Mae Petrehn

Mae Petrehn stands by an organic grain mill she inspected. Petrehan works for Dakota’s Best Seed and advises transitioning organic growers. She’ll put on a workshop as part of the Organic TEAM Summit Nov. 21 in Platte, S.D.

Todd Den Besten grew up with roots in small grains and regenerative agriculture, but even he knows organic farming isn’t easy.

The Platte, South Dakota farmer and owner of Dakota’s Best Seed bought a farm last fall with the intention of transitioning the land to certified organic acres. After seeing how big of an issue weeds were in the fields he had second thoughts about whether he could control them without the conventional herbicides.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” he said.

Den Besten runs into many farmers who just see dollar signs from the premium prices organic grain brings. They think they could get two or three times the value for their corn crop if it was just planted with organic seed, but it takes much more than that, he said.

“If your heart isn’t in it, it’s hard to be successful with it,” he said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

To help growers understand all that’s involved in transitioning to organics and to share information on markets, agronomy and equipment for growing organic, Dakota’s Best Seed is hosting the Organic Farm TEAM (for Training, Engagement, Advancement and Marketing) Summit Nov. 20 and 21 in Platte.

The two-day event includes keynote speakers, an equipment showcase, and several panels of growers will talk about marketing, management practices and more. Hearing from other organic growers about how they’ve done it and why it worked provides for some of the most exciting sessions, said Mae Petrehn, production protocol manager at Dakota’s Best Seed and an organic inspector.

The summit’s speaker lineup includes organic growers and national industry leaders in the organic market space. Madison, South Dakota organic farmer Charlie Johnson will be speaking, as will Dr. Jonathan Lundgren of Blue Dasher Farms in Brandt, South Dakota. Kate Mendenhal, director of the Organic Farmers Association, will join virtually, and organic crop consultant Sam Malriat from the Rodale Institute will talk, too.

Petrehn will lead a workshop Saturday afternoon on the organic certification process and the record keeping requirements. Having lead a similar workshop this summer, she had attendees from all walks. Some seasoned growers wanted to learn to be more efficient with their record keeping, she said, while others were just curious if organic crops could work on their operation.

“I enjoy helping people determine if it’s right for them or not,” she said.

The number of organic farms and the amount of organic farmland in South Dakota is dropping, according to latest organic survey released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service last month. Bucking the national trend and what’s happening in surrounding states, the number of organic farms in South Dakota decreased from 86 at the time of the last survey in 2016 to 68 in 2019, and the state lost 42,600 acres of organic farmland in that time.

Of the surrounding states, Nebraska saw the biggest organic growth, growing its number of organic operations by nearly 47% to 238 total organic farms in 2019. The number of organic acres in Nebraska more than doubled to 231,833 acres.

Nationwide, the number of organic operations went up 16% between 2016 and 2019. In Kansas organic farms grew by nearly 28%, 16.5% in Minnesota, 6% in Iowa and 2.6% in North Dakota.

The amount of land farm organically increased at a higher rate in most states in the region, indicating that organic farms are following the trend of conventional farms and getting bigger.

While some in South Dakota might have jumped ship on growing organic, Petrehn pointed out that one big farm can do a lot to sway the numbers. West of Pierre, General Mill’s is transitioning 34,000 acres known as Gunsmoke Farms to grow organic wheat and other crops for its organic pasta products. The company’s goal was the have the acres certified by 2020.

It’s a long process for certification, taking at least three years from the last time conventional herbicide was used on the land.

While the USDA survey says revenue from organic commodities is down in South Dakota, Den Besten said that doesn’t reflect trends at the grocery store. The COVID-19 pandemic and its disruption of the food supply chain prompted shoppers to look to locally grown and organic products.

“People didn’t spend less on food choices, they looked at that at being more important now than ever,” Den Besten said.

Consumer demand is pushing the trend toward organics, and big food companies like General Mills are answering that call by working with farmers to grow organic crops and use regenerative farming methods. This fall, Cargill announced an initiative to support farmers in adopting regenerative practices on 10 million acres by 2030. Den Besten sees those company’s involvement in the regenerative movement as “necessary.”

“They have the money to make that push and the name recognition,” he said. “It moves things.”

Grass seed was the focus when his grandfather, Case Den Besten, started the seed company in the 1960s. He sold the Oahe intermediate wheatgrass variety developed by the Agricultural Experiment Station in Brookings and released in 1961.

“That’s been a real mainstay in our operation since then,” said Den Besten, who took over the company from his dad, Lowell, in the 1990s.

Four years, ago the Den Bestens transitioned their entire seed operation in Platte to be a certified organic cleaning facility, and they aim to grow as much of the seed in this region as possible.

Oats, barley and alfalfa are the most widely used organic crops. But corn is still king of the organic world, Den Besten said. Many growers plant organic small grains with the intention of getting back to corn, he said.

Soybeans are also gaining traction in the organic market with food grades selling in the upper $20 per bushel range. But they involve a lot of work. Den Besten said some farmers have found it worthwhile to hire hand weeding crews.

“Because it’s such a great income, they’re willing to spend a little extra in weed control,” he said.

Weed control and input costs are some of the most common questions Petrehn get at her transitioning seminars. Conventional growers are used to buying products to add fertility or combat weeds, she said, but that mindset doesn’t work with organic agriculture. She talks farmers through some smart decisions they can make early in the transition process to keep up with weed issues. Growing small grains and alfalfa instead of cash crops can help, she said.

Alfalfa is a great transition crop, Den Besten added, because it provides weed control and builds the soil. He encourages people away from thinking they’ll transfer their entire farm to organic acres in a year. Taking it one field at a time is a better approach, he said.

He and his team at Dakota’s Best Seed has been working to provide better markets for organic grains. Some smaller cooperatives are starting to build storage for organics and add rail capacity. North Dakota’s organic wheat market has some spillover to South Dakota, and that’s moving things along.

“It’s not that there’s not buyers, it’s getting it there cost effectively,” Petrehn said.

Offering a food grade cleaning line at the Dakota’s Best Seed facility in Platte might be the next step. It’s all part of promoting the organic system, which is what the Organic TEAM Summit aims to do.

The event will be hosted both in person and virtually. The cost is $65 for the two-day summit and $15 for the Friday night dinner reception. Tickets are available through Friday, Nov. 13. Call Petrehn at 605-682-0006 or visit organicfarmteam.com/teamsummit

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at jatyeo@tristateneighbor.com or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor