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Carmen Fernholz, Organic Innovator

When Carmen Fernholz made the transition from high school English instructor, drama teacher and wrestling coach to farmer, he didn’t give up teaching. He just moved to a bigger classroom.

According to an article written for the St. John’s University magazine (Carmen’s alma mater), Carmen awoke one morning in 1972 and told his wife, “I am going to buy a farm today!” That’s just what he did, purchasing the original 80 acres of the 400-plus he farms today. The next year, he began yet another transition, moving the farm toward organic farming. The seeds of that decision were planted in Carmen as a child.

“My parents had a subscription to Rodale Organic Gardening and Farming,” Carmen recalls. “Our garden was never sprayed. We ground our own wheat for flour, and we would flag out an acre of our wheat field that was never sprayed. So I was getting a subtle message about the use of chemicals.”

Though the uniform organic certification standards of today didn’t exist when he started, Carmen received his end-user organic certification in 1976. Over time, Carmen became recognized as one of the leading organic practitioners in Minnesota, ultimately serving for a decade as the organic research coordinator at the University of Minnesota’s Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton until retiring in early 2016.

“Because of that relationship, over the years the university had some of the same plots in their fields and in mine,” Carmen states. “It was good for them because I could give practical feedback. It was a great synergism that benefited both of us.”

Always learning
That’s one reason you’ll always find a few cutting-edge organic crops in Carmen’s fields, like perennial wheatgrass (kernza) and pennycress. He’s also restored some land to its original prairie state and planted pollinator strips. Plus, he’s constantly refining his cropping practices to benefit the soil.

“It’s challenging to grow cover crops in a row-crop system here in Minnesota due to our short seasons. At this point, the only cover crop in use is what I underseed my small grains with—clover or alfalfa,” he says. “They serve the benefit of what we see with living cover, enhancing the soil microbes and tilth. But I’ve eliminated any tillage on my corn and soybean ground, and I use the crop residue as my cover for the winter months.”

A typical rotation for Carmen would be dried field peas, corn, soybeans and small grain. He will also underseed his small grain with alfalfa and leave the field in alfalfa for two additional seasons. “The more robust the rotation, the better it is for the soil,” he notes.

Positive partnership
Carmen became acquainted with Mac Ehrhardt and Elia Romano through their mutual attendance at organic events, and has worked with Albert Lea Seed as a seed producer.

“I’ve known Mac and Elia for a number of years, and I raised organic seed barley for them this year,” Carmen states. “I see Albert Lea Seed as innovators, always looking to advance the seed industry. They continue to ratchet up their position as a growing, reliable source of organic seed, and they are also becoming a major player in the cover crop scene.”

Experienced organic farmers played an important role in getting Carmen started on the right track in organic production, and he is now in position to return the favor as he passes what he has learned—and continues to learn—on to the next generation. Once a teacher, always a teacher it appears.

Matt Helgeson of Albert Lea Seed, Carmen Fernholz and Matt Leavitt of Albert Lea Seed in a production field of Organic Pinnacle Barley.

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