Conservation Showcase - Organics
Opting for Organic
John Rice grew up on a farm. He knows his way around a chicken coop and has handled hay, hogs and cattle on a daily basis. From an early age he was taught the conventional forms of farming. He used pesticides to clear out unwanted brush, a local neighbor to process meat and vaccinations to assist an ailing animal. Rice knew how to operate the system and in 1988 he relied on those familial skills to help him along after purchasing 197 acres around his house in Tebbetts, Mo.
But after 30 years of conventional farming, Rice, then 47-years old and working for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), was looking for a new way to turn a profit on his small acreage operation.
"I started looking into organic farming in 2002 and was certified organic by the USDA in 2005," Rice said. "The idea came about after my wife, Julie, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. We did some research and read about the health benefits of organic food. At the time, Julie and I were looking for a way to increase profits on our small farm. By getting into the organic niche, we thought we'd have a chance to do well."
John was forced to relearn the skills necessary for farming before beginning the three-year process to become organic certified. No longer could he use commercial fertilizer or herbicides. Instead, organic manure was used and more work had to be done by hand. Rice also had to spend long hours working with his local veterinarian obtaining official documents that detailed what went into certain vaccinations, therefore clearing the way for use on his organic-raised animals.
In addition to work on the land and with the animals, the paperwork increased.
"Julie does all of our bookkeeping," Rice said with a smile. "She's really good at that stuff and it's important to stay on top of it for the annual certification inspection. The organic certifier wants to see a paper trail regarding what's been taking place on the farm. Julie is able to provide all of that detailed information, from when an animal was born, the lot it was assigned, any vaccinations it's been given and who it was finally sold to. Having that all on hand makes the certification process that much easier."
"It's a more labor intensive way of farming for sure," Rice said. "But, its added considerable value to our product and we think the extra work is worth it."
The Rices, recognized around the state as JJR Family Farms, started in the world of organics with eggs.
"Eggs are an easy way to start out in organics," Rice said. "We were able to build regular customers by selling at the local Columbia Farmer's Market, and we expanded our products from there."
In the six years since becoming certified, JJR Farms has expanded and now sells organic products such as meat and eggs, to retail markets in Columbia and Kansas City.
"I enjoy meeting the people that we're selling to," Rice said. "These individuals are looking for an honest producer who plays by the rules and we like to think we fit that bill."
Selling at the Columbia Farmer's Market has been really good for us. We get direct feedback from our buyers and we can adjust what we're doing accordingly. Whether it's changing the looks of our packaging or staying on top of what the popular food item is right now, we get a lot of benefits from talking with people one-on-one."
Rice says bacon and pork chops are the most popular item right now while beef moves a little slower.
"Currently, we have about 30 fat hogs," Rice said. "We sell about 100 a year. We also have about 50 head of cattle. Around 20 of those will be sold at the sale barn and 15-to-18 will be sold at the market. We also have around 400 laying hens, so we collect the eggs from them. Unfortunately, there's not an organic certified poultry processor around here so we're not able to sell the chickens as organic at this time."
Before Rice can sell his certified organic meat, he has to have his hogs and cattle butchered at an organic certified processor 251 miles away.
"I drive out to Eureka, Ill., once every other month," Rice said. "There's an organic certified processor out there that we like to work with. They make sure that everything from the spices used in our organic Italian pork sausage to the proper labeling of the product are certified organic."
Since becoming certified organic, Rice has worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to add fencing and watering systems to his land.
"We started working with John in 2009," Josh Stewart, NRCS resource conservationist said. "Since then, we've provided financial and technical assistance to help John install five water tanks, 8,100 feet of pipeline and 7,000 feet of cross-fence on his land. Currently, he has an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contract with us. Not a lot of people know that NRCS has some great opportunities available for organic farmers."
We're always happy to help people find ways to improve conservation efforts on their land, organic farmers or conventional."
Rice, now in his sixth year as an organic certified producer, plans to dedicate even more time to his organic operation after he retires from MoDOT.
"I've really enjoyed working in organics," Rice said. "I never thought I'd be able to hit the streets and beat on people's doors to market an organic product. But I've met a lot of really nice people and built some great relationships with folks interested in our product.
"It takes three years to transition into a certified organic operation, but it was worth the wait. We enjoy providing our customers with chemical, antibiotic and hormone-free food that is raised to meet the husbandry standards of the Animal Welfare Approved organization."
Individuals interested in making the transition to an organic operation can find more information on the USDA website, or by contacting an NRCS office serving your county. Look in the phone book under U.S. Government, Department of Agriculture, or click here.
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