The Organic Farming Research Foundation is honored to share this farmer story, featuring Chris Wilson, business manager and farmer at Wilson Organic Farms. The following article is based off of an interview with Chris that was conducted earlier this year. You can press play below to listen to an edited version of the interview, or click this link to download it and listen later!
Chris Wilson remembers the day that the first load of milk from his family’s farm was picked up by the Organic Valley cooperative. The Wilson farm, which has been in the family for seven generations, began the transition to organic in the mid 90s, inspired by a neighbor who was making the switch as well. The certification process takes three years on land that has been receiving inputs that are prohibited under the organic program, and the Wilson family farm also needed to transition their herd of dairy cows. They started the process in 1996 and by 1999 all their crop land was certified organic. January 2nd, 2000 the Organic Valley truck pulled away from the farm for the first time, full of certified organic milk.
Chris Wilson is the business manager, and seasonal labor. The farm, which is located in the driftless region of Wisconsin, has been passed down in his father’s side of the family since it was first homesteaded in 1848. Now it is managed by a network of extended family including several of Chris’s cousins, with seven different families participating in total. Although transitioning the farmland through the generations hasn’t always been easy, it’s something that the Wilson’s don’t take for granted. In a world where access to farmland is one of the biggest barriers of entry into agriculture, inheriting a family farm is a huge advantage. They have worked hard to find ways to ensure that anyone in the next generation who wants to be involved will be able to participate in the farm business, and that older family members who are retiring are also provided for.
Transitioning to Organic
The family originally had some hesitations about making the change to organic production. They started with just a small portion of their farm the first year, but soon went all in, transitioning the full 1000 acres that they were farming at the time. “We had concerns about losing some tools for antibiotics in the livestock,” Chris explains. “But that ultimately ended up being a non-issue as we got into (it), and really the animals, they build up better immune systems and we have less problems today than we ever did when we had those tools.”
“We had concerns about losing some tools for antibiotics in the livestock, but that ultimately ended up being a non-issue as we got into [it], and really the animals, they build up better immune systems and we have less problems today than we ever did when we had those tools.”
Wilson Organic Farms now manages 3500 acres total. Of that, about 2600 acres are in crops, with a mix of alfalfa, forage mixes, corn for silage and snaplage, and grain, wheat, barley, soybeans, yellow peas and occasional other food grade crops. The remaining 900 acres is in pasture, 250 of which supports their dairy herd, and the remainder which is used for heifers and beef cattle.
Looking at their farming practices now, Chris says that organic standards reflect the way that they approach farming with the inclusion of livestock. They utilize resources in a “circular motion,” as he says. Livestock fertilize the ground, crops grown in the ground feed the livestock, and all of it contributes to feeding life in the soil. They intensively graze the milk cows, which means they move them daily during the grazing season. As they eat, they leave behind their manure and also trample the ground, the combination of which provides tremendous eco benefits to the soil.
Organic farming principles “lined up with things we were already doing and things that we already believed in,” Chris says. “…and that made it a really easy transition for us, philosophically.” And he adds, “We got the premium for the crop, so we were rewarded for that effort.”
The Wilson farm has also partnered with their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to design and implement a variety of conservation practices and to support their transition to organic. They have received support for farm infrastructure and implementation of different farming practices through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Projects that the Wilson farm has implemented have ranged from implementing cover cropping and intensive rotational grazing, installing improved fencing and watering systems, livestock corridors, and creating season-long forage for pollinators. Chris was quick to point out that in addition to the financial support, another aspect of what NRCS has to offer “is the expertise that’s brought to the table.”
“The other aspect of this that doesn’t show up in the dollars and cents is just the expertise that was brought to the table on laying that stuff out and thinking about it holistically. Our NRCS rep happened to be an expert in setting up water infrastructure, so he was able to think about some of the detailed engineering questions.”
Pasture Infrastructure Programs
Through a cost share program, Wilson Organic Farms received financial support for improved pasture infrastructure and installation costs. They installed a six-strand barbed wire fence around the whole perimeter, and hired someone to install it. Chris points out that they had the option to install it themselves, which could save labor costs. They also installed underground water lines throughout the pasture. The NRCS program offered a cost share per linear foot, which Chris says “covered 50-60% of total cost.” This was similar to the support they received for the cow lanes they installed, where the cost share was based on square feet of cow lane. Their local agent was able to help them think through the details and layout of the systems they wanted to install. This financial and logistical support helped the farm transition from large paddocks to a rotational system that improves pasture and soil health.