Conversations from the Field
ATTRA talks to movers and shakers in the sustainable ag movement
Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.
A History of Innovation—
NCAT Agriculture Specialist Jeff Schahczenski recently spoke with organic grain and livestock farmer Mikel Lund. Lund talked about his involvement with the NRCS CSP program and his life as an organic farmer in northeastern Montana. This installment of Conversations From the Field features excerpts from the conversation with Mikel as well as comments from Natural Resource Conservation Service Conservationist Valerie Oksendahl, who works regularly with Lund.
"Look there's mud on my shoes! There's mud on my shoes!"
For organic grain and livestock farmer Mikel Lund, from Scobey, Montana, this was a statement worth repeating. After too many days of temperatures above 90 degrees, the quarter inch of rain that fell on Mikel's fields and put mud on his shoes was very welcome. The diverse certified organic crops that Mikel has grown over the last fifteen years need timely rains. In this respect, at least, Mikel Lund is very much like his fellow farmers in Daniels County . He has grown kamut, flax, peas, oats, winter rye, vetches, safflower, hard red and hard white spring wheat, clovers and barley. But Mikel is one of only a handful of organic farmers in Montana who has qualified for the new Conservation Security Program (CSP) implemented by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The CSP is a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to promote the conservation and improvement of soil, water, air, energy, plant and animal life, and other conservation purposes on tribal and private working lands.
"Mikel's involvement in the CSP has made him a model for the community, and his current and future conservation efforts are critical to motivate others in the community," says Valerie Oksendahl, the local NRCS conservationist who assisted Mikel with the application process and contracting for the CSP.
Q. How did you take up organic farming?
A. "I began organic farming in 1991 and it has been a learning process that has taken the farm from a fairly typical grain livestock operation in northeast Montana to one with a much greater diversity of products and even more diverse and complex methods of farming. I am the third generation farming this land and I did not start out as an organic farmer. I began to think about organics after a stint as a chemical pesticide applicator during summers while still in high school. My dad wanted to keep me out of trouble in the summers and set me up with a small applicator rig and I would go out and spray all summer. While it did keep me out of trouble, it didn't keep me out of the doctor's office."
Lund developed severe nose bleeds that summer. Several visits to the doctor resulted and Lund had blood vessels in his nose cauterized to stop the bleeding. Lund readily admits that he probably did not take all adequate precautions for the chemicals he was handling. Still, he started thinking there might be better way to farm.
"That summer experience did change me. And while we never used a lot of chemicals on the farm, I was set on a path that ultimately led to certified organic production."
Q. Were there any other factors in your decision?
A. "Organic grains will generally sell for about twice the price of conventional grains. But even then one has to keep ahead of changes in the market because organic products also show similar variability to conventional crops as new producers enter high-valued markets."
In fact, the choice of rotations of grains, legumes, green manures is not really a static "system" independent of changes in organic crop markets. Lund describes his crop rotations as a set of methods driven by the need to rotate a cereal grain, a nitrogen-fixing commercial crop like field peas, and crops that provide green manures, like chickling vetch. He does this not only for soil health, disease resistance, and weed control, but also to get the greatest economic benefits.
Q. You also produce organic livestock-why did you start this?
A. "HRM (Holistic Resource Management), with its system of rotational grazing and its emphasis on simultaneously considering economic, social, and environmental realities - both short and long term - also played an important part in the farm's development. On the other hand, organic livestock production has tighter overall margins and despite lots of different marketing efforts, I have largely obtained higher prices for my organic cattle through direct consumer sales."
Lund has worked with a local meat processor even going so far as to help provide for organic processing certification. "However, the market infrastructure, distribution channels, and price for organic beef are still not there," says Lund . He has hopes for some recent state-wide efforts to cooperatively sell certified organic beef and help meet expanding national demand at prices that make the extra effort of organic livestock production worthwhile.
An interesting advantage that Lund experienced in his CSP application process involved his status as a certified organic producer. The documentation of conservation practices was relatively simple because organic certification requires careful record maintenance and a detailed organic system plan.
Q. The CSP application process can be very lengthy-what was your experience with this?
A. "While the translation of an organic system plan to a CSP assessment and contract is not perfectly straightforward, it is very helpful for the rather complex application process of the CSP." Also, Lund was particularly fortunate in that he has taken steps to have a fairly accurate documentation of changes in soil quality through regular soil testing. Indeed, having soil testing records was an important eligibility requirement for participation in CSP in this particular watershed.
"One disadvantage that I did have to contend with in the CSP application concerned tillage practices and soil quality."
According to NRCS conservationist Oksendahl, meeting CSP eligibility requirements for soil quality can be potentially difficult for organic crop producers because of their need to use tillage for weed control and incorporation of green manures. The measurement that NRCS uses for soil quality in the CSP is called the Soil Conditioning Index (SCI). This index is based on a combination of measurements that reflect erosion potential, maintenance of crop coverage, and amount of tillage passes. "Most of Mikel's cropping acres are on ground that does not have high erosion potential. Because of his complex rotational system, previous development of wind breaks, and general effort to keep the ground covered with some crop he did meet eligibility requirements," Oksendahl said. "But it is certainly possible that organic crop farmers in another context might not meet this criteria."
Lund works hard to assure that the economics of the farm make sense and that a healthy diversity of both crops and livestock is maintained. He is hopeful for the future of a fourth generation of Lund farming.
Q. What is the future of your farm?
A. "One of my sons may be interested in taking over the farm some day and it is my goal to make that transition as easy as possible."
Organic agriculture, like all agriculture, is not a system with a specific end point. Rather, it involves a continual learning process to meet the inevitable contradictions and tensions of sustaining the land and its people. The CSP is a fundamentally new kind of conservation program that clearly rewards the efforts of those intimately engaged in this process. It needs broader support so that more farmers can take the necessary risks to move toward more sustainable systems of production. Valerie Oksendahl adds, "I like the program (CSP) when we work with individuals who have really stepped up to the plate and are working for the land as well as reaping off the land. Individuals like Mikel who look at the whole picture and realize that all forces of nature should be in balance are the true conservationists of today and leaders for tomorrow."
This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014