By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
BIG SANDY - "Here's one of the advantages of organic farming," said Thad Willis, standing Wednesday in a field of vibrantly green lentils. "Ladybugs."
Willis, who has about 4,000 acres of land certified for organic farming east of Big Sandy, was talking to about 50 people on tour of the Millennium Farm and Ranch organized by the Alternative Energy Resources Organization.
The ladybugs are symbolic of what Willis and Bob Quinn, who leases the land to Willis, talked about on the tour: using nature to raise crops instead of using chemicals.
"You can't say enough about nature helping you on your way if you can," Willis said.
Willis said using natural predators, natural fertilizers and natural weed control are key to operating a successful organic farm.
The tour, one of a series of organic farm tours AERO sponsors, started with large fields of organic produce Willis works, then turned to Quinn's test plots, where he tries to find new and better ways to raise organic crops and new crops for north-central Montana.
"We're looking at the future of agriculture here," said Jim Barngrover of AERO.
Randy Reinhart, who operates a sheep farm near Two Dot and uses wind energy on his operation, said he is interested in adapting Quinn's and Willis' techniques to his operation.
"I would like to start," he said.
He added that the turnout at the Millennium Farm and Ranch tour Wednesday surprised him.
"There seems to be more and more interest," he said.
Matt Johnson, who farms north of Hinsdale, is in his first year of converting to an organic operation. Farmers have to keep a field free of chemicals, such as fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, for three years before the state will certify their operation.
"We're just trying to find a way to increase our net income," Johnson said.
Barngrover said one of the benefits of organic farming, aside from the higher prices the specialty crop can command, is lower expenses. Not only is the cost of applying chemicals eliminated, but the technique also uses less fuel.
Every eliminated pass of a tractor, whether to apply fertilizer or herbicides or something else, reduces the farmer's fuel and maintenance expenses, he said.
Quinn and Willis told the group about another key to success: identifying markets before planting any crops.
Quinn is raising a plot of natto soybeans, mainly used in Japanese cooking, in one of his experimental plots.
"The guys I'm testing for are going to buy the seeds back," he said. "But I do have some friends in Japan I could sell it to."
Barngrover said the demand for the specialty crops organic farmers grow, as well as the fact the produce is organically certified, gives the producers an edge that traditional farmers can't get selling to grain elevators. Organic farmers aren't just growing a commodity, they are growing products that give them a personal relationship with the buyers, Barngrover said.
That allows the farmers to set their own prices and find their own buyers, instead of taking whatever the market price is, he said.
Willis explained some of the techniques he uses to control weeds and pests and to naturally fertilize the crops using "green manure." For example, he said, raising alfalfa will add nitrogen to the soil, kill weeds it competes with, and can provide feed for livestock at the same time.
"I can't think of a better rotation," he said. "All three of those things at once."
Organic farming takes a lot of planning and a lot of record keeping, he said. It also makes a farmer keep a close eye on field and crop conditions.
"You have to be very proactive," Willis said. "If you've got a field and it starts to be a wreck, you can't spray it."
Quinn said using proper techniques can keep the fields healthy. He pointed to a section of a field - where healthy winter wheat is now growing - that hasn't had any chemicals for 20 years. Quinn started converting his operation in 1984 and it was certified in 1987.
"It doesn't look any different" than wheat grown in a conventional manner, he said.
Quinn, who has a doctorate in plant biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, has tried many new things in his agricultural career. One new crop is a relative of durum that he markets under the trademarked name Kamut.
He said he first heard of the grain from a farmer from Fort Benton in the 1960s, who called it "King Tut's wheat."
The grain had been sent to the farmer by his son, who was stationed in Portugal and had received it from a friend who said it came from an ancient tomb in Egypt.
While studying at the University of California, Quinn said, he found a potential market for the grain and decided to raise it. That market fell through, but he found others interested in the grain in the 1980s. The grain can be eaten by people with some allergies to wheat and has higher protein and some other nutritional advantages over wheat.
Quinn found the name Kamut in an ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic dictionary - the word is an ancient Egyptian name for grain - and trademarked it for the grain he was growing.
Kamut grain is now used in some 400 products around the world, Quinn said. A rapidly growing market is Italy, where it is used extensively to make pasta, and now has some 200 Kamut products.
He is working on other innovative products in his test plots, including cross-pollinating three strains of corn for Dave Christensen of Big Timber.
Christensen for some 30 years has been researching varieties of corn. He is trying to create a hardy corn to market to areas that have difficulty raising grain crops because of short, cold growing seasons, like North Korea and Afghanistan.
Quinn is also researching organically raising crops with medicinal uses and for people with medical problems. He said he had tried raising such crops, like waxy barley that reduces cholesterol, in the past but couldn't find a market. His interest in that field has returned, he said.
"I think it's time we really focus on promoting those," he said. "The market is still really small on this, but the potential is huge."
He is raising mustard to test its use as a replacement for methyl bromide. Methyl bromide, which is carcinogenic and damages the ozone layer, is used by farmers to control pests and weeds in high-value crops, Quinn said. The mustard might be able to reduce its use.
"It could be a very high-value crop for us and good solution for their problems," he said.