Transitioning to Organic
Through education, patience and practice, farmer Doug Lewis has succeeded in keeping his family’s farm in business.
Today Doug and his wife Mary run Agristar, an organic farm in North Powder, Oregon. Agristar was born out of the Farm Crisis of the 1980s and the Lewis’ have fought methodically and strategically to be where they are at today.
Like many farmers in the 1980s, Doug’s parents Bill and Pat Lewis declared bankruptcy in 1986. The 1980s Farm Crisis was caused by massive surpluses of grain followed by all time low commodity prices, especially high lending rates, land price fluctuations, debt and failed policies.
The Lewis’ bankruptcy was mainly caused by a drop in commodity prices and land debt. The Lewis’ had relied on wheat and alfalfa yields as their main source of income.
The same year that Doug’s parents declared bankruptcy, Doug took over the farm. Doug had researched what crops were the most resistant to economic fluctuation and profitable for the north west. After taking over the farm, Doug added potatoes, peas and peppermint to the rotation.
Agristar in North Powder, Oregon. "The key was diversifying our financial risks,” Doug says.
After the first year of growing these new crops, Doug worked out a contract with Ore-Ida. “I agreed to grow a certain acre for Ore-Ida in ‘87. The contract felt more secure than the commodity markets. I knew that I was going to be paid for my crops.”
Doug also contacted A.M. Todd Company to contract grow peppermint oil for them. At the start of the contract, Doug was producing 60 acres of peppermint oil for A.M. Todd Company. By the end of the 1990s he was producing 1,000 acres of peppermint oil.
That same year in taking over Bill and Pat’s farm, Doug and Mary founded Agristar. Their new company started leasing land from Doug’s parents. This helped Doug’s parents reorganize in bankruptcy and helped Agristar profit from healthy, established crop land.
In the early 90s Agristar assumed some of Doug’s parents' debts.
“The key was diversifying our financial risks,” Doug said. He attributes Agristar’s success and profitability to his diversified growing plan.
Potatoes outside the potato processing and bagging plant at Agristar in North Powder, Oregon.
Agristar also found assurance in contracts. “When you have an end buyer there’s a guaranteed set price. I knew the price I would get for a yield the prior year...there is comfort in contracts.
Doug thanks his wife Mary for being on the numbers side of Agristar. “She runs the financing for the operation. I couldn’t run this business without her. You need somebody watching the finances constantly,” said Doug.
In 1999, after securing the state of Agristar, his parents, and the farm, Doug sought a new challenge -- growing organically.
Doug started transitioning his crop land to organic land in 1999; before that, he produced for conventional markets.
The idea to switch to an organic practice materialized when Doug and Mary agreed there was a better way to grow food.
“I was putting all these different products and pesticides on the crops and I got to thinking, gosh there’s got to be a better way.”
Doug inside his potato storing building.
Doug started seeing the value in healthy soil and crop production.
When Doug started in organics, he immediately saw new challenges that growing organically presented. Weeds, fertility and yields of crops were the biggest hurdles after moving away from conventional growing practices. Doug had to think outside of the box to overcome these challenges in an organic manner. Research led him to crop rotation, cover crops, natural bio-fumigants and growing specific crop to sustain an organic operation.
Switching conventional land to organic means no chemical inputs into the field for three years. “Transitioning is one of the more painful times because you have two years when you’re selling a commodity with lower yields than you’re used to. You can’t sell the commodity as an organic and you aren’t getting a premium for the product. So you’re kind of losing money for a couple years ‘til you get the transition. And that’s probably one of the bigger hurdles for people converting to organics.”
During those transition years, yields are not as high as they are needed for the conventional market, and the yields are not certified organic, which means the quality and price will not be as profitable. “You can’t expect instant results with anything you do organically. You’ve got to be thinking a couple years out to do an effective job.” With research, Doug found ways to mitigate weeds, enhance fertility, increase yield and raise quality. He recommends that farmers transitioning to organic shift land gradually, to keep reliable profits coming in.
Doug relies on rotations to alleviate weeds. “You’ve got to have rotations, because with chemicals and conventional farming there’s a lot of different inputs you can put in or on the crop in season that have pretty rapid impact.”
To increase fertility of his seeds and crops, Doug has spent hours researching which strain is going to be most profitable for the area, climate and market he’s in. “By selecting varieties that, perhaps conventionally, you wouldn’t consider, but organically they fit you better, you can increase yields and quality of your crop.”
Doug grows mustard, peas, oats as cover crops. “We try and do a good job covering the ground. Ground that is bare is more prone to erosion, whether it from wind erosion or water erosion. Something growing protects the soil because it has a root mass.”
To dissuade pests, Doug grows mustard right in front of his potato fields. The smell from the mustard crop acts as a bio-fumigant and suppresses pests, such as nematodes. Nematodes attack the root system of the crop and can impact root growth. Doug recalls a story after he had transitioned the farm that solidified why he stopped using chemicals and pesticides. “I was standing in six-foot tall mustard field prior to tilling the soil. I was able to control pests without killing all of the nutrients in the soil. I recognized the benefits of adding this organic matter and a biofumigant and capturing soil nutrients such as nitrogen.”
Doug successfully navigated the organic market for potatoes and wheat via education, patience and practice. He is thankful for his partnership with the Organically Grown Company, the largest distributor of organic produce in the Northwest who purchases his potatoes. You can purchase Doug’s potatoes from April to January at Trader Joes, Albertsons, Fred Meyers and others. His hard red wheat is used for the popular “Dave’s Killer Bread.”
Although the organic market has worked well for Doug, he notes the limitations of any market. Any market runs the risk of being flooded by producers. He explains that organic Oregon dairies have outgrown their market and now has an excess of milk. “I don’t know which industry isn’t suffering or is exempt from suffering.”
In 2017 the organic hay market crashed on Doug. “I had a good rotation but we had to sell down to conventional prices.”
Doug says the best way to avoid another individual farm crisis is to diversify and manage what you have. “I don’t have all of the answers but being as diverse as you can and managing your expenses as best as you can is the best way to protect yourself.”
Despite issues within the market, Doug is hopeful when he looks at how far food producing has come in the last few decades. Doug says new technology married with old technology and agricultural practices is helping to enhance food production.
“GPS allows you to plant precision rows that are so incredibly straight that you can do a much better job taking a cultivator through the field later,” said Doug. “The technology for tillage, planting, cultivating, harvesting we use today saves products, time, money, fuel and is more accurate.”
Doug says using older technology like tine weeders and new technology like optical weeding further improves yields.
Combining technology, innovative thinking, and a diversified yield are just a few ways that individuals can avoid another farm crisis.