Gourmet Magazine has an excellent article in the April issue about Matthew Stiegelmeier, a young farmer in South Dakota who has rejected government farm subsidies to run a diversified family farm. Stiegelmeier explains why his family converted to organic over twenty years ago:
[Stiegelmeier's father] Jim hated the farm program, thought it made farmers dependent on the government. “Grandpa Milton thinks Roosevelt walked on water,” Matthew offers. “Daddy thought he was a Communist.” Most of all, Jim hated pesticides. Several times in the late ’60s and early ’70s he got sick from them.
“One night at dinner, my sister-in-law told him, ‘I don’t see how you can be a Christian and put poison on food.’ That was the clincher,” [Stiegelmeier's mother] Emily remembers. It was the early ’80s. Jim and Emily converted the farm to organic.
Jim and Emily turned the logic of the farm program upside down. Instead of planting one or two commodity crops and accepting whatever price the elevator offered, they went looking for organic processors who, ideally, would lock in a premium before they planted. Matthew shrugs. “Why put a crop in the ground that no one wants to pay for?"
The Stiegelmeiers diversified into organic spring and winter wheat, flax, rye, barley, and buckwheat and relied on age-old ways to fight weeds and fertilize the soil. They certified their pastures as organic and grew alfalfa to feed a herd of registered British White beef cattle. [Matthew's wife] Danelle started a small herd of sheep.This past year, Matthew made $11 a bushel on winter wheat at mills in Kansas and North Dakota, at the time a four-dollar premium over commodity wheat. Organic flax sold for $19.50 a bushel, a premium of ten dollars.
Unfortunately farm economies keep new young farmers from entering the market.
The value of [area] farmland today is more than $1,000 an acre. With federal subsidies built into the land values and wealthy pheasant hunters eager to invest in private preserves, the value of land has risen 15 to 20 percent every year for the past five years, far more than agriculture can support on a sustainable basis. In today’s market, Matthew Stiegelmeier could not purchase his own farm.
And most of his neighbors, surviving year to year with the help of government subsidies, have no interest in taking the risk of converting their farms to diversified organic operations.