Western Wisconsin sees growth in organic farming

Posted February 11, 2019

When shopping for groceries it’s easy to fall into a zombie-like state and grab your weekly supply of meals and snacks, but if you look closely you might notice a rising movement that’s taking root across Wisconsin. It’s an increase in the amount of organic produce hitting the shelves.

The United States had 14,217 certified organic farms in 2016 with roughly 9 percent being located in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service. To be certified organic, a farm must reach the qualifications and guidelines set out by the USDA and hire a private organization to verify the claim.

Organic farms in the state have doubled in the last 10 years, according to a 2017 report by UW-Madison. Greg Zwald, director of the UW-River Falls Laboratory Farms and the owner of White Pine Berry Farm in St. Croix County, said he believes organic farming will continue to grow in western Wisconsin in the near future.

“Organic food is more readily available,” Zwald said. “It’s also more readily available at a lower price.”

Zwald said that the organic movement in western Wisconsin has grown over the past several years and he believes it will continue to be more commercially viable with a higher quality product. The movement started decades ago with a surge of farmers who shared an interest in certified organic produce in and around River Falls and La Crosse, he said. In addition, the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, a non-profit organization devoted to teaching farmers about sustainable agriculture, is headquartered in Spring Valley. The service is among organizations that certify organic farms.

River Falls farmer Bob Keatley said he believes that organic farming is a healthy way to grow produce.

“The reason why most people converted to organic is to eliminate that toxic chemical mix that’s being used by conventional farmers,” he said.

“Organic farming is consumer driven,” Keatley added. “When people are made aware of what’s in the food supply and start to do a little research on their own, they find out a lot of the food we are eating is contaminated.”

Keatley said non-organic crops, which are “bombarded” with toxic chemicals, may be causing a rise in disease among American consumers. He said he believes it is hard to pinpoint exactly which chemical is the culprit for certain health issues given the multitude of variables involved in farming, but there is a correlation between pesticides and disease.

While Zwald concedes that the science surrounding the harmfulness of chemicals in farming is unsettled and ambiguous, but may be true, he has seen no studies that definitively show non-organic foods cause cancer or other diseases.

Although organic farming remains clouded in controversy in some respects, it is undoubtedly on the rise. According to the USDA, the United States has seen a 23 percent increase in the total sales of certified organic produce from 2015 to 2016 for a total of $7.6 billion. Wisconsin was responsible for $255.5 million of that total, with its two top commodities being cow milk and cattle.

The Badger State has seen a 29.8 percent increase in certified organic milk sales from 2008 to 2014, with the 2017 status report placing approximately 33 certified organic farms within Pierce and St. Croix counties.

Kendall Keagan, former president of the Student Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture (SALSA) at UW-River Falls, said that Wisconsin is an ideal location for organic farming.

“The soil and the weather during the summer is the perfect climate for the type of gardening and it’s not very hilly or mountainous,” Keagan said.

Current SALSA President Austin Hausladen shares a similar sentiment, crediting the overall flatness of Wisconsin among other factors as the reason why organic farming is experiencing a rise.