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Woodford County Leads Illinois in Organic Farming. Many Opportunities and Challenges Are Ahead

The mud is thick and the icy puddles are unavoidable as Mitch Wettstein trudges through a field of corn stubble on his family’s farmland outside Goodfield, Illinois.

It’s a gray winter day, and it looks cold, but the temperature sits just above freezing, reducing the latest snow cover to just a patchy white slush.

In the next field over, just past the rushing creek, the corn stubble ends and a relief from the drab winter colors comes into view with a hint of green leaves peeking out between the patches of snow.

“So this is clover," Wettstein explained. "We planted this last February or March and the idea is this keeps your weed pressure down, holds your soil in.”

At 20 years old, Wettstein is just getting his start in commercial farming along with his father. They took over this 200 acre farm operation in 2017. 

At first glance, Mitch and his father’s farm may appear no different than the hundreds of thousands of acres of conventional agriculture surrounding it in this county, but their farm is one of the newest additions to a small but growing network of farms in Woodford County that have been transitioned into organic production over the last decade.

Erik Wiegand who runs the organics program at Early Bird Feed and Fertilizer in Goodfield noticed this shift in organic farming when he returned to the area in 2018.

“After 17 years in other places, the number of organic farms and the size of them was probably the biggest change that I saw," Wiegand said. 

The latest Census of Agriculture shows Woodford County with the most USDA certified organic farm operations in Illinois.

“You know Woodford County does stand out because I think in this region we have somewhere around 10% of the organic farms in Illinois, which is pretty outstanding," said Ryan Koory of Mercaris, a market intelligence firm in the organics industry.

Within the context of Illinois agriculture, Woodford County stands out as a leader of organic production, but in the Midwest, Illinois is largely lagging.

“You’re looking at Iowa with about 140,000 acres, Wisconsin has north of 200,000, Illinois only has somewhere around 40[-thousand], so the real potential to come into this state and really build that organic footprint, it’s there,” said Koory.

Many consumers might readily associate organics with the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables available directly to them at farmers markets and in the produce section at the grocery store, but the majority of organic crops grown in this part of the American corn belt are not meant for human consumption.

“A lot of it goes into feeding livestock. So a lot of the corn goes into chicken feed and cattle feed, and soybeans as well, soybean meal,” said Wettstein.

Organic crops such as corn and soybeans currently fetch higher prices than their conventional counterparts, but more economic value is generated further down the supply chain with products such as those that come from livestock. Barb Barcal, an organic grain specialist with All Star Trading, said farmers should consider ways to capture more of the economic benefits of this emerging organics industry within Central Illinois.

“Over the years we’ve lost a lot of livestock in the state, so we need to have fully diversified farms that have livestock," she said. 

Cavan Sullivan owns and operates a startup poultry processing business in Petersburg Illinois . Although they do not produce any organic products for their current clients, Sullivan does see an opportunity worth pursuing given the increased organic feed production in Central Illinois. 

“So having an organic supply chain for the input grains for a product that's being raised here, one, it's going to decrease the carbon footprint of that product, and it's also going to decrease the cost to produce," he said. "Something that we are floating out into the world is the idea that the grain that went into the animal that's eating it has traveled less than ten miles.”

With organic transition and production comes many challenges. Without the chemical herbicides widely used in conventional farming, weed control becomes a major issue.

“It's a pretty big challenge to try to keep the weeds down. If there's a ton of weeds out there it lowers your yield. If there's a lot of fox tail out there, that's competition for the bean plant,” said Wettstein.

But with this added challenge comes another upstream supply chain opportunity as manufacturing entrepreneur Jonathan Hostettler knows first hand. He has worked closely with organic farmers over the last year to solve weed control issues with mechanical solutions.

“We’re coming up with totally new concepts from a row crop cultivation standpoint that addresses that issue. You know, to get equipment that is up to date and user friendly and helps with time would make a huge different in some farmers deciding ‘yeah, I'm going to go organic,’” Hostettler said. 

What seems to make many of these farmers’ challenges easier to overcome is the community and collaborative culture that has formed over the years around organic agriculture

“One of the key things that unites everybody in this, they have a passion for it. I just feel like that's really where it's gonna grow because passion spreads quickly,” said Hostettler.

“The people that are doing this, the producers, are really good at what they do, they're really digging in, learning to do it well, and it's giving organics some legitimacy I think in Woodford County,” said Wiegand.

Back at his farm, Mitch gets to work in the machine shed preparing for another planting of certified organic crops...and another year of facing the challenges and opportunities of a changing agriculture industry.

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