Nature’s Path provides an inspiring story of going beyond its own business to care about organic agriculture in general. We need more organic farmland in the US to meet demand and also to preserve and care for land that might otherwise be chemically farmed. This company is buying land and turning it over to adjacent organic farmers to help them bring more land into organic production, while training youth to be our future organic farmers. Nature’s Path has also been leading the fight for GMO labels.
This article first appeared in the Organic Trade Association’s newsletter, Organic Report, Summer 2014.
by Barbara Haumann
A major challenge for US organic trade is that domestic farmland isn’t being converted to organic at a fast enough pace to meet growing demand. North America’s largest independent organic cereal company is leading the way to show how this can change.
In May, Nature’s Path announced the purchase of 2760 acres in northern Montana to increase organic farmland, attract and educate new farmers, and meet the growing demand for organic grains and legumes.
To make this possible, Nature’s Path is working with local organic farmer Vilicus Farms, which will farm the land and support a one-of-a-kind organic farmer training program in Montana where which young people can get first-hand experience in becoming organic farmers.
"As an independent, family-run company, we have the freedom to put our money where our heart is, in support of sustainable agriculture beyond just making organic products," Arran Stephens, Founder and CEO of Nature’s Path, said in announcing the news. "By purchasing fertile land and working with organic family farmers, we ensure the purity of our foods, increase organic acreage to sustain growth, prevent poisoning of the environment, and provide for future generations." Stephens was born and raised on his family’s berry farm on Vancouver island.
Formerly in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, the land has had no agrichemicals or fertilizers applied on it for over 20 years. Approximately a third of the total has been seeded this year with organic Kamut, lentils, peas, buckwheat and millet. Grains will be rotated with legumes, which fix nitrogen in the soil, and oilseed crops. Farm machinery burns a blend of biodiesel, made from recycled vegetable oil. About 20% of the land will be conserved to protect and encourage biodiversity and wildlife, including pollinator species.
Vilicus Famers owners Doug Crabtree and his wife and partner Anna Jones-Crabtree purchased their first organic acreage in northern Hill County, Montana, in 2009. They chose the name Vilicus Farms, as Vilicus is Latin for "steward." They now have 6400 acres under organic production.
Doug is a member of Organic Trade Assocation’s Farmers Advisory Council and a Board member for the Organic Farming Research Foundation, and grows 19 different species on Vilicus land. They grow diverse grains (spring and fall), pulse crops, broadleaf and oilseed crops such as flax, safflower and sunflower. They raise specialty lentils and peas, cover crops, and green manure crops such as buckwheat to maintain the vitality of the soil. They are following the same organic practices implemented on their own land on this additional acreage.
Dag Falck, Organic Program Manager at Nature’s Path, says the company began acquiring fertile farmland as aging organic farmers, with no younger generation to succeed them, were forced to sell their family heritage to chemical big-ag units. The Nature’s Path family saw this as an irreparable loss and decided to do something about it.
"We came up with this model to buy acreage alongside long-time organic famers with a good reputation for being stewards of the land. They farm the land along with their own and in effect it increases their farm size and organic acres in general," says Falck.
In its first such initiative, Nature’s Path purchased two farms in Saskatchewan in 2008 and entered into crop share agreements with two farmers under which farmers steward the soil, plant and harvest crops, many of which end up in Nature’s Path products.
"This is our way to support the dwindling family farm, where the farmer benefits from increased acreage and better financial viability, while not having to invest in costly land," says Falck.
The Montana land increases Nature’s Path farms to 5640 acres, in addition to using organic commodities sourced from scores of farmer families across North America. "We are all dependent upon each other, and upon protecting and preserving the land," says Stephens.
Another Piece of the Puzzle
Another piece of this story puts into practice a vision that Doug and Anna have to increase the number of people farming organically.
"Over the past years, Anna and I became troubled as we saw a number of organic farmers and farms cease to be organic. Instead of growing, the number of organic farms has been going backwards," Doug says. "We are trying to halt that and turn it around."
He adds, "It is in society’s best interest to have as many acres in organic production as possible." Thus he and his wife have developed an apprenticeship program to help make organic farmers out of young recent college graduates who have an interest in organic food and farming.
"I have become disillusioned with the idea of trying to convert existing farmers to organic, and instead, I would rather train folks who are organically minded to become farmers," he explains.
Helping support this apprenticeship program are Kamut International, Dave’s Killer Bread, and Annie’s. The first person came on board for training in spring 2013, and a second joined this past spring. Plans are for two more this year, working and training with Vilicus Farms for three to five years. At the end of that time, the new farmer will be assisted in acquiring farm land – whether by ownership or renting – and be part of a network to share resources such as equipment, labor and to market crops cooperatively. The network will make it much easier for the new producers to establish farm businesses.
"It’s a work in progress. We are anxious to get other food companies on board in this shared goal of more organic farmed land, more organic farmers, and ultimately, more organic food," Doug says.
2014 apprentice Laurel Johnson, who grew up in rural Minnesota, says she is committed to promoting an agricultural ethic in this country by modeling sustainable alternatives to conventional farming practices.
"One day I plan to own and operate my own organic farm in the Northern Plains of Montana. I can’t imagine a more exciting field of opportunities to create a model of food production that protects the value, dignity and longevity of natural resources," Laurel says.
University of California/ Santa Cruz has had an organic farmer apprentice program for 48 years, accepting 150 people a year. A new program in Georgia’s Agriculture Department pays the costs for organic certification for farmers that want to make the switch.