Helping Midwest Farmers Go Organic

The region is becoming a “hotbed” for organic agriculture

Sheila Julson April 26, 2023

When Jason Skonieczny and his wife, Chelsea, launched Incahoots Farm in 2020, they knew they wanted to grow organic. After years of hard work, they decided they could use a little more support.

In college, Jason had heard about a Wisconsin-based organization known today as Marbleseed, which he believed might provide the help they needed.

Marbleseed, a nonprofit based in Spring Valley, Wis., works with a coalition of farmers throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois and Iowa to forge farmer-to-farmer support and mentorship programs. Marbleseed helps farmers who want to transition from “conventional” farming that uses synthetic chemicals to organic practices. Using federal funding and philanthropic grants, their programs provide access to land and capital, educational resources and more.

Skonieczny began his year-long journey as a Marbleseed farmer mentee in early 2022. He was paired with Sarah Longstreth of Good Stead Farm, who for several seasons has farmed with organic practices. Longstreth evaluated Skonieczny’s property and gave advice about drainage, raised beds and basic infrastructure. Longstreth educated the couple on business aspects such as pricing their product.

“It was nice to have someone build my confidence in the decisions I was choosing when starting this long-term project,” Skonieczny says. “Through Longstreth, I learned a lot of growing practices and tips for how she grows different vegetables.” Skonieczny stays in touch with Longstreth and occasionally emails her with questions.

Marbleseed first incorporated as the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) in 1995. In 2021, MOSES received the McGuffin Grant, awarded through the McGuffin Creative Group, located in Chicago. Each year, the design firm invites nonprofits to submit applications, and they choose one to receive $30,000 worth of creative strategies and design work. Through the McGuffin Grant, MOSES rebranded as Marbleseed in 2022.

Organic farmers are incredibly generous with their time, and learning through the mentorship program is a way for farmers to get one-on-one technical assistance.”

Alexandria Baker, communications and development manager at Marbleseed, says that last year the organization had 12 mentor-mentee pairs, and estimates that its other programs, including an annual conference and hands-on Field Days, have reached thousands of others over the years.

“The Midwest, and in particular the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, has become a hotbed for organic practices,” says Baker. “Marbleseed and our partners have a long history in this area … and have continued to play a large role in what is happening at the forefront of the organic movement here in the Midwest.”

Executive Director Lori Stern says the name Marbleseed is an homage to the resilient Midwest native prairie plant used in restoration efforts, reflecting the organization’s resilience and dedication to growing the organic farming movement. “It’s a nice fit to tell our story.”

“There has been lots of interest in mentorship”

To earn organic certification through the United States Department of Agriculture, the only federally regulated certification available in the United States, farmers must refrain from use of prohibited chemical substances for three years. They also must create buffers or boundaries around their properties to prevent drift of chemical substances from neighboring farms.

The three-year transition period, along with the cost for certification—fees widely vary depending on the size and complexity of a farming operation and can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars—are obstacles to certification for small farms.

For the past 16 years, Marbleseed’s Farmer-to-Farmer Mentorship program has paired experienced organic farmers with new farmers that want to use best practices and prepare their farm for organic certification. The program is funded in a variety of ways, including resources through the USDA’s Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPPS).

“There has been lots of interest in mentorship,” Stern says. “Organic farmers are incredibly generous with their time, and learning through the mentorship program is a way for farmers to get one-on-one technical assistance. They can visit their mentor’s farm, and their mentor visits their farm.”

“[Marbleseed] has always been a very large presence” in Midwest sustainable farming, says Rama Hoffpauir, who co-runs Turnip Rock Farm & Cosmic Wheel Creamery in Clear Lake, Wis., and is a mentor in Marbleseed’s program. Marbleseed “offer[s] a lot of good services for those of us farming [sustainably] and looking for information—especially for farmers first starting out.”

Marbleseed recently partnered with the Wisconsin Natural Resources Conservation Service and has received funding to work with farmers to expand conservation practices and access more financial resources.

Building a diverse network of farmers

Marbleseed’s Farmer Advancement Program, which includes resources from partnerships with Renewing the Countryside, The Land Connection and Wisconsin Farmers Union, supports both new and experienced organic farmers, with an emphasis on supporting historically underserved communities.

The program gets federal funding, Stern says, “from the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which is specific to the USDA and calls for socially disadvantaged farmers—Black and Indigenous farmers, and people of color, under-resourced farmers, veteran farmers and beginning farmers—that have always been a core group of the farming community.”

The Farmer Advancement Program trains Farmer Advocates to help with land access, business management, and overcoming barriers to funding and organic certification. “That program has been wildly successful, and we had more folks applying for the program than we had funding available,” Stern says. “We’ve been doing private foundation asks to be able to offer more of those mini-grants.”

Marbleseed is in the process of implementing a mental health peer support program to help farmers deal with the stress of farming, including the closure of small dairy farms, fluctuating crop prices and pandemic uncertainties. Other programs include In Her Boots, a collaboration for women-identified farmers, and the Grower Groups, farmer-led gatherings to discuss challenges and share knowledge.

In addition, through a partnership with the Wisconsin Local Food Purchase Assistance Program, Marbleseed helps procure food directly from local farmers for distribution to underserved communities. “We’re able to get farmers … some pre-season funding so they can produce the food that’s needed,” Stern says.

A signature organic farming conference

A freezing snowstorm couldn’t keep 1,800 people away from Marbleseed’s 34th Annual Organic Farming Conference that took place this February 23-25 in La Crosse, Wis. “You could feel the energy,” Stern says.

The conference included workshops and roundtables, a full exhibit hall, and informational staff and board meetings. Farmers discussed everything from the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill Renewal, the power of cooperatives and the future of organics to land access and farmer mental health and wellness. The exhibit hall was bustling, and focus groups discussed details of organic production. Most aspects of the conference were recorded so Marbleseed members who couldn’t participate in all of the talks and workshops can still access the information.

On February 23, attendees of Marbleseed’s Organic Farming Conference look on as a speaker presents. (Justine Bursoni)

Margaret Mittelstadt is the director of community relations for the Milwaukee-based Outpost Natural Foods (ONF) cooperative, which has partnered on and off with Marbleseed for the past 15 years and last year awarded Marbleseed a $4,590 grant.

Through the conference, Mittelstadt says, ONF “learn[s] about what’s happening in the organic world,” and can connect with potential produce vendors. “Marbleseed has been an extremely valuable organization to work with.”

Marbleseed board president Dela Ends and her husband, Tony, run Scotch Hill Farm and Innisfree Farm Stay in Brodhead, Wis.

“The first time we went to a MOSES Conference was in the mid-90s at Sinsinawa Mound. We were young community-supported agriculture (CSA) growers with little kids doing something way outside the box at that time,” says Ends. “It was so inspiring to gather with like minds and envision a healthier food system.”

Sheila Julson

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer covering food and beverage topics, rural and urban farms, green living and general interest features.

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