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Record crowd show growing interest in organics

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 02/18/2011 4:33 PM

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ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Minnesota's recent Organic Conference set an attendance record in St. Cloud with close to 500 people turning out for the two-day event.

Participants were also enthusiastic about the industry's future, said George Siemon, a keynote speaker at the event.

Siemon is a founding member of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, which sells products through its brands Organic Valley and Organic Prairie.

"Everyone here is happy and wearing a smile," he said. "It's really a life-changing experience to grow organically because you are part of something positive. And you see many young people here. They believe in organics."

CROPP was started by farmers who had the same fervor for organic production, he said. Some producers may turn to organics because it usually offers a higher price than conventional production. Many stay with organics because of its production methods.

"We have chosen to be a stable price business," he said.

He calls organic production an art form. Good organic producers can get yields that match conventional production, he said.

Siemon called CROPP a "social experience disguised as a business."

CROPP has helped its organic farmer members access programs.

"There are many programs available to organic producers, but (the farmers) have problems accessing them," he said. "We've helped them. We have had projects where farmers could get three-fourths of the funds they needed to get a project done."

CROPP's sustainable, organic production model is carried out through its business operations. The cooperative has and is using several forms of renewable energy from solar panels to wind turbines.

Siemon discussed several challenges facing organic production including genetically modified organisms.

Some legal battles have been won against biotech development, but some of those cases are being appealed. Siemon called for more oversight over biotech development.

Atina and Martin Diffley focused their keynote speech on working together. Producers, whether large or small, conventional, organic and local, must move the world closer to a sustainable farming culture.

The Diffleys owned and managed Gardens of Eagan Organic Vegetable Farm from 1973 to 2008. They sold the business portion of the farm to the Wedge Co-op and continue to live on the farm. They provide consulting through their business and teach organic farming and marketing through non-profits and universities.

The average consumer can't sort out all the labels like natural, sustainable and local.

"Organics, though, is defined by the organic standards," Atina said.

Breakout sessions during the conference covered government programs, market outlooks, new organic grazing rules, grain and forage crop production and livestock production and management.