SA Newsletter May 1999

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter Header

Sustainable Agriculture Newsletters Archive

College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences
Volume 7, Issue 5 – May 1999

Do you have a story you would like featured in the Sustainable Agriculture newsletter? Send your submission to and we’ll consider adding it to an upcoming newsletter.

New findings: with price premiums, organic systems more profitable

The bottom line for organic production: it’s competitive with conventional production—if you don’t consider price premiums. And if you do include premiums in the economic analysis, organic production systems can outperform conventional ones.

Those are the results of long-term cropping systems studies from nine states, according to a new economic analysis by agricultural economists from throughout the U.S. The economists met recently to discuss the economics of organic farming systems.

Specifically, their charge was to critically evaluate long-term research trials that compare organic production systems with conventional production systems. Economic data from studies conducted in California, Nebraska, Texas, Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were presented.

One of the major economic advantages of organic production systems is that the cost of production is considerably lower than for conventional systems.

Extension economist Kent Olson and graduate student Paul Mahoney represented the University of Minnesota at the workshop, as did Paul Porter, agronomist at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center at Lamberton. They presented initial economic data from the 10-year old Variable Input Crop Management Systems study conducted at Lamberton, which compares management systems in both two-year (corn-soybean) and four-year (corn-soybean-oat-alfalfa) rotations.

While yields were somewhat lower in the organic production system, so too were the costs of production, enabling the four-year organic production system to produce average net returns comparable to the four-year conventional production system. And if you assume organic premiums, the organic system was even more competitive. Both four-year rotations outperformed the two-year conventional system.

The workshop, sponsored by the Economic Research Service of USDA and the Farm Foundation, was held in Washington, D.C, in late April. There were approximately 50 attendees. For more information, contact Olson at (612) 625-7723,, or Porter at (507) 752-7372,

Red River Organic Growers use SARE grant to develop marketing program

The Red River Organic Growers are a group of certified organic family farmers located around Fargo-Moorhead and throughout North Dakota and Minnesota. They grow a wide variety of crops, including fresh produce, meats, grains and value-added products. “As organic farmers, we strive to provide good value to consumers while protecting the environment,” says Ben Larson, project coordinator from the Agricultural Economics Department at North Dakota State University.

They have received a $40,000 grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) to develop a marketing program in the Fargo-Moorhead area. “We know that consumers in the area are interested in organic products if they are available on a reliable basis,” Larson says. “We’re working to reach the growing segment of mainstream consumers who desire high-quality, earth-friendly foods, but who don’t have the time to search all over town for them.”

The Organic Alliance is providing consultation in marketing, consumer education and media outreach. And the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society will coordinate rural farmers seeking to market their products in Fargo-Moorhead. For more information, contact Larson at (701) 231-7466,

Expanding direct marketing of meat products is goal of SARE producer grant

For the past three years, Sue and Dennis Rabe have marketed their beef and pork products directly to local customers and at Farmers’ Markets. With the help of a producer’s grant from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), they hope to increase marketing outlets for their naturally raised, quality beef and pork products. The Rabe family, Lake City, Minn., is looking to expand to larger customers—grocery stores, convenience stores, food co-ops, and the Midwest Market near Chicago.

“We’re using the grant to develop improved packaging, promotional materials; advertising locally and through the Internet,” says Sue Rabe. “One problem we’ll address is that today’s commodity prices have dropped below the cost of production. This is putting small sustainable farmers, like us, out of business at an alarming rate.

“We feel that by owning our products further down the food chain, we have the potential to sell for profit and at the same time, ensure a quality and nutritious product at a reasonable price with no cost to the environment,” she says. ‘We’d like to sell our products at three to five new locations.

“It is important to us and other sustainable farmers to farm with environmentally friendly practices and to provide a non-contaminated food source. We want to maintain a clean environment and promote healthy working conditions for our farmers and produce healthy food for our customers.”

Their Eagleview Family Farm is a diversified crop and livestock farm with 70 stock cows and 60 sows. “Sustainable practices have always been a part of our farm,” Rabe says. They use rotations of five to six crops, contour strips, rotational grazing for stock cows, pasture farrowing for their sows and the Swedish deep straw method for finishing hogs.

Through the grant, they plan to develop educational materials and share them with other farmers. They may be reached toll-free at 1-877-287-9127.

Agriculture now part of the solution to global warming, scientist says

By using minimum tillage practices over the past 15 years, farmers are now responsible for a net storage of carbon in the soil instead of releasing it as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Release of soil carbon into the atmosphere is thought to contribute to global warming.

So instead of being net producers of carbon dioxide, soils are now part of the potential solution to global warming. And, the added carbon in the form of valuable soil organic matter makes soils more productive, says Raymond R. Allmaras, a soil scientist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service located in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate at the University of Minnesota.

“The demise of the moldboard plow is responsible,” Allmaras says. “Moldboard plowing has dropped to less than nine percent of tilled land in the U.S. in 1993, compared to over 80 percent in 1980.”

In long-term experiments, Allmaras found that abandoning the moldboard plow caused increases in soil carbon within 10 years. He says fertilizers and genetic improvements have increased grain yields and the amount of crop residue available to increase soil carbon.

Currently, increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have also increased plant growth and crop residue available to build higher levels of soil carbon, Allmaras says. “But the change from moldboarding provided the opportunity for these added crop residues to increase the net carbon storage in the soil.”

Here’s why more carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere from the “old fashioned” moldboard plow: The plow lifts and inverts an eight to 12-inch slice of soil, and also buries stubble and other unharvested crop residue located on or near the surface.

“That places the residue deep in the plow layer where different microbes live,” Allmaras says. “Those microbes convert the residue to a form of carbon that readily converts to carbon dioxide, which can escape to the atmosphere.”

And when farmers abandon the plow for reduced tillage methods, they leave more residues on the soil surface or in the top four inches. “Corn and sorghum farmers are returning about twice as much residue as they did in 1940,” Allmaras says, “and they are keeping it on or near the surface. Here, the residue readily decays to valuable organic matter, a more stable carbon compound and a key part of the fertile prairie soil originally broken open by the plow.”

Allmaras says U.S. agriculture’s positive contribution to the carbon dioxide-global warming issue should be recognized when a new international agreement on carbon dioxide management is negotiated. For more information, contact Allmaras at (612) 625-1742 or Bill Larson at (612) 624-8714.

Work efficiency tips can help vegetable growers increase profits, stay healthier

Prolonged stooping and bending, lifting and carrying and repetitive tasks are all common activities on small-scale, fresh market vegetable farms. But these activities put small-scale vegetable growers in one of the highest risk groups for occupational sprain and strain injuries.

A series of University of Wisconsin-Extension publications entitled, “Work efficiency Tip Sheets” explains systems and techniques that reduce injury risks and fatigue while increasing profits. The publications are written by researchers from the UW “Healthy Farmers, Healthy Profits” project.

The tip sheets are available at minimal cost from UW Extension Publications, Rm. 170 W. Mifflin St., Madison, WI 53703, (608) 262-3346, website Ask for series A3704. You can access the publications directly through the website

Survey shows alternative swine producers interested in marketing, hoop structures

Most alternative swine producers in Minnesota sell their hogs on the open market, according to a survey of 50 producers completed in early 1999. And they say marketing is the area where they most need the help.

The producers use a variety of housing systems, including confinement. Many use traditional housing such as Cargill units, outdoor lots and deep bedding. Hoop structures are the housing that most producers would like to learn more about.

The Alternative Swine Production Systems Program at the University of Minnesota conducted the survey. Its purpose is to promote the research and development of low-input and low-emission swine housing systems such as hoop structures, pasture farrowing and deep-bedded systems. For more information, including copies of the survey report, call Wayne Martin at 1-877-ALT-HOGS, or the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at 1-800-909-MISA.

“Growing Smart in Minnesota” conference June 11

“Smart Growth” seeks to promote development patterns that are economically sound, environmentally responsible and socially just. The approach emphasizes partnerships among local governments, developers, farmers, social justice advocates and environmentalists. A June 11 (Friday), 1999 conference at the Minneapolis Convention Center will include land-use planning and policy experts from throughout the U.S. The sponsor is “1000 Friends of Minnesota,” a nonprofit membership organization working to balance growth with conservation and social equity. Call (651) 312-1000, or e-mail

Small-farm herb tour June 16-17

A herb tour June 16-17 at the Renne Soberg farm, Lakeville, consists of two separate events: an afternoon seminar June 16 for home garden herbalists; and a field-scale tour June 17 for farmers interested in income opportunities. Call Soberg at (612) 469-2527, or fax (612) 469-5147.

On-farm manure composting field day June 26

A field day on manure composting is scheduled Saturday, June 26, 1999 at the Scott County organic dairy of Jeff and Pam Riesgraf. Mike Schmitt, a soil fertility specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension Service, will discuss on-farm composting using the farm’s compost mounds as a field laboratory. For details, contact Caroline van Schaik of the Land Stewardship Project at (651) 653-0618.

Farm coordinator, intern positions available through Extension Service

The University of Minnesota Extension Service has two positions open at Rosemount. One is for a farm coordinator/mentor; the other a summer internship for a college student. The intern will work in the New Immigrant Farm Program. Call (651) 423-2413 for information.

About this newsletter…

For the past year we’ve been funded by the Minnesota Extension Service and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA) with support from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

We’re always looking for story ideas. Send them to the editor: Jack Sperbeck, 405 Coffey Hall, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, (612) 625-1794. E-mail: Other editorial board members: Helene Murray (612) 625-0220,; Tom Wegner (612) 374-8400,; and Bill Wilcke (612) 625-8205,

Our mission statement: To help bring people together to influence the future of agriculture and rural communities to achieve socially, environmentally and economically sustainable farms and communities.

The University of Minnesota is committed to the policy that all persons shall have equal access to its programs, facilities, and employment without regard to race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status, disability, public assistance status, veteran status, or sexual orientation.