomatoes and his favorite spices.
Gamble has been growing organically for three decades. She took over this farm, five years ago, and can read every inch of its past.
“ I can tell where the cows either wintered here or at least where all the manure went on this farm, maybe in the winter when they didn’t want to drive too far out, because all of the soils closest to the farmyard are the richest soils,” Gamble says.
She grows forty different types of vegetables in the fertile earth.
“We’re pretty diverse and that’s pretty typical for CSA farms,” Gamble says.
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s one way organic farms make money.Customers pay a fee for the season and receive a weekly share of produce, fresh from the garden. Yet Gamble says she must be resourceful, if she wants to keep customers coming back.
“Looking at creative ways to package CSAs, doing fruit shares, or meal planning services. Buying in other products – cheese or a meat CSA, making this a more enticing choice for the consumer,” Gamble says.
Buzz is building around organic growers banding together. Gamble says it is a point of discussion at the MOSES conference, considered to be the largest organic farming conference in the country.
“To form more cooperative distribution arrangements. So I see that as an up and coming trend in how these food hubs are really going to work and really benefit the producers; that more money will go into their pockets,” Gamble says.
There is money to be made, according to Faye Jones. She’s MOSES executive director. Jones says demand for organic is at an all-time high.
“ I want to share a trend that I’m concerned about I see as not a good indicator. More and more organic food is being imported from outside the U.S. – Brazil and Asia because the market demand is not being met. That needs to shift. We can produce it here; we need to provide the tools and incentives for more farmers to transition to organic production,” Jones says.
The new U.S. Farm Bill contains some financial assistance for new organic farmers, and it will help cover certification fees. Specialist Harriet Behar says growers must pay them every year, and for those with modest profits, an $800 fee can cut deep.
“The Organic Certification Cost Share Program covers up to three-fourths of the certification cost they have annually. And that is funded for the next five years,” Behar says.
Behar says a national statistic is leaning in organic farming’s favor. Those getting into the business are younger than their conventional counterparts.
“ The average age of the United States is 57 or 58, but for organic farmers the average is much lower. And what we’re finding because it encourages entrepreneurship and being in sync with your natural environment, it’s very attractive to new farmers,” Behar says.
But to keep them, the organic community may have to find ways to become more profitable while keeping the farms small and highly productive. From her vantage point in Walworth County, Janet Gamble says it’s all about finding the right balance.
“I’m trying to find where that sweet spot is on the acreage we have – to keep it healthy and productive; and where can we stretch our yields and it’s not going to require more equipment or very much more labor. Because I think the land is really giving you something back. There’s something restorative about it,” Gamble says.
As many as 3500 people are expected to attend the MOSES gathering in La Crosse Friday and Saturday, up from 90, when the first was held, about a quarter century ago.