This article originally ran in the spring 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!
Crop ConnectionPeople Leading the Way: Lynn Clarkson has built a vital supply chain that links organic farmers and food processors.
By Rachel Lane
As a boy, Lynn Clarkson walked between rows of soybeans on his family’s farm in Cerro Gordo, Illinois, picking weeds and dreaming about not being a farmer when he was older. Clarkson has kept to his plan to stay off the tractor, but today he does play a leading role in producing organic, non-GMO food for consumers around the world.
After his enlistment in the U.S. Navy ended in the early 1970s, Clarkson returned to his family’s farm and began asking his father why grain brokers earned higher profits than the growers did for the sale of their crops. The young Clarkson decided he wanted to help farmers do better, so he started talking to the food processors about what they needed most and discovered that consistency and traceability were in high demand.
“They told me there’s too much variation in incoming raw materials,” Clarkson says. Each variety of corn, for example, has its own sugar, starch, and protein levels, and those differences between the varieties have a distinct impact on the quality of any product they’re used for.
“That’s why we got into ‘identity preservation,’ he explains. “Providing a particular hybrid of corn or a particular type of soybean is important because it enhances the processing of the crop, its yield, or its end-product quality.” Clarkson spoke with farmers in his area, urging them to sign contracts to grow specific hybrids of corn or soybeans in demand by food processors, who entered into agreements with the newly formed Clarkson Grain to receive a guaranteed full year’s supply. The deal worked well for both sides: Farmers would have a commitment for their crops and earn a fair share of the profits, and the processors would be sure to get the exact varieties they preferred and enough of the crops to meet their needs.
Clarkson Grain began as a source for food processors in the Midwest, but demand for its identity-preserved crops spread to the rest of the country and reached all the way to Japan, where the market was especially strong. Japanese buyers showed Clarkson why. “They rode with me through Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa in late August and early September, past fields that had not been harvested,” he says. “We stopped the car, ran into a field, and popped some soybeans from the pod to taste them. The Japanese are very much interested in a bean’s taste and texture, the flavor of its oils; so they want a single variety. They do not blend.”
The very first Japanese clients Clarkson worked with asked him to source organic soybeans for them. “After that phone call, I had to go find out what ‘organic’ meant,” Clarkson says now. The company he founded earned its organic certification in 1998.
In the 1980s, before GMO crops were widely available in the United States, one of Clarkson Grain’s leading buyers asked Clarkson to avoid GMO products because Japanese consumers didn’t want them. Clarkson didn’t think about GMOs and organic food from a farmer’s perspective when he started as a grain broker. He was a businessman with potential clients that were asking for specific products. “My job is to respect the clients’ values,” Clarkson says. Following the needs of the customers, Clarkson Grain became one of the first grain dealers to be non-GMO verified and certified organic.
Today, Clarkson Grain operates its own commercial storage, cleaning, and handling facilities—as well as an organic soy processing facility, a barge station, and rail sidings—
in central Illinois. The biggest challenge facing Clarkson and other organic, non-GMO suppliers these days is contamination from conventional farms growing GMOs. At the
top of his concerns is Enogen corn. “It’s extraordinarily beneficial to the ethanol industry because its heavy starch content converts easily into burnable sugars,” he explains. But if other corn varieties are contaminated with even a small amount of Enogen corn, it can ruin a batch of tortilla chips or corn flakes.
“We’ve got corn being raised in an open environment that’s wonderful for one industry but a disaster for other industries,” he says. “That’s a problem we’re still grappling with as a society. It’s a serious issue for agriculture.”