Grain Place Foods: An organic oasis grows in Nebraska
Three generation family farm takes the long view to build fertile soils, biodiversity, and a successful business.
Highway 14 in Marquette, Nebraska runs through vast fields of genetically modified corn and soybeans stretching out as far as the eye can see. But the road soon comes to a very different kind of farm. There is a row of tall pine trees on the right, running parallel and diagonally to the road as a kind of natural wall. Amidst the trees, there are small signs displaying the green USDA Organic logo with a warning to not spray pesticides. Past the trees a road enters the property. A large sign greets visitors. It reads: “Grain Place Foods: How your food is produced does matter.” This is Grain Place Foods, an oasis of organic farming and processing diversity in a desert of industrial GMO farms.
Organic farm was “topic of coffee shop conversation”
Grain Place Foods is owned by the Vetter family. It became organic in 1953 when Don Vetter, who started the farm, questioned the wisdom of using agricultural chemicals and stopped using them when his neighbors were just starting.
Don’s son David continued the organic tradition in 1975 when he returned to his family’s farm after studying at a theological seminary. David chose the path of an organic farmer at a time when no one in his area did. He was, as he says, “a topic of coffee shop conversation” among skeptical neighboring farmers who said he wouldn’t last farming organically.
Despite the neighbors’ skepticism, David and Don plowed ahead, literally. In the early years, they produced organic grains, such as corn and soybeans. The challenge was finding markets. There were no distribution channels; David had to find his own markets, selling grains to food clubs, and often driving long distances to sell a small amount of grain.
“Vision of potential”
Processing was another challenge; there were no facilities dedicated to cleaning and conditioning organic grains. So they decided to build their own, which seemed like a crazy idea at the time. They had no market research to back their plan, only David’s conviction. “I was convinced of the market’s potential,” he says.
After being refused by several lenders, the Vetters found one who provided financing at a hefty 18.9% interest rate. “We put the family farm on the line to do it,” David says.
He has no regrets. “It would have been better to have tried and failed than not try and wonder what could have happened,” he says.
This marked the beginning of Grain Place Foods. In the early 1980s, the facility cleaned and conditioned just about any organic crop to earn money. “We looked at everything—from amaranth to lima beans—to generate revenue,” says Vetter. Someone even approached Vetter about cleaning and conditioning ground up tires.
Farming was also a trial-and-error approach with Vetter trying many different crops, such as specialty soybeans, corn varieties, and edible beans.
“Still in transition to organic”
Today, Grain Place Foods is a successful and thriving family business with nearly 30 employees. The farm is a model of organic diversity and soil fertility. The processing facility is busting at the seams to meet the fast-growing demand for organic grains and foods.
The Vetter’s 280-acre farm is divided into 18 fields. The fields stretch to the east in a large rectangle and are bordered by pine trees that aim to provide a buffer against pesticide and GMO pollen drift from the neighboring farms. Crops grown include popcorn, corn, soybeans, heirloom barley, alfalfa, and grass legumes. Seventeen acres are kept in pasture for grazing beef cattle. There are also hogs.
The farm supports biodiversity. Hazelnut and apricot trees provide habitat for pollinators such as bees and predatory insects that eat crop damaging pests. David’s sister, Glenda, keeps beehives. On a recent tour of the farm, visitors noticed the sounds of birds that aren’t heard on large GMO farms.
Building soil fertility is a major focus. The soil here developed under prairie grasses for thousands of years. David sustains that connection by planting ample grasses as part of his crop rotations, believing these will naturally enrich the native soil.
“We haven’t come close to seeing the possibilities in soil quality,” he says.
While many conventional farmers have a 2-year, corn-soybean crop rotation, David uses a 9-year rotation that includes corn, popcorn, soybeans, barley, grasses, and legumes.
With his wry smile, David says, “We’re still in transition to organic.”
Grain Place Foods processes a wide variety of products with the main categories being popcorn, specialty feeds for bird and pet foods, food ingredients such as oats, barley, and peas, and food products, including rolled oats and whole grains. The latter are merchandised to natural food retailers and sold in bulk bins in stores.
Grain Place also sells a variety of organic packaged food products with their own label, which are sold in retail stores such as Whole Foods Markets.
As with the farm, the processing facility handles a diversity of products.
“We are diversified in a number of niche markets, so we don’t depend on one thing,” David says.
Grain Place Foods buys grains from 128 farmers throughout the US, Canada, and South and Central America, but those aren’t enough.
“We need more organic farmers,” David says. “There’s a tremendous opportunity.”
Grain Place is expanding rapidly to meet the demand. Last year they grew by 24 percent.
“We now process in one day what we used to process in three to four days just a few years ago,” David says.
The neighboring GMO cornfields pose a threat with windborne pollen that can contaminate the Vetters’ organic corn. David has lost sales due to cross-pollination from GMO corn.
David has tried many strategies to avoid GMO contamination such as planting his corn at different times than his neighbor and using the tree barriers, but he says, “We haven’t seen strategies work on a reliable basis.”
His corn meets an action threshold of 0.9% for GM material to be Non-GMO Project verified but says, “It doesn’t meet our threshold.”
When asked the best solution to the GMO threat, David simply says, “a ban on GMOs.”
Next generation, long-term view
Despite the challenges, Grain Place Foods is thriving. The next generation, David’s son Madison, has taken a leadership role in the company. Don, now 93 years old, still comes to the office every day.
A daughter, Darci, chose a different path in agriculture. She was recently confirmed by the US Senate as chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the US Trade Representative.
The Vetter family has been recognized for its pioneering role in organic agriculture. Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES) honored David and his family as Organic Farmer of the Year in 2011. The same year he received the Seventh Generation Award from the Center for Rural Affairs.
The latter award is appropriate because—with his 40 years in organic farming and processing—David has a long-term perspective, looking, as he says, at the impact of his work on the land 100 years ahead.
When asked what is needed to succeed as an organic farmer, David says simply, “You have to have the commitment here,” putting his hand over his heart.
© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report, July 2014
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