Growing organic food

Duane and Chantra Boehm, who farm five miles southeast of Richardton, have finished harvesting their oats and winter rye crops and are starting their hard red spring wheat.

Duane and Chantra Boehm, who farm five miles southeast of Richardton, have finished harvesting their oats and winter rye crops and are starting their hard red spring wheat.

"It's an average to above-average crop. Nature plays a big part," said Boehm.

It's a busy time, but an exciting time at the farm.

"At harvest time, he combines while I haul the grain," said Chantra.

While the harvesting practices are similar to their neighbors, growing the crops is a different procedure.


"Twenty years ago, we transitioned to organic. All of our crops are organic," said Boehm.

The term "organic" is used because the farmers avoid synthetic inputs into the soil such as pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

"We use tillage and crop rotations to control weeds and crop rotations for soil building and fertilizer," said Boehm.

They grow buckwheat, field peas and millet in the crop rotations. They also incorporate crop resides and "green manure" crops such as alfalfa and sweet clover.

"Obviously, we still provide nutrients for the crops. We aren't purchasing them, we're growing them," he said.

In transitioning to organic, Boehm said they were concerned about the use of synthetics and the possible affects to the environment and human health.

"Those were the two things we thought about the most, but it's the satisfaction of growing crops that people actually want to buy," he said.

The Boehms are certified as organic growers by the Organic Crop Improvement Association. They are members of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society, of which Boehm is a past board member.


"There are several certifying agencies that work in the country, as well as a national standard we certify to," he said.

Without the use of a computer, the couple works together to keep records.

"We keep track of when we plant every field, what seeds and inputs are used, cultivation practices, whatever," he said.

In addition, the bushels are assigned a number that can be tracked from the field to the mill and the product that the consumer purchases.

"It's so the consumer can feel confident he is buying organic. The system works," said Boehm.

"The main thing, is we're not certifying our product is chemical free. We certify to how we grow it. In the real world, there's no way I can prove my product hasn't been exposed to airplane and wind drift. We certify to our practices."

Boehm said the timeline for certification takes 36 months prior to harvesting a crop.

"We're attempting to manage with limited purchased inputs. Our main input, frankly, is seed and diesel fuel to run our equipment," he said.


They raise most of their seed, so the diesel fuel is the big thing, he said.

The Boehms maintain a 30-foot buffer around their land as required for certification. For example, the buffer helps prevent any wind drift from neighbors' pesticides. "Our neighbors respect what we're doing and work well with us," he said. On the average, Boehm said their yields are probably less than what the neighbors produce. The difference is the value of their wheat crop. The Boehms are paid a premium price for the grain. "It's a variable, depending on the quality," he said.

"The other part is the reduced cost of input. There's not as much upfront costs to recover when harvesting the crop," he added.

Boehm faces challenges like any producer.

"Weed control can be a challenge," he said. "Summer fallow is part of it. We have a reduced-till system, but not no-tillage. Perennial weeds are starting to give us more problems under reduced tillage."

"Part of the organic certification process is one out of five years you do soil building, which can include doing fallow to incorporate crop residue," he said. "We're not stuck on one rotation practice. We tend to grow crops to address the situation on a given field, certain weed problems and certain fertility problems."

Boehm said there are products the organic producer can purchase, but they are not readily available.

"The organic system is about preventing problems rather than fixing them," he said.


Another challenge, is finding experts in the field of organic production, he said.

"You can't visit very well with your neighbor over the fence because he has a whole different system," said Boehm.

"Marketing can be a challenge, not so much anymore because we've been doing it for some time. Markets are more readily available than 20 years ago," he said.

The Boehms market through several sources and have developed long-term relationships with the buyers.

"We tend to go directly to the milling companies," he said.

Before shipping, the grain may be cleaned at Stone Mill Inc. of Richardton, which is a certified organic cleaning facility.

"We clean it to 99.9 percent pure, and from here it goes to the mill," said Stone Mill CFO Charlotte Hoff. "We are the step between the farmer and the flour mill. Basically, we get it mill ready."

As a service to customers, Boehm leaves 50-pound bags of wheat at the mill for purchase by the public, she added.


Boehm said the demand appears to be growing, especially on the East Coast and West Coast. A percentage of their product is shipped overseas.

The Boehms agreed that organic farming is more hands-on and more labor intensive, but it's the satisfaction of knowing they are producing something that people want.

"The bottom line is the integrity of the product. We'd rather not say we're producing crops. We produce food. We feel we're food producers," he said.

The Boehms aren't the only organic producers in the area. He can count at least half a dozen in the Dickinson region.

Boehm is a lifetime farmer, growing up 1½ miles south of his present homestead. After serving four years in the military, he returned to the farm. He and his wife will be married 38 years next month. They have two grown daughters.

The Boehms have no plans of getting into the retail business, but have sold small quantities of wheat to area customers.

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