Act naturally: Couple finds farming organic nourishes soil, spirit

Driving between the elms
Loretta Jaus drives a tractor down an avenue of elm trees on the Jaus farm in rural Gibbon, Minn. The avenue of trees has existed since Marty and Loretta can remember.
Jackson Forderer | For MPR News

The soil on Loretta and Martin Jaus' farm is premium stuff, brimming with organic matter and alive with billions of microbes. It calmly drank in a deluge this spring that flooded neighboring farmland.

"It's a different system," Martin Jaus said of their 400 acre organic farm in Sibley County, about 90 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. "We view it as living entity. We try and feed the microbes which in turn feed our crops. They kinda glue the soil together so it's in larger particles, it isn't a fine power, so less susceptible to wind and water erosion."

The Jauses were organic before organic was cool. They got their first U.S. Department of Agriculture certification for some land in 1990; approval for the rest of the land and the dairy herd soon followed. Consumers caught up a decade later — U.S. organic food sales more than doubled over 10 years to an estimated $27 billion in 2012, the Nutrition Business Journal reports.

Today, the Jaus farm is a destination for people who want to learn more about organic farming techniques that create healthy soil to nourish crops and ward off pests without synthetic chemicals. Scientists visit to study the soil. Birdwatchers have counted more than 50 species on the farm. Butterfly weed and milkweed attract clouds of monarchs.

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A recent visit reveals a farm that at first glance looks like many others. Nala, a big yellow farm dog, greets visitors. A couple of cats skulk about. At different times of the year there might be chickens, ducks and pigs.

A deeper looks reveals this farm's a little different.

Most of the trees and wetlands on neighboring farms have been bulldozed and drained. The Jaus land, though, is ringed with trees, dotted with a couple of wetlands for wildlife. Fifty dairy cows graze on organic pasture like it's a salad bar.

Many of the neighbors plant corn one year and soybeans the next, or sometimes corn followed by corn supplemented with lots of commercial chemicals for nutrients and pest control. The Jauses use a six-year crop rotation, a different crop every year to control weeds and increase soil fertility.

The vast majority of Minnesota farmers still rely on chemicals for weed and pest control and to replace nutrients in the soil. Martin Jaus says their nearest organic farming neighbor is 13 miles away.

The Jauses and many other organic farmers plant lines of trees or shelterbelts around their fields to ward off the drift of chemicals or pollen of genetically modified plants from neighboring farms that would jeopardize their organic status.

The Jauses hope a biological control will protect their soybean plants. They planted a companion crop to supply food for winged critter that will battle a soybean-hungry pest. "We planted buckwheat which will be a food source for the trichina wasps which will take care of a lot of the aphids," Martin said.

Dairy is the Jaus' main source of farm income. A Wisconsin-based co-op, Organic Valley, buys the milk, processes it and sells it in grocery stores across the country. Organic milk commands a premium, at least 20 percent more than the price paid to conventional dairy farmers.

"We're not getting rich," Martin says, and then Loretta adds, "But in ways we feel rich, I guess, from the farm, yeah."

Most of the money in agriculture still flows to conventional farming. While the organic movement has grown dramatically, it's still only provides a fraction of the food Americans eat. Of the more than 74,000 farms in Minnesota only about 700 are certified organic, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

USDA grants organic certification when farms have been free of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer for three years. For most farmers, the economic incentive to go organic isn't powerful enough.

Conventional farmers respond to the incentives offered by federal farm programs, Loretta Jaus said.

"Before it was crop subsidies," she said. "Now it's federal insurance that's subsidized, and that drives these landscape changes."

The Jaus land was farmed conventionally for decades. Martin Jaus' great grandfather homesteaded the land in 1877. Jaus said his father began moving away from chemical use after some cows aborted their calves and a veterinarian suggested a connection with Atrazine, a widely used herbicide.

Although born and raised on the farm, Martin moved away to study wildlife biology and work in Illinois where he met Loretta, a native of Harvard, Illinois. Her wildlife biology degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point coincided with his interests. They moved back to the Jaus family farm in 1980.

Farm life seems to agree with the Jauses. They're lean and fit. But they wonder how many more years their 59-year-old joints can bend and crouch for the twice-a-day milking of 50 cows.

Their son is interested in taking over. He'd be the fifth generation Jaus to oversee the farm and the complex set of biological forces at work on it.

"Pullin' those nutrients and bringing it down into the multiple layers of the soil," Loretta said. "It's a pretty sweet system when you let it work."