Nick Theuerkauf is the fifth generation to farm the 2,000 acres that is Elmbrook Farms. Originally a dairy, the farm shifted gears eight years ago to produce beef, feed and a variety of cash crops that included corn and soybeans.
Located in Menominee, Michigan, the Theuerkauf farm is fortunate to be situated in what is known as the “banana belt” of the Upper Peninsula. With a 120 to 140 day growing season and average annual high of 52 degrees, the region is more suitable for farming than land further north. This allows the Theuerkaufs to grow corn and beans, while the much of the UP’s limited farmland produce crops such as hay, potatoes and barley.
Nick farms with his father, Bill Theuerkauf. In 2014, they made the decision to transition to organic production when Nick’s two brothers, Travis and Stephen, expressed interest in returning to the home farm. Nick and Bill reasoned that organic production could maximize profitability on the farm, making it possible to support the larger, extended family.
Asking for Help
With the part-time help from Travis and Stephen, Nick and Bill began the transition in 2015. At the time, market trends led them to consider edible beans — on the 185 acres that could be certified organic right away, they planted pinto beans. On their transitioning acres, they added another 500 acres of black turtle beans, 40 acres of soybeans, 90 of corn and put the rest of the ground in small grains, cover crops and alfalfa.
“You have to try everything, give it a fair shot,” said Nick. “That’s the way you see what works for you.” For Nick, trying everything also included asking lots of questions.
“Ask questions, bug people, go to classes and conferences and learn as much as you can,” he said. A neighbor who had transitioned 10 years ago was a great resource both for information and equipment sharing. The Theuerkaufs did extensive Internet searches, attended webinars online and attended events like ACRES and MOSES to learn as much as possible. They recognized that the individuals who visited the farm were great sources of information. “If they are a good salesperson, they’ll be able to put you in touch with the answers,” Nick said. One such person was Midwestern BioAg sales consultant Ben Bartlett.
Having worked with organic operations for more than 10 years, Ben had a lot to offer the Theuerkaufs. He reviewed Elmbrook’s soil tests, shared them with the extended network of experts available through Midwestern BioAg and talked with the Theuerkaufs about both dry and liquid fertilizer options. To help get things going in the cold northern spring, Ben developed a starter fertilizer customized for the Theuerkauf’s sandy-loam soil. Throughout the season, Ben continued to work with the Theuerkaufs to assess program results.
“One of the main challenges was a lack of soil biology. It just didn’t have that earthy smell that lets you know soil life is at work,” said Ben. He said this can be typical for farms starting their transition. “I’ve had customers come to me ready to transition, and I’ve suggested they build their soil biology for a year or two if possible. It’s not the response they expect, but if we think it’s the best business decision, then I believe we need to say it out loud.”
The Theuerkaufs faced another big challenge: Learning lots of new agronomic practices all at once. In particular, they had never grown edible beans. It was much more work than they expected, at a time when they were already taking on new challenges.
“It was a huge learning curve for us,” said Nick. Some of the problems they faced included seed maggot infestation, drown-out and wet soil issues, and weed pressure. Despite these challenges, the Theuerkaufs intend to plant more edible beans this year including dark kidney beans, as well as organic corn.
“The hard thing about transitioning is finding a buyer for transitional crops that will pay premium,” said Nick. “You know what you have is valuable and it’s hard to accept conventional prices.” In the UP, finding markets of any kind within a reasonable distance is already a challenge. A neighbor helped locate a buyer for transitional beans early on and Ben Bartlett helped them find market options for 400 acres of transitional oats.
“I was able to connect them to Mercaris,” Ben said. “It’s an online data and auction company specializing in organic and non-GMO grains.” Through the Mercaris auction system, Nick found a buyer for his oats at a strong price.
“It’s not just about using different products that are organic approved,” said Ben. “You have to understand how the whole system works to stay profitable.”
Cover crops were also challenging. Nick sees their value in fixing nitrogen and keeping his soil biology thriving, but getting them established in the short UP growing season is tough. The long fall in 2015 allowed him to seed cover crops following most of his crops. This year, he plans to experiment with interseeding cover crops into his corn. He’s also looking to use a 80-day corn (or shorter) to allow time to get a cover crop down before winter. Midwestern BioAg was able to be a resource for securing a variety of cover cop seed options for the farm to use.
A Different Mindset
“It’s not just about using different products that are organic approved,” said Ben. “You have to understand how the whole system works to stay profitable on a consistent basis.”
“We’re still figuring it out,” said Nick, as their second full season of transition is about to begin. “We’re at the point where we see it can be done. It starts making sense and you feel better about it. It’s still scary, but we feel like it was the right decision. You have to change your mindset.”