MALTA – When Randy Willrett decided to make the transition to organic farming in 1997, he faced a number of obstacles, including a dearth of information on large-scale organic farming and a lack of support from his neighbors.
“They all thought I was nuts,” Willrett said. “The story on the street was that I was going to go broke. You have to have pretty broad shoulders to do this.”
Willrett’s farm, which grows organic corn, soybeans, oats and wheat, is one of about seven organic farms in DeKalb County, according to Mariam Wassmann, director of information for the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. Willrett also raises grass-fed beef cattle and Guernsey milk cows with two partners.
“We were organic before organic was cool,” Willrett said.
Between 1992 and 2008, the total number of acres of organic cropland certified by the United States Department of Agriculture and other agencies in the U.S. grew from 403,400 to 2,655,382. According to the USDA’s 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey, there are 137 certified organic farms in Illinois and 9,140 certified farms nationwide.
John and Charlotte Nadig of Cortland got into the organic farming business for personal reasons.
“My wife and I started this quest where we wanted to grow as much food for our family as possible and it just grew from there,” John Nadig said.
The Nadigs raise and sell grass-fed beef, lamb and pork, meat chickens and turkeys, eggs, and meat rabbits. They also sell raw milk, though customers must provide their own containers due to government regulations. None of their livestock are injected with growth hormones or routine antibiotics, and their feed does not contain genetically-modified organisms, or GMOs.
To keep soil fertile, organic farmers rotate crops and fertilize with a combination of livestock manure and “green manure” – cover crops like red clover, rye, fodder radish and alfalfa that are grown for their organic matter and their ability to add nitrogen to the soil.
“We’re doing it just like Grandpa did,” said Willrett, who is the fifth generation to operate his family’s farm. “A lot of the old-timers who used to do this weren’t around, so we had to re-learn this. It would have been nice to ask the old-timers some questions from time to time.”
Adrian Plapp of Malta believes his family’s switch to organic farming in the mid 1990s may have saved his health. He was plagued with a number of health problems and autoimmune reactions that had no apparent cause. At a seminar in 1995, Plapp heard an organic farmer speak about his sensitivity to chemicals after being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The symptoms were so similar to what Plapp experienced that he began the conversion to organic farming almost immediately.
“He said I could have had the same exposure to chemicals in 25 years that he had in two yeas in Vietnam,” Plapp said. “I’m healthy almost all the time now.”
Plapp also says his daughter’s lactose intolerance symptoms improved after switching from pasteurized to raw milk from the family farm.
The Plapps raise much of the same livestock as the Nadigs, and also grow organic grains like wheat, corn and oats. Unlike the Nadigs, who sell their farm products locally, the Plapps sell most of what they raise to larger corporations for the mass market.
The USDA, quoting the Nutrition Business Journal, reports that U.S. sales of organic food products grew from about $11 billion in 2004 to an estimated $27 billion in 2012. Once the domain of local co-ops and health food stores, organic foods can now be found in supermarket chains.
Duck Soup Coop in DeKalb, which has sold organic food for almost 40 years, now faces competition with large retailers like Walmart, Hy-Vee and Schnuck’s.
“I have seen a great growth over the years in natural foods and in organic foods,” said Duck Soup general manager Peggy James.