Q & A: Wisconsin Organic Farmer

Rufus Haucke, Owner of Keewaydin Farms and Just Local Produce

Rufus Haucke, Owner of Keewaydin Farms and Just Local Produce

Rufus Haucke was a chair lift operator in Winter Park, Colorado. Over time, he found himself gravitating towards gardening and thoughts of his family farm. In 2004, when his father put the family farm up for sale, Rufus decided to give it a go.

Here is a bit of his story.

What was the learning curve like going from chair lift operator to organic farming?

I am still in it. The learning curve is huge. Huge. I don’t know if you ever learn everything and in some ways that is the beauty of gardening. You have all of these things you want to try out, but the reality is you have 120 growing days to try them. It can be challenging but I love it.

What do you grow?

We grow over 150 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs on our farm.

What about the romance of organic farming? I have a lot of friends in the corporate world that fantasize about leaving it all and becoming an organic farmer. Does the fantasy and reality of organic farming meet?

They can, but often times they don’t. Every year we get people who want to do an internship or want to work on the farm and the vast majority don’t last the season.

Why don’t your interns last? What is the reality of organic farming?

It is hard physical labor. If it is raining and torrential down pouring and it is a harvest day – we still work. If it is 100 degrees and it is a harvest day – we still work. We may start working at 4 am. In the spring we may work 15 hours a day for a couple of weeks. It is peaceful and enjoyable, but if you are not used to it, it can be lonely at times. In the beginning, while you are figuring everything out, there is not a lot of money in it.

How do you become certified organic farm?

Your fields have to have had none of the prohibited materials on them for 36 months. Once this requirement is met you then need to contact an inspection agency and begin working through the initial paperwork. After you’ve completed that it then becomes a matter of daily journaling to document everything you do on your farm.

What is the difference between conventional and organically grown fruits and vegetables?

Petroleum based fertilizers and chemicals are not allowed with organic farming. Genetically modified foods are not allowed either. Those are the two main differences. The other is the extent to which we have to keep records to everything that happens on the farm [everyday].

What is the state of organic farming right now?

The market has grown significantly over the last 20 years, 15 to 20 % annually. This growth has come from an increasing educated consumer base looking for a healthier alternative to the conventional food system. There can be some conflict between bigger companies that increasingly own the organic market and the smaller producers that feel organics was more intended for them.

Those of us that are involved in organic production take our commitment very seriously. There are some strong watchdogs in the industry that are making sure people are doing what they say they are doing.

How do you make money?

I have two businesses. I have my farm, Keewaydin Farms, and I have a wholesale business Just Local Produce.

How do you feel about the Community Support Agriculture (CSA) model?

I love it, we get an infusion of capital in the spring when expenses are the highest and cash flow is usually the tightest. It also connects us directly to the consumer, we have some very passionate people who are members of our CSA and they have become our most vocal advocates.

With the CSA, every week we pack boxes of 9 – 10 items and have 5 different drop sites at different peoples home where people in the program can come to pick up their box. Prices of boxes vary, but they are generally about $28 a box. It is about ¾ of a bushel of organic fruits and vegetables.

What are the challenges organic farmers face that conventional farmers do not?

Weeds. Also, in the beginning the yields will be lower. A lot of conventional farmers will tell you, ‘You can’t feed the world organically because you can’t get the yields.’ But the truth of it is the yields [between organic farming and conventional farming] are comparable in the long run. Rodale Institute has an ongoing experiment comparing conventional to organics, very interesting. Documentation requirements can be daunting at times as well.

Why is organic food more expensive than conventional food?

Part of it is that organic is not subsidized. Conventional food is very subsidized. Organic food is a niche product. There is some pricing that goes into niche products that makes it more expensive. In the very beginning of the organic movement the founders tried to figure out how organic farmers could actually make a living farming. Nowadays if you take the time to shop around you find that the price points are not as extreme as they were in the past. There are a lot of ways now to get organic food less expensively — being a part of CSA helps you get organic produce less expensively, having relationships with farmers or getting secondary products or going to farmers markets also helps.

Do you agree that organic is expensive?

I do not buy that food is expensive. People spend a crap load of money going out to eat and never really complain about the prices. A lot of people buy processed, prepared food which is also not a cheap way to get food.

Americans spend 10% of their income on food. That is the lowest of any country in the world at anytime in the world. If you look at how much we spend on healthcare and then say organic food is expensive –it is a false argument. I don’t think people are doing the entire math when it comes to food purchasing. The fact is cheap food is killing us, when you think about it in those terms you can’t help but think food should be the most important part of an individual’s budget. I think people need to look at their food spending habits. That might be a little controversial, but as organic farmers we get badgered by that question. The more I understand it the more I don’t buy it. We don’t pay crap for food these days, but we do pay tons for reactionary healthcare after the cheap food we crave makes us sick.

…when people spend $14 for a martini…

I love eating out. But we don’t think about these things when you are at the grocery. You look at things that are $2 or .99. It looks like it is more expensive, but is it?

What about people who have legitimate income concerns?

I was on food stamps when I started this business and I was able to buy some of the best food of my life. I don’t think it is necessarily true that they can’t afford to buy it. I think people just don’t make the right food choices. On food stamps we were buying tons of organic food. I think it really has more to do with education or time. Are we educated enough to do the real accounting of cheap food or educated enough to know how to prepare foods that are bought in a more raw form? Do we perceive we have the time to cook a meal? Do we make food a priority in life?

People buy already made scalloped potatoes. That is more expensive than buying 5 lb of potatoes and making them yourself. Growing up on a farm, I knew what good food was. I think it is about people taking the time to value the food they put in their body.

What about conventional farmers reactions and interactions with you and other organic farmers?

They are highly suspicious. They think we are growing weed.

If you are doing something peaceful for the earth, you must be stoned while doing it.

Conventional farmers are highly influenced by their seed dealers and their marketers who keep telling them it is impossible to feed the world organically. I don’t blame the conventional farmers. The[conventional farmers] ones who are left are highly invested and indebted to their system so they damn well better believe what they are doing. They are indebted millions of dollars. They are going to find whatever opinion justifies their actions.

Are there a lot of conventional farmers transitioning to organic?

Usually when you find a conventional farmer that is transitioning to organic it is because they have gone through some sort of major health scare related to what they are dumping on their fields. Or it is because it is the next generation of farmers who do not want to spray stuff.

What is preventing more farmers from changing from conventional to organic?

We would probably see a lot more transition to organic if the subsidies in our country changed. Corn, soy bean and cotton are the largest subsidized crops. A lot of these farmers do not make any money until they get their subsidy. If you got rid of the subsidy you would see people transitioning to organic like mad. It would change our whole agricultural system. Cheap fuel is also slowing down the transition.

Are government subsidies to conventional farmers the biggest regulation impeding organic food production?

I think they are the biggest manipulation to the market. We spend billions upon billions of dollars on subsidies and we spend them on only seven different kinds of crops. Farmers are not growing those crops because they are making money on them. They are growing those crops because they are getting subsidies. In the 60’s when they introduced subsidies it changed the entire business of agriculture and not for the better. There is less diversity of food. We have larger farms. These farms employ less people. It has affected rural communities because there are a lot less jobs, more unemployment and small rural towns that have died.

Do you think the government subsides will change?

It is politically beneficial to have really cheap food. Every time the farm bill comes up there are talks about getting rid of the subsidies but somehow that translates into the subsidies getting bigger. At some point it may change but it’s going to take some monumental shifts in our society.

What will help organic farming grow? Any government regulations?

I do not think the help needs to come from the government it needs to come from consumers; the power of our spending habits should not be overlooked. More and more people are not accepting the standard food model and what the people are doing is having more of an influence on the market than the government. Government is not a trendsetter, it’s reactionary. It sees where the market is going and then alters regulations because of it. It is not the government that has to make the changes. It’s people that need to take the responsibility for knowing what they are eating. People need to start thinking about food.

What about conventionally grown fruits and vegetables? What do people not understand about that?

I think people might not understand what the true cost of cheap food is. The cost of conventionally grown food on our personal health, the health of our environment, the health of farm laborers. The loss of genetic diversity, the increasingly toxic products sprayed on things we are putting into our body. How much our food purchasing habits affect the very world around us. The sophistication of our modern society is built on the abundance of cheap food but a lot of indicators are point to the end of this cheap food model.

I also think people might not understand there is still slave labor in this country. This is another way people get food to the shelves so cheap. People are paid 1 penny a pound. They pick right after they spray. They live in horrible conditions. There are a lot of underlying costs of really cheap food.

What are the concerns of eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables?

Just look at our current health issues we have in our country. I heard that my kids generation might not live as long as our generation. There are all kinds of studies about the number of chemicals and pesticides women are passing onto their babies in the womb. I am not a doctor but why is there all kinds of autism, respiratory problems and ADD now?

I don’t remember these problems when I was younger. My friends are taking their kids to the hospital all the time.

And why is that? We are in this huge experiment with ourselves to see what all of this highly processed food does to us. In the future they can say we did not have the technology to see it, but I don’t think you need the technology to see it. Just take a look around.

Is organic demand exceeding supply?

Yes, absolutely! Even with the downturn of the economy. Demand for dairy and meat it went down a bit with the recession but since 2008 demand as recovered. Through the recession the organic vegetable market never saw a slow down, it maintained growth of around 11%

What is the most rewarding part about being an organic farmer?

Everything. When I was getting started, I was driving a truck for another farm and I would have people in the grocery store come up to me to say hi and to ask what I was delivering. They were excited about it. Who does this? Who talks to the truck driver in the parking lot other than people who really value the food they put in their bodies? Organic farming to me is about rebuilding those food connections.

What is the most frustrating part?

Listening to people in the conventional farming world spout off all of these ridiculous facts like, ‘You can’t feed the world on organic food.’ Listening to people say organic farming is not a viable business. There are just some really simple facts out there that prove that is bullshit. It is a bit like listening to Fox News. It is frustrating to see people not making a link between their health and their food choices. It is frustrating to hear that people think organic meat is too expensive. You never say that about things you think are important. You never say that about things you believe in.

But honest to God those things are so minor in the whole equation. What is more exciting and what is really cool to be around are the people who are really excited about this. On average, our farm has grown 40% every year. It is crazy growth and it comes from a market of people trying to reconnect with their community.

What are your thoughts on GMO alfalfa and how that will impact organic farming?

GMO’s are the biggest mistake we could possibly be making when it comes to messing with the very fabric of these plants we count on to feed us. It’s only been in the last 20 years or so that we have been able to decode DNA and to think we have the understanding of the ripple effects of injecting a new code into DNA could have after just 20 so years of experimenting is laughable. It has taken billions of years for the codes that make up our existence to develop. BILLIONS of years. I don’t look at GMO simply in the light of how it affects organic farming but more in the light of how it affects the very fabric of life. In typical technology fashion we have jumped on that band wagon without a very clear path of where we are going. All in the name of higher yields, which haven’t materialized, and less spraying of fields and the opposite has happened, farms spray throughout the season now and weeds are developing resistance to the sprays so we need harsher sprays to accomplish the same goal.

How would someone go about buying produce from your farm?

They can go to my website at www.keewaydinfarms.com if they are in Madison, which is where our CSA is they can sign up to be a part of the CSA. They can go to the stores we sell our product to. All of the stores have our name on the shelf. They can also find a farm in their area at www.localharvest.com.

Anything else you would like to add?

Make sure your kids get a little dirt and a little bit of fresh produce in them – everyday. We come from the earth and at some point will return, in-between that time let’s sit together with friends and family and enjoy a healthy meal, lets connect with the earth that sustains us and find beauty and joy in that connection.



9 thoughts on “Q & A: Wisconsin Organic Farmer

  1. Great read! Thanks for asking my question! I could have used more elaboration from him on that, but I guess it’s that simple.
    Looking forward to more delicious days!

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