Trautman Family Farm

  (stoughton, Wisconsin)
The Grass-Organic Life in Wisconsin!
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Organic EXCELLENCE -- Introduction to Organic Farming @ MATC Madison Truax campus

Over a year ago now, I, Scott Trautman, picked up the latest MATC class guide, and noticed there was an Ag department, but no farming classes, and definitely no organic farming classes. I contacted the director of the ag department, and with him and the fine staff, and a phenomenal co-teacher, Sam Prasch, doctoral candidate, we put together the spring semester "Introduction to Organic Farming" class. It meets Tuesday and Thursday nights Jan into April, with less meetings and some farm visits as we re-enter the farming season. I am an organic farmer, that is my living, so I understand about time.

I tend to be a person of action; I'm not your protest guy, or conspiracy nut; I can complain with the best of them but end up in "what can be done, what can I do?". Otherwise I don't spend much time "there". I believe -as should others -- and definitely farmers - ought know they have far more control over their lives & careers than they give themselves credit for. I worked with MATC to come up with this class, for a constructive solution to the problem of failing farms.

I can't control the weather (drought, torrential downpours), but I can control how I'm prepared for it (building organic matter to hold more moisture, etc.). And for farmers especially, we have no control over the markets. The conventional markets are up, down, and when they're up, the costs mysteriously go up to meet them. The deck seems stacked against us. What to do?

If all a person wants to do is bitch about that, and be in good company while doing so, and pretend there's nothing that can be done, go with the flow and pretend the family farm is dead, then you can surely stop reading here, because what this course offers is a long term future in farming. But with anything truly good -- it is not free, it is not without risk. Are you good enough to not only become an organic farmer, but an excellent organic farmer?

The organic markets have proven themselves far more stable than conventional markets. No wild speculative swings; good prices every year. This year corn, for example, is $9/bushel at harvest time and holding. Milk price, base, is $23.50, and has been that since spring, and was $22 before that. How's your milk price holding up? Us organic guys don't get too excited when the conventional milk price gets close to ours, because we KNOW it won't hold; enjoy it while you can, it'll be down to $14 again and then where will you be? We'll still be at $23.50.

So pricing -- more stable, and a system organized from the very start with the idea that to make organic work -- farmers would need to be paid a fair price every year. If you object to organic, you also have to reject that idea as well.

Costs: Yes they are more for organic. Some of that is scale; the amount of organic fertilizers (yes we do use them by the way) produced are small compared to the billions of pounds of conventional fertilizers, and they have to be produced in a responsible way, which also costs more. How you ought to think about "going organic" is that you're going to BUY your soil's fertility instead of RENTING it year after year. You will invest in your soils to get them back to say -- where your grandfather left them to your father, and maybe even your father left them to you--and that will take some money and time. But once you get there -- once you own your fertility -- its a matter of maintenance rather than putting the same and more inputs on each year. The real money to be made in organic is 5 years down the line when our input costs are way down -- and conventional inputs will be higher still and more of them.

Why haven't more farmers gone organic, anyway? First, in our taking responsibility, we haven't done a good enough job of convincing; there have been failures of "organic" farmers and not enough "successes" that are obvious enough examples. The dynamic is often that a failing farmer -- a not very good farmer, period -- will reach out and believe that organic will save his farm. They don't educate themselves, they don't become better farmers, they just quit using chemicals and the most important part, don't change how they think about farming, and they fail. And when they fail -- they blame organic, that organic doesn't work, it couldn't possibly be them. And the neighbors all believe that -- especially when they have help in that idea from...the guys that sell them all those great chemicals. You don't want to be like Charlie over there, do you?

There are indeed bad organic farmers. They drive me nuts because they are screwing up my brand, organic, but the tragic problem is that a giant bomb blast goes off covering miles and miles -- and when you bring up the word organic the area farmer responds -- THERE is your organic, over there -- Charlie, what a mess. No matter that Charlie IS the mess, and organic, needing more skill, amplified and accelerated his inevitable failure, but wasn't the cause of his failure.

This course and my efforts in this class are to make EXCELLENT organic farmers of already EXCELLENT farmers. Are you an excellent farmer, looking to be rewarded for your excellent stewardship and management? You owe it to yourself to look at organic.

Being an excellent -- and that translating to successful -- organic farmer -- is going to take a change in how you look at your farm. There aren't the chemical "whoopsies", there is no call to the Coop to come spray away your mistakes, there is excellent, timely farming, and a farmer behind it that takes responsibility for himself and his future.

Do you understand that nature wants us to succeed? I mean really, do you understand that? Nature wants us to work with her, not make war on her. Dousing her creation with chemical killers, caustic fertilizers is not working with, it is battling nature. Accept that making war on anything is always but always going to cost more in the long run than working with something. Organic farmers build organic matter in the soil, rotate crops, work with soil life to create all the same types of situations you must create chemically when you work against her.

Organic farmers are capable of similar yields as conventional, but understand it will take time to get there. With organic farming, every year gets better, the soils repair themselves, soil life gets better, yields get better, weed pressures lessen. Can you say that about conventional agriculture? Before you say yes, I want to see the soil reports. I want to see your organic matter -- today and 10, 20 years ago, I want to see your nutrient levels, and I want to see what your soil looks and acts like. Then you come look at mine -- or any other GOOD organic farmers and see what we see.

Let me paint a picture for you. Farming is supposed to be fun -- I'm having fun farming. 1st, I'm creating this scene, and I don't have to thank any chemicals for it. It's all me. 2nd, every year gets better -- every spring my soils are better, my crops do better, I fantasize about how they will be in 10 years, 20, how good can they get?

I love to raise a little corn here, and the peak of my joy is to cultivate. When I cultivate, I'm driving through almost clean rows, through dark green healthy corn, I'm opening up the beautiful dark soil is what I'm doing mostly. Sure, I have a few weeds along the way -- but not a weed problem. And to know I did this - me - not chemicals, and I'll get paid fairly for it every year, get decent yields, that is when farming is truly fun.

I respect the hard work and innovation of farmers. We have continued to get more and more efficient, and then given all of that away to agribusiness; each and every time, yet we continue to come back for more, and lose more farmers along the way. Are you ready for a change? Do you want to attract your children to the farm, rather than send them away? Don't you owe it to yourself, as a businessperson -- to look at ANY options out there to protect your future?

Come join our class. Be skeptical. But bring an open mind. Don't think you have to drop everything you know and start "going organic" tomorrow; you can shoot down the road as many years as you need, but you do need to make some changes now, and understand those changes will help you in the farming you do now. Waiting until you're backed into a corner, going organic will not be an option.

The ideal situation is one where over time, you NEED less and less chemicals to get the same and better yields, and the point comes where you're ready to take the extra money for going all the way to organic.

The hardest, and biggest change comes in changing how you think. One example I like to give. Follow me on this --

Problem: Weeds
Cause: Lack of herbicide
Solution: Apply herbicide

Problem: Weeds:
Cause: Hey wait a second -- what weeds are we talking here? WHAT weeds we have gives us clues to what is going on with the soil and conditions that we can then work on.
Solution: Fix the problems in the soil, take the proper timely actions to conditions. In time, problem solved, permanently -- not just this season with a call to the coop.

Can you think that way? It is harder. You will have to re-think all those deep, deep ruts in your unexamined ideas that benefit not you, not your farm, not the world, but agribusiness - transferring your natural resource wealth out of your pocket and into theirs.

Are you an excellent farmer already? We need you. Not very good? Thanks, but you need all the tools you have already, you'd best stay just where you're at. We don't need you messing up our organic brand, nor blocking other farmers from thinking about going organic with your failure, and you will fail.

This course is about creating organic excellence; introducing you to a way of thinking, immersing you in the world of resources available (so many more in 2008 than even when we started in 2003!), exposing you to excellent farmers that have had the courage to make those hard decisions, and to look deep within themselves, and decide they wanted something better for themselves, their families and the world. They decided to go organic.

Take the course -- it's just a few hours this winter -- can you take the challenge of surrounding yourself with people that don't think exactly like you currently do? Do you love farming enough to look at all the options rather than just the same ones from the same places that give the same results?

Enrollment opens December 2nd. Please contact me with any questions you might have; you are welcome to my farm anytime, I will be open and honest with you, and I don't pretend that it's all sunny, 70 and an inch a week here.

All the very best to you and yours,

Scott Trautman
Trautman Family Farm, Stoughton WI
Organic 100% Grass dairy, Grassfed beef, Pastured Pork, eggs & more
Instructor, Introduction to Organic Farming, MATC Madison WI

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