September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Unexpectedly organic

Traumatic experience leads Wagners to alternative way of farming

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

BRANDON, Minn. - "Everyone has a unique story of why they are doing it," said Ben Wagner about organic farming.
His story is about as unique as they come.
Ben milks a mixed herd of 33 cows on his organic dairy farm near Brandon, Minn. His wife, Jean, and their three children, Anna (21), Daniel (20) and Pat (17), help with the field work when needed, though allergies limit their barn time. Anna lives and works in Madison, Wis., and Daniel is attending college at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D. Pat is a senior in high school.
The Wagners were, in a way, forced into farming organically. But looking back, they said, it has been a good thing for them, and one they wouldn't change.
Ben grew up on the farm he and his family now own. His parents purchased the farm when he was 3 years old and moved to the site when he was 6. After high school, he attended technical college in Alexandria and was debating between two careers when his dad told him if he wanted to milk cows, he had better do it right away because he was ready to retire.
"So I did, and I'm still doing it today," Ben said, smiling.
He bought the cows from his parents on June 1, 1983. Two years later he bought the farm. At that time, the dairy and the land were run conventionally.
The event that prompted the Wagners to switch to organic happened in 1994, five years after Ben and Jean were married. That January, Ben was gassed by the chlorine/acid mixture for the wash cycle.
"I went to turn on the wash cycle and something didn't smell right, so I unscrewed the jar and inhaled the fumes," he said. "I had health problems related to that for the next two years."
These problems included arthritic-like problems with his knees and chronic fatigue, which he struggles with to this day. His chiropractor told him the problems were due to being hypersensitive to chemicals.
"He made the suggestion that we either quit farming or quit using chemicals. Those were the only two choices we had," Ben said. "... I never planned to go organic but I was too stubborn to quit [dairy farming], so we went cold turkey and tried it."
The Wagners knew next to nothing about organic farming, and at that time there was no local market for organic milk. The dairy farmers who were organic did on-farm processing, Ben said.
"It was scary," Jean said of the steep learning curve they faced.
They started with the land, cutting out chemical sprays and commercial fertilizers.
"The [sprays] were replaced by a cultivator," Ben said.
The Wagners continued to run the dairy conventionally until they found a market for their milk with Organic Valley. They began the certification process in 1997, but even with the high price of organic milk, they were apprehensive about the change.
"I thought we would be losing cows so we would basically come out even [with the higher milk price], but I have yet to lose a cow because we couldn't use antibiotics," Ben said.
One of the challenges for the Wagners was relearning everything about herd health - learning to recognize signs and catch problems early in order to prevent rather than treat. They replaced traditional antibiotics and medications primarily with concentrated garlic, vitamin C and St. Johnswort - their three 'weapons,' as Ben calls them.
"Garlic gets rid of infections. The only side affect is the bad taste," Ben said, laughing.
The main problem the Wagners encountered with organic farming was not related to the dairy, but to their crops. They raise corn, alfalfa and barley and plan to put in soybeans this year.
"The one trouble I have is dealing with weeds," Ben said. "I've had to redesign my farming program."
Ben now field cultivates twice prior to planting. He has also added rotary hoeing and dragging to his regular field work. But the main thing in beating the battle against weeds, he said, is planting late in the spring - giving the ground time to warm up to at least 55 degrees. By doing this, he said, the corn will come up faster; otherwise the weeds will come up first and overtake the corn.
"I do miss the easiness [of spraying for weeds], but I can't go back to that way and still function," Ben said. "That's the one hurdle I have to deal with."
In addition to waiting for the earth to warm up, Ben has learned to read other signs in regards to field work.
"One thing I've noticed: if the dirt balls up, it's too wet [for fieldwork]. It will cause compaction," he said.
Because looks can be deceiving, Ben digs down three inches to check the soil moisture.
On June 1, 2000, the Wagners became officially certified organic. While the change was sudden, Ben and Jean feel they have benefitted from the switch. For a start, Ben can walk and doesn't have to worry about side effects from chemicals. They have also noticed improved herd health - and in turn, greatly reduced vet bills - and better soil.
"The soil is totally different now from when we started farming," Ben said.
Those first years of dairy farming, Ben would bend hand shovels while setting gopher traps because the ground was so hard. Now, he digs the holes by hand because the soil is so soft.
"And the earthworms - it just amazes me," he said.
"It's a sign of healthy soil biology," Jean said.
Although they've been farming organically for 15 years now, they continue to learn new tricks of the trade daily.
"The first couple of years we made a lot of mistakes. That's why they say to transition slowly, so you learn as you go," Ben said. "It's a learning process. You have to learn what works on your farm."
"That's the wonder of organic farming," he said. "You have to figure out what fits your farm."
It's something they figured out when life took an unexpected turn.
"We would have never chosen organic if I hadn't gotten sick, but looking back, I wouldn't change it," Ben said.
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