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Trial and error: Crookston farmer embraces trend of growing organic crops

Bakken talks about crop health with his daughter Kayla, 11, as they check one of their corn fields. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 1 / 7
Robin Bakken and his daughter Kayla,11 joke about mustard seeds as they walk to their car. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 2 / 7
Robin Bakken shows his pellet mill . Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 3 / 7
Robin Bakken, his wife Karen, (center) and daughters, Karlie,16, Kayla,11, and Kendra 7 pose for a photo outside their farm house Friday afternoon. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 4 / 7
Bakken holds a handful of pellets. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 5 / 7
Bakken's Organic Sunflower field. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 6 / 7
The leaves on the organic corn are not riddled with holes from bugs as Bakken inspects them. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald 7 / 7

CROOKSTON, Minn.—In the spring of 1998, farmer Robin Brekken felt discontent about raising crops conventionally. That year, he decided to try something different—growing crops without the use of chemicals.

"I asked my banker what he thought of organic farming. He kind of chuckled and said, 'I've never seen anybody make money out of it,'" Brekken said. "And I thought, I wonder if you've ever seen anybody do it."

Brekken had reached a point in his career where he was sick of chasing the next pest to destroy.

"I didn't really like the process of getting up every day and wondering what I had to kill next," he said. "You've got to kill a weed, you've got to kill a bug, you've got to kill a fungus—whatever."

There has to be a better way, Brekken thought. For him, that better way was going organic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a report in April announcing a "significant increase" in the number of certified organic operations across the nation and the world. Broadly, the USDA defines organic agriculture as producing "products using methods that preserve the environment and avoid most synthetic materials, such as pesticides and antibiotics."

According to the report, the number of domestic certified organic operations grew by nearly 12 percent between 2014 and 2015, the highest growth rate since 2008. There has been a nearly 300 percent increase since 2002, when the USDA began keeping track. The most recent data lists 21,781 operations in the U.S. and 31,160 around the world.

The 2014 USDA Organic Survey listed Minnesota as seventh in total amount of organic acres per state with 133,000. North Dakota, sixth on the list, was slightly higher in total acres with 135,000.

But back in 1998, Brekken had no way of knowing the organic market would grow so substantially.

"I got comfortable with the fact that, man, you could fail. You could lose all of this. But I was just so disgruntled with what I was doing," Brekken said, recalling what would be a major leap of faith for he and his wife, Karen. "So, all of those things kind of added up, but at the same time, (it was) pretty scary because I didn't really know—and I knew I didn't know—what I was getting into. It was like, 'Manage weeds without chemicals? Wow.' It was a tall order—it's still a tall order."

The farm was officially certified as an organic producer in 2001, following the standard three-year certification and transition process from conventional farming.

Brekken's parents moved to the land he farms in 1960, shortly before he was born. The 3,300-acre farm has been the same size since he was in high school and was farmed conventionally until 15 years ago.

Today, the farm encompasses three separate entities: Robin Brekken, Inc., which deals only with hay; the Robin and Karen Brekken Farm Partnership, dealing only with grains; and RB's Organic Pelletizing, which produces organic feed pellets, the farm's latest venture.

The pellets are made from lower-quality hay, such as the cuttings damaged in bad weather in the 2014 season, combined with organic grain screenings. The hay has the protein and the grain has the energy needed for dairy feed, and the pellets pack more of both in a package that doesn't waste any materials.

"We can make a pellet as good or better than any hay I've ever made," Brekken said.

What works

Much of being an organic farmer is educating oneself about keeping away weeds, insects and fungi without the use of chemicals. When Brekken first started, he immersed himself in books, conferences and seminars, all of which shaped his knowledge on the subject.

But the best way to learn what works where you actually farm, he said, is by trial-and-error.

"There are some things we've figured out, rotation-wise and crop-wise—there are things that work and there are things that don't work," he said. "I get a lot of calls from guys that are looking at going into organic, like, 'Tell me how to do it.' I say, 'I'll probably tell you 10 things and nine of them will be what not to do.'"

For over 15 years, Brekken has experimented with organic farming strategies. Some work in diverse farming landscapes, but it can be a challenge to find what works best in his part of the Red River Valley, a region that can have difficult soil, he said.

This spring, Brekken grew rye in some of his fields. When the rye began to pollinate, workers used a crimper to destroy the crop before it produced any viable seed. The bed of rye that crimping creates stifles weeds that would try to grow.

"You basically just steamroll the crop, just lay it flat," Brekken said. "Then we'll come in and till soybeans or sunflowers into that. The rye is the weed control. It is awesome."

Organic producers can also keep insects away by controlling the amount of sugar their crops produce. Brekken credits his farm's minimal insects with this method.

"If you can get your plants to produce high volumes of sugar you won't have bugs, because most insects don't have a pancreas, so they can't digest complex sugars and carbohydrates like we can," he said. "So if they ingest plant fiber that's high in sugar, they'll die."

Bugs navigate by frequencies they detect in the world around them. They know to avoid crops that produce high levels of sugar because healthy plants—those with high sugar production—put out a different frequency than unhealthy plants do.

Much of the crop produced by Brekken's farm goes into the organic dairy feed market. As a member of the grower pool at Organic Valley, the largest organic cooperative in the country, he can easily sell to other organic producers. His main markets are Wisconsin, Indiana and Pennsylvania, mostly due to the large concentrations of Amish farmers who have gone organic in recent years to stay competitive, he said.

More important than monetary successes is Brekken's state of mind and the passion he now has for the way he does things. He said he's "better off, which would mean my farm is better off."

"I feel great purpose with the way I farm now," Brekken said. "Now my mentality has shifted from chemical warfare to trying to produce good crops that can quantify nutrition and trying to deal with weed control through nutrition instead of chemicals. And is it perfect? No. We're a long way from being perfect. We've learned a lot, but we have a lot left to learn."

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