Gutknecht, USDA officials visit organic farm

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 10, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

WALTERS &045; U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht and United States Department of Agriculture officials visited an organic farm enrolled in conservation programs

Wednesday afternoon.

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After a whirlwind two-day tour of southern Minnesota and Iowa, the busful of dignitaries and government conservation officials left the bus at the Denise and Archie Kluender farm south of Wells near Walters. There, they relaxed for a while on hay bales while they listened to a presentation on the government’s Conservation Security Program.

CSP, a part of the National Resources Conservation Program, is designed to reward good conservation practices already in place, unlike the Conservation Reserve Program, which helps implement the conservation management practices.

The Kluenders have the only organic farm enrolled in the CSP program in the Blue Earth River watershed &045; one of just 18 pilot watersheds CSP money has been allocated for nationwide. The Blue Earth River watershed has just a sliver in Freeborn County, but stretches farther west and south to Jackson, Watonwan, Martin, Faribault, Blue Earth counties and Iowa’s Emmet and Kossuth counties.

Things have changed on the near-century-old Kluender farm in recent years &045; it has been certified organic since 1997 and has been in the CSP program for three years. The Kluenders grow corn, soybeans, alfalfa, winter rye, buckwheat and hairy vetch on the farm where they once raised pigs.

Navigating the CSP

The Conservation Security Program came out of the Rural Investment Act of 2002, and started getting funded in 2004.

The Kluender farm is a Tier 1 CSP site, meaning they are at the first of three conservation

award stages and can get about $20,000 a year for their five-year CSP contract.

The Kluenders practice conservation crop rotation, use cover crops, field borders and windbreaks. They and other Tier I landowners must also collect yield data, use sod and perennial crops in rotation, minimize the use of pesticides by using pest-resistant plant varieties &045; something the organic farming Kluenders already do &045; and use yield-monitoring data. They also make conservation enhancements on their property, take care of field borders, using renewable energy fuel, use legumes to supply crops with necessary nutrients and plant cover crops.

Those are the requirements for Tier 1 CSP sites. Tier 2 sites must meet those requirements and more: they must enroll every acre in the standards of Tier 1. They must create wildlife habitat.

Tier 3 sites must fulfill all the requirements of Tier 2 sites as well as additional ones, such as certain pesticide handling and storage methods, lubricant and petroleum handling and storage, the creation of emergency provisions for chemical or fuel spills and the sealing of wells.

And the requirements get stiffer with time. Those who sit on their CSP laurels will find that their money slowly starts to fizzle out

if they don’t continue to upgrade and make progress with new conservation efforts. The monetary incentive is there, too &045; Tier 3 sites get $45,000 a year for a contract up to 10 years long.

Visiting the Kluenders

Instead of the pungent odor of pigs, the Kluender farm now smells of sweet hay. Their farm has 700 acres of certified organic crops, and the Kluenders are working on transitioning another 130 acres to organic.

They got into growing organic crops when the chemicals started giving Archie Kluender health problems back in 1994. The Kluenders had already been members of the local sustainable agriculture group since the 1980s, and liked what they saw when some of the other members made the transition to organic.

The Kluenders grow plenty of hay, and specialty soybean crops like tofu soybeans and soy milk soybeans &045; much of the tofu soybean crop ends up in Japan. Some of what they grow gets sold to the Albert Lea Seed House to be sold as seed. Some ends up in Iowa or Missouri. Food industry giant Frito Lay has bought some of the Kluender crops, too.

Organic crops on the Kluender farm are planted in a three-year rotation, with cover crops preserving the soil in between growing seasons. The first year, they plant corn and the second, soybeans. The third year they often plant winter rye, which serves as a compost for the corn crop in the following year’s corn rotation.

They get their compost from an organic turkey farm 100 miles away.

The standards for growing organic are high, and Denise spends quite a bit of time filling out paperwork that shows the farm is in compliance with national standards. For an example, every time a piece of machinery like a digger gets cleaned off, the cleaning products have to be approved by the National Organic Standards Board and the paperwork must reflect that.

Though the paperwork can be extensive, the Kluenders enjoy growing organic crops. They like networking with other organic farmers and hearing from buyers, who often contact them.

Growing organic also allows them to deal with the food system more directly, and then of course there’s the pleasure of farming itself.

&8220;A clean field, that’s a treat,&8221; Denise said.

They didn’t expect transitioning to organic farming would be as much work as it was, but their neighbors have been supportive too, taking care not to let any chemicals spread into the Kluenders’ fields.

&8220;We’re satisfied with the CSP. It’s paid us well,&8221; said Archie, though he would not disclose exactly how much money the family had received.

Reaching a higher level

The Kluenders do face challenges before they can make the transition to Tier 2, because each and every one of their fields would need to meet the Tier 1 standards first.

One of their fields has a 15 percent slope grade, a site with high runoff potential that could spoil the push to Tier 2.

&8220;If we put it into hay, we would qualify,&8221; Archie said. &8220;But what are we going to do with all the hay?&8221;

The farm already has all the hay it needs, and in fact, has a surplus of hay, because the Kluenders no longer raise pigs or any other animals. At least two storage buildings on the farm have bales upon bales of hay in them, stacked up to the ceiling.

Another challenge is the property the Kluenders have rented out, which they simply don’t have control over. Those who are farming the land are the ones who have control over it.

Despite the challenges, the Kluenders are optimistic about future enrollment in the CSP.

Recently, a red-headed woodpecker has taken up residence on the Kluender farm, proving the Kluenders have made room for wildlife habitat, required to advance to Tier 2.