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Positively organic, Winona! (08/01/2007)
I had the pleasure recently of stopping by the Winona Farmers Market for some local organic chicken, fresh fruits and veggies. The number of vendors at the market, many of whom are organic, and the variety of products offered for sale, is astounding.

Next, I was going to stop by the Blue Heron Coffeehouse for a cup of organic coffee, but the place was packed with a Shakespeare "front porch" conversation. Such a problem to have!

I needed some organic milk, cheese, eggs, and chips, so I stopped at Bluff Country Coop, to fill my cart with delicious local and organic items. I could have gone to HyVee or Midtown Foods, since they also carry some organic foods, but I didn't have to repark my car. What convenience!

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Winona County is in the top five counties statewide for the number of organic farms. We have organic dairy, beef, sheep, goats, poultry, small grains, hay, row crops, vegetables, fruits, and orchard crops all raised in Winona County. What abundance!

This region is also fortunate to have certified organic processors, such as Ledebuhr Meat Processing, Burt's Hilltop Poultry, and Great River Organic Milling, located in our midst.

The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Lewiston has helped many farmers in Winona County convert all or a portion of their operations to organic production. The NRCS offers modest transition incentive payments, using Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds, for the three years that it takes to convert land from conventional to certified organic management.

The Land Stewardship Project (LSP), also in Lewiston, offers an innovative program called Farm Beginnings, which helps new farmers enter agriculture successfully. Many graduates of the Farm Beginnings program have gone into organic production. LSP has also organized workshops to help farmers improve their recordkeeping skills to meet the requirements for organic certification.

The Southeast Minnesota chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) has organized seminars on the basic requirements for organic certification of crop and livestock farms, and they have brought thought-provoking speakers to our area.

The demand for organic food grew 22% nationwide last year, reaching sales of $16.9 billion, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA). We are fortunate in Winona County to be part of that growth trend.

What are some of the benefits of organic production?

" A 10-year study by Universities of California-Davis and Minnesota has shown that organic tomatoes have higher levels of health-inducing bioflavonoids and antioxidants than conventional tomatoes, and that the levels increase over time in tomatoes grown in organic fields.

" A 27-year study by the Rodale Institute demonstrates that organic methods, which use soil-building crop rotations and cover crops, sequester more carbon dioxide than conventional methods, including conventional no-till.

" Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land, according to the University of Michigan. In addition to equal or greater yields, the researchers found those yields could be accomplished using existing quantities of organic fertilizers and without putting more farmland into production.

" Iowa State University's Long-Term Agricultural Research (LTAR) has shown greater yields, increased profitability, and steadily improved soil quality in organic over conventional rotations in grain-based cropping systems.

Winona County organic farmers are also participating in research and outreach activities. Organic dairy farmers Dale and Carmen Pangrac of Lewiston recently hosted a University of Minnesota Extension tour of their operation. Sandy and Lonny Dietz of Altura, who are working with UMN and UW conducting vegetable variety trials on their farm, were just named the Winona County Farm Family of the Year. Sandy and Lonny sell their organic produce at the Winona Farmers Market.

We are leaders in organic production (and consumption!) in Winona County. While more can be done, we are fortunate to live in a region where an increasing number of farmers are protecting water and soil resources from pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, and other toxins, while producing safe and abundant food by adopting organic methods.

Jim Riddle, rural Winona, is the University of Minnesota's Organic Outreach Coordinator, and serves as vice-president of Winona County's Economic Development Authority. He has served on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Task Force since 1991, and is former chair of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board.



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