Organic farming slow to catch on in South Dakota, but last year saw jump

Farm Forum

MADISON, S.D. — Charlie Johnson grew up on an organic farm started by his father 40 years ago.

The way his family farms hasn’t changed much for the now 59-year-old farmer even though conventional farming technologies have progressed.

Johnson Farms is a 2,500-acre organic farm near the junction of Lake, Minnehaha and McCook counties. It is co-owned and operated by Johnson and his brother, Allan, and is one of about 103 organic farms or ranches in South Dakota.

“(My dad) was a hippie with a crew cut,” Johnson said. “So, he really had respect for life in the soil, so no product was going to go on his land or farm unless he could put it on his own tongue or mouth without killing himself.”

According to information from the United States Department of Agriculture, Johnson’s farm is a rarity in South Dakota. There are 31,000 farms or ranches in South Dakota, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture website. And, according to the USDA, there are 103 certified organic operations in the state. This means fewer than a half-percent of the farms and ranches in South Dakota are organic.

But, recent data shows South Dakota experienced an approximate 29 percent growth in certified organic operations between 2014 and 2015. That’s higher than the national average of about 12 percent, USDA data shows. The term certified organic operations refers to farms, ranches, processors and retailers.

North Dakota, Minnesota and Nebraska also experienced double-digit increases by an approximate 23 percent, 36 percent and 30 percent growth in organic operations, respectively.

“It still continues to have a lot of people looking at it, there are a number of new producers entering organics, and then we also lose a few, too,” said Bob Weyrich, an SDDA agriculture development representative. “But, we might be losing an older, smaller producer but gaining a newer, larger producer.”

Weyrich told The Mitchell Daily Republic newspaper that there’s no way to know for certain, because SDDA has not been tracking the number of organic acres in South Dakota.

Johnson said due to his father’s strong belief in respecting the environment, the family has not used chemicals for farming at any point since 1976. The four major crops Johnson farms are corn, oats, soybeans and alfalfa. But, none of these crops stay in South Dakota after harvest.

“We come close to 60 semi loads that leave our farm every year,” Johnson said. “Not a single semi has unloaded in the state of South Dakota. It’s mainly going to Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.”

There is not as much demand for organic grains in South Dakota as there is in other states due to a smaller number of organic operations, so Johnson said that’s why his grains get transported elsewhere.

Though Johnson believes there is a growing consumer interest in organics every year, he thinks the reason organics hasn’t gained more traction in South Dakota is due to some challenges it imposes on farmers.

“I think for a lot of farmers to get into organic is a big hurdle,” Johnson said. “The use of seed technology and chemicals and other approaches in precision farming has in some ways made it a lot easier for existing farmers.”

Johnson said the amount of acreage he farms takes three to four people, and they are busy every day from April to November, but if he was operating a conventional farm, one person could likely do all the work.

Weyrich said SDDA advocates for all types of agriculture, and there is plenty of opportunity. But, it ultimately comes down to sustainability whether the operation is large, small, conventional or organic.

“There’s a pretty substantial amount of paperwork and process that they have to go through that in many situations doesn’t really lead to widespread adoption of organic,” Weyrich said. “That’s why it’s still pretty small and it’s also why there is still a high premium for it.”