When Nebraska farmer David Vetter sold his first crop of organic soybeans to White Wave in 1977, soymilk was a niche product few people had ever heard of and national standards for organic farmers were a far-off dream for Rodale Institute and other advocates. Today, Vetter is president and CEO of Grain Place Foods in Marquette, Neb., which provides processing and distribution services to organic farmers. And the soft-spoken farmer, who received one of Rodale Institute’s 6th Annual Organic Pioneer Awards in September 2016, is still working toward a sustainable future for producers and consumers.
“Our goal is to maintain a crop-ping system that efficiently manages resources and is self-renewing,” he says. “We look at our system not just to maximize profit but also to manage the risks of a farming business. By risks I mean things like the loss of fertility and taking on of unmanageable debt.”
SMALL BUT EFFICIENT
In the late 1940s, Vetter’s father, Don, became one of the county’s first pesticide applicators, but by 1953 he had begun to see the damage caused by agricultural chemicals and decided to purchase farmland with his father and adopt organic methods. After earning a bachelor’s degree in agronomy/ soil science from the University of Nebraska, and a Master of Divinity degree from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, David returned to the farm in 1975 and embraced sustainable farming methods based on his commitment to both biological and theological principles.
In those days, the Vetters faced major obstacles, including agricultural lenders’ resistance to offering credit to unconventional farmers and the logistics of transporting their crops to organic food processors. The scale of their operation was a persistent challenge. “Typical family farms in this area were 800 acres or more,” Vetter says. “Our farm was 274 acres. Today’s average family farm is 2,500 acres, but we still have 274, with 250 in crops and the rest in windbreaks, wildlife habitat, and other uncultivated areas. We main-tain profitability by finding a better way to produce our products.”
Meanwhile, the growing demand for organic ingredients has presented new issues for the three generations of Vetters working in the business. “As the market opportunities increased in scale, bigger operators moved in who are able to meet the demand,” Vetter says. “For us, the question became how can we grow without buying more land.”
In 1980, the answer to the question of growth was to add grain cleaning and storage facilities that would serve other small-scale organic farmers and specialty organic food distributors and processors. The demand from large farms grew, and in 1987 the Vetter family established Grain Place Foods, Inc., one of the first on-farm operations of its kind. Today, it employs two dozen people and handles traditional crops such as barley, oats, and wheat, as well as popcorn, chia, quinoa, and other specialty items from 128 organic farms.
“We found that value-added products were better for us than trying to compete with the huge agribusinesses,” Vetter says. “We were able to grow without getting too big or losing touch with why we were farming in the first place.”
While Vetter remains focused on his own farm and business, he also makes time to speak to other organic farmers about his experience. At annual field days at his farm, which attract more than 60 growers from as far away as California, Texas, and Saskatchewan, and in talks to a variety of groups, Vetter emphasizes the importance of his principle of self-renewal.
“I ask farmers if they want to be organic in practice or by rule. If you only stick to the rules, you can still operate in an industrial model, just by substituting approved inputs,” he says. “But the practice of organic is a biological model, in which you give up some productivity now to renew your resources for the future.
“I think of what Wendell Berry has said about the ‘broader environmental bank account’ we’ve been withdrawing from,” Vetter concludes. “If you never replenish it, the account eventually will be empty.”
Learn more about Vetter and his business at grainplacefoods.com.
This article originally ran in the fall issue of New Farm Magazine, the magazine of Organic Farmers Association. All OFA members receive a complimentary issue of New Farm twice per year. Click here to sign up!