Back to Basics
Organic farming brings economic and health benefits to rural America
y Catrina McCulley Wagner

In 1990, when Delmar and Theresa Westaby of Stockton, Ill decided to transform their 541-acre, fifth generation family dairy farm into a certified organic business, they didn’t realize that they were riding a wave into the nation’s fastest growing agricultural development.

“It had gotten to a point where we couldn’t afford to keep the farm going and we needed to look at other ways,” says Theresa. “When we did our research we found that farming organically would not only be more economical for our family’s future, but that there were health benefits to it too. Knowing that, we also began growing our own vegetables organically.”

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Theresa and Delmar Westaby have raised four kids on the C-R View Dairy Farm; Kaleena (19), Austin (17), Ceara (15) and Braden (13). Pictured here (l-r) are Braden, Ceara and Theresa.

Organic farming has been one of the fastest growing divisions of U.S. agriculture for more than a decade. And producers are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on non-renewable resources, capture premium prices and boost farm income. “Price premiums for organic products have contributed to the growth in certified organic farmland and, ultimately, market expansion,” says Delayne Reeves, Organic Program Coordinator for the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

When Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, there were less than a million acres of certified organic farmland in the United States. But by the time the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented national organic standards in 2002, certified organic farmland had doubled, and then doubled again between 2002 and 2005.

So, what is organic? “Basically it’s growing and/or raising food and fiber products in a natural way. In a way that’s more connected with the ecology of the system and looking at the whole growing environment. Organic farmers virtually exclude the use of all synthetic chemicals in crop production and prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock production,” says Reeves. “For example, if a pest comes into your garden and you know its life cycle and why it might be there, you can counter that in a more natural way. Oftentimes pests indicate an area where the soil fertility needs attention. Fix that, and most of the time, the pests will go away.”

“A lot has changed since we switched to organics,” says Delmar. “Our farm income has gone from just barely getting by, to 70-80 percent more. We don’t have to pay for the herbicides or the insecticides. And we can’t use nitrogen to fertilize so we use manure. Everything is natural, just like they farmed 60 years ago.”

“I was in a meeting with some local farmers and one of them remarked that since going organic he finally felt confident in passing his farm down to his son,” says Reeves. “He said that with traditional farming, he could never make a great enough profit to keep the farm going, but now with the new profit margin due to organics, he can allow his son to come back and keep the family farm thriving.”

Delmar says there is a wide misconception that farming organically takes much more work than farming commercially. But the fact is it’s so much less trouble to work with nature than to fight her. And after a while, you’ll see that nature suddenly becomes your friend and she will do most of the work for you.

“It’s true that at first going organic is more work because you have to get the soil healthy. But healthy soil creates healthy plants. And healthy plants have good resistance to pests. So in the end, everything is working together the way it’s supposed to,” Delmar says. “Yes, we still have to cultivate and hoe our crops, where commercial farms can just spray. Some people may see that as more work. But I can cultivate and hoe for a fraction of the cost, so it saves us money. And I’m not altering the way Mother Nature intended things to be. I find it very gratifying to work with Mother Nature instead of against her.”

But the standards are much more strict for an organic farm, and getting started can be a challenge for some. “To be considered organic, you must be certified through the USDA,” says Reeves.

“It takes three years for the chemicals to leave your soil. And you can’t use the organic stamp during those years, but that time is worth it because people are willing to pay more for food they feel is healthier,” Theresa adds.

“You don’t get to take advantage of those price premiums during that waiting period, and that can be rough for some farms,” Reeves says. But if you can make it through those three years, Theresa says the payback is so beneficial for not only your pocketbook, but also for your health.

Since turning to organic farming, the Westabys’ vet bills have gone way down. “We’re only spending about $250 a month and that’s typically for invitro fertilization. Our animals are healthier overall. Commercial farms can spend more than $1,000 per month on vet bills,” says Theresa.

The Westabys use homeopathy and natural remedies to treat their cows when they become ill. “We can’t use penicillin like commercial farms, so we use natural ingredients like garlic to treat them. Our cows are tested daily for purity. We stand behind our product because it’s our integrity too. If we want to make more money, we have to back up what people are paying for. We are part of the co-op of farmers that makes up Organic Valley in LaFarge, Wisc. They are very strict and their standards are very high. We are proud to be a part of them. They saved our farm,” Theresa says.

But it’s not just the animals that are reaping the benefits. “It’s a hard concept for me to grasp that putting any chemical in my soil whose label contains a warning with a skull and crossbones on it could possibly be healthy for my family or my animals to consume,” Delmar says. “I feel better about my kids’ farming our land knowing they are not around those chemicals.”

And Theresa says organic foods just taste better. “Often, the flavor is just so much better than commercially-grown and produced foods. Good organic fruits and vegetables are juicy and full-flavored and milk and cheese tastes richer.”

According to the Environmental Protective Agency’s (EPA) Web site, the potential health effects of pesticides depend on the type used. Some, such as the organophosphates and carbamates, may affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body. The EPA considers that 60 percent of all herbicides, 90 percent of all fungicides and 30 percent of all insecticides are carcinogenic. “But the Government claims that there’s no risk to health from these pesticide traces. I’d just rather feed myself and my family food that’s pesticide free,” Theresa says.

A 1987 National Academy of Sciences report estimated that pesticides could be responsible for 1.4 million cancer cases among Americans over their lifetimes. The bottom line is that pesticides are poisons designed to kill living organisms, and if used improperly can also be harmful to humans. In addition to cancer, pesticides are implicated in birth defects, nerve damage and genetic mutation.

“I’m finding that more people these days are concerned about where their food comes from,” Reeves says. And there is definitely room for more organic farmers in Illinois. “A report printed in March 2004 by the Chicago Tribune reported that the market for organic products in Chicago could exceed $300 million with sales in 2004 around $60-80 million annually,” Reeves says. “And in a 2002 report published by the Prairie Partner, a group stated that producers in Illinois were only providing about 3 percent of the Chicago market’s needs. And that’s just in Chicago. So there’s a huge demand and that demand could be met by new farmers getting into the industry.”

Although more and more large-scale farms are making the switch to organic practices, most organic farms are still independently owned and operated family farms. It’s estimated that the United States has lost more than 650,000 family farms in the last decade. Yet there is still hope for the small farm in rural Illinois. “Organic farming gives the small scale farmers an opportunity to make a living. It’s not a get rich quick scheme, but it’s definitely an option for small farms,” says Reeves.

Organic farming isn’t appropriate for every farm, but “for a lot of small farmers, like us, it’s another alternative. You can keep your farm small, but be productive and make the money you need to survive,” Delmar says. “We did get into organics originally to keep our farm afloat, but along the way, we discovered the health benefits, too,” says Theresa. “It will work, but you just have to change your mindset,” Delmar says.

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Keeping their cows healthy is of the utmost importance to the Westabys and part of that is feeding them well. Their cows eat a mixture of haylage, corn, bean-meal and minerals.

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Delmar Westaby is the third generation of his family to farm the C-R View Dairy in Stockton. He and his family start every morning at 6:30 milking the cows, a process that takes approximately two hours.

Touchstone Energy Cooperatives

The Organic Consumers Association: www.organicconsumers.org/organlink.cfm

The Organic Trade Association: www.ota.com/index.html

Organic.Org: www.organic.org

Farm Direct: www.illinoisfarmdirect.org

To join an organic co-op: www.localharvest.org
Alternative Farming Systems Information Center: http://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/ofp

The EPA on Organics: www.epa.gov/oecaagct/torg.html

Organic Ag Info: www.organicaginfo.org

Organic Farming Research Foundation: www.ofrf.org

USDA Agriculture Marketing Service: www.ams.usda.gov

Organic Agriculture Consortium: www.organicaginfo.org

USDA’s Economic Research Service Perspective on Organic Farming: www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/Organic