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Accountability key to organic production

Written by Christy Hemken

By Christy Hemken, WLR Assist. & Crop Editor

Douglas - A farmer from Pine Bluffs raising several crops as 100 percent organic, Clint Jessen of Jessen Wheat is a part of what has been a family farm since 1910.

Speaking at the recent Ag-based Innovative Marketing Expo (AIMe) in Douglas, Jessen detailed some of what his farm has been through since going organic.

“The current farm has been there since 1946, when it was purchased after World War II by my grandfather. Since 1946, with the exception of spot spraying, we were essentially organic, but it just wasn’t a known term until recently,” said Jessen. “We just always farmed that way because we never put an extra dollar into the farm more than we had to.”

“When I took over the operation it was still organically farmed because they had staying power. In 2001 I met my wife and we went to a conference where there was a gentleman talking about organic wheat,” he continued. From there it didn’t take long to become certified, and the farm’s been certified organic since 2002.

After that initial conference the Jessens met a grain buyer, who said he’d pay a premium for their product if it was organic. “We were certifiable, but I was very reluctant to do it, and my wife thought it was the greatest thing in the world. She wasn’t from a farm family so she was thinking outside the box and had no prior knowledge of how things have traditionally been done. She said she’d do all the paperwork, so I said, ‘Ok let’s try it.’”

Jessen said he didn’t have the change the way he farmed, with the exception of products he used to control noxious weeds.

“We found a certifier and started the process and started the long form, which is approximately 28 pages of farm history questions. It was basic information that we had to go back and think about, with a three-year history of every field as far as crops and rotations and inputs used,” he explained. “We had to number all of our fields and mark our buffer zones and field boundaries.”

The Jessens use 36-feet-wide buffer zones between their organic crop and the conventional neighbors’ where the crop is left to harvest until the end, after which it’s sold as conventional.

After installing orange posts to mark the buffer zones within their field boundaries and sending letters to notify neighbors of what was going on, Jessen said a neighbor has still cut their buffer zones for the past few years as a part of his field because he thinks the posts mark a new property line. “Saves us time, I guess,” he noted.

After filling out the form and doing their best to meet all regulations, Jessen said that’s still not a guarantee of certification. “It just means that you think you’re organic.”

Jessen said one of the top three pros in favor of raising organic crops is the profit in terms of dollar figures. “All the paperwork made our farm more efficient. It was easy to see where we’d been messing up for years because we’d never kept the paperwork. I’d say even conventional farms should be doing 80 percent of the organic paperwork anyway. We weren’t reinventing the wheel, we just kept track of the number spokes on it.”

“Another pro is there is a premium paid over conventional crops. At first  we were doing it for the money, but now it’s become so much more,” said Jessen.

Jessen said the percent of premiums varies on every crop and every buyer. “It’s all about negotiation and marketing. The big thing is that it’s made our farm sustainable, and bankers like sustainability. When we first got into organics they give us a deer-in-the-headlights look, but then we told them it’s sustainability, which they’re more on board with that. I feel it’s increased our land value due to the fact that it’s increased our premiums.”

Jessen said a drawback to organics is the certification fees, which vary, but can add up. Also, crop insurance is higher, with a five to 10 percent higher premium but the same level of coverage.

“The paperwork, audit trail, inspections and extra work that comes along with organic is labor intensive and has created a full-time job for my wife. She does all the paperwork and most of the marketing and maintains daily journal,” said Jessen. “We even went so far as to put maintenance logs in the tractors, and that goes back to the suggestion that 80 percent of organic paperwork should probably be maintained by a farm anyway.”

Jessen said there’s more labor in the field with tillage, marking buffer zones and clean-downs on semi trucks and combines. “Sometimes I’m sitting in a tractor in the same field and I’ve been there six and half hours and the farmer next to me has sprayed his entire field and gone home and I’m still there burning diesel.”

And Jessen said that inspection remains stressful. “No matter how many of your ducks are in a row, when the inspector shows up it’s still stressful. We’ve mow the grass and wash the windows and make sure everything’s ship-shape.”

“Organics forced us to take control of our marketing costs and pay close attention to detail,” he concluded. “Other than the fact we don’t use chemicals or synthetics, this is what organics is more about to me - accountability and the audit trail and knowing that I produced this seed, where it was planted and harvested and who it was sold to and where it went from there. That is the most important thing – accountability.”