When Will Glazik’s father needed to grow the bottom line for his 400-acre farm in Paxton, Illinois in 2005, he became a certified organic farmer.

“The neighbors thought it was backwards and crazy that [the family] would not utilize chemicals and fertilizers,” said Glazik, 28, who obtained his own organic credentials two years ago. “There was one farmer who blamed my dad for herbicide-resistant weeds, even though he hadn’t sprayed any herbicide since 2003.”

But as demand rose for organic foods, the investment started paying off. The family’s business, J&W Organic Farm, now raises crops for tofu and soy milk and has launched a distillery. “We’ve got farmers asking us how we’re controlling weeds because they’re running in to trouble with some of their ground,” Glazik said. “And we’ve had neighbors start transitioning to organic after seeing what my parents have done.”

Glazik is among organic producers from across the Midwest giving tips of the trade this week during the Agronomy Training Series. The event was co-sponsored by The Land Connection, a Champaign, Illinois-based farmer training organization, and Purdue Extension.

Certified crop advisers and other agriculture professionals who work with current or prospective organic farmers gathered at Fusion 54 for training on topics including production basics, certification and record-keeping and economic trends. Participants were also scheduled to visit an organic farm in western Montgomery County owned by the Mills family. 

2018 was a record-breaking year for the industry. Sales of organic products grew to $52.5 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 1997, according to the Organic Trade Association, a lobbying group representing producers.

Organic food represented about 6% of total U.S. food sales last year, the association said, but less than 1% of farmland is dedicated to organic production. Imports of organic grain fill much of the shortfall.

With depressed commodity prices and ongoing trade issues roiling the conventional ag industry, farmers are looking for alternatives, said Michael O’Donnell, organic agriculture educator at Purdue Extension.

From 2008 to 2016, the amount of U.S. farmland devoted to the production of organic corn, soybeans, wheat, oats and barley grew more than 20 percent to 765,000 acres, the association reported. Over a similar period, sales of U.S. organic livestock products nearly tripled to $3.3 billion.

Making the transition to organic production doesn’t come cheap. Farmers cannot use traditional chemicals on their fields for three years and must find alternatives for synthetic herbicides to become certified.  

Misconceptions remain about the industry, O’Donnell said. Despite forgoing traditional chemicals, organic farmers use modern equipment to tend the fields.

More research could help raise awareness of the industry, he added.

“A lot of the research focus and then dollars that have been directed to advancing agriculture have been directed to conventional production systems and not organic, so if we expand the agriculture landscape and we start to promote more research effort and dollars into that system, we could see big leaps and bounds,” O’Donnell said.

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