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Ray Yokiel: He Was Organic Before Organic Was

This year, Ray Yokiel will plant his 32nd organic crop. The fact is, Ray was organic before the organic movement existed. He inherited his environmentally friendly approach to farming from his father, who purchased the land Ray farms today in 1956.

“Dad never believed in fertilizers and herbicides,” Ray recalls. “He acknowledged that fertilizer would give him bigger yields, but he said, ‘It takes more crops to satisfy the animals.’ He could tell that the organic approach resulted in a more nutrient-dense end product.”

When Ray took over the farm in 1977, he practiced the same principles his father did. Today, he raises organic corn, soybeans, oats and canning peas in a three-year rotation on his farm near Wells, Minnesota.

Ray also had a chance to observe some of the alternatives to organic farming firsthand before he returned to the farm in 1977. “I got a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, and I worked for Shell Chemical for a couple of years making pesticides,” he says. “That was a rude awakening, to see just how toxic some of those chemicals were.”

Natural mechanisms

Working in harmony with nature makes more sense to Ray. For example, he makes good use of cover crops and is a big believer in the rotational benefits of small grains in general and oats in particular.

“People went away from oats because the economics favored corn and soybeans,” Ray acknowledges, “but as far as what oats do for the soil, it’s very beneficial in the rotation. It’s not a row crop, I can underseed it with a cover crop, and it gives me a chance to work up my weeds one more time. I leave the straw out in the field after harvest, because there’s a fair amount of potassium and phosphorus in it. It’s in a much more available form for the next crop in that straw than it would be if I put it on in the rock form.”

Ray’s oat and soybean crops are raised for seed. “When Dad bought this farm in ‘56, he started raising seed for the Albert Lea Seed House, and when I took over I just continued doing that.”

Consumers driving the future

In Ray’s opinion, the organic approach to farming is clearly on an upswing, though the future is not without its challenges.

“It’s all driven by the consumers, who want to know where and how their food is grown,” he states. “Long-term, that’s good for organic farmers. At this point, a lot of the bigger companies are starting to take notice, and that could eventually cause downward pressure on the price farmers receive for their product.”

Producers are feeling some of the pressure now, in the form of European organic imports that have increased tenfold in recent years. And then there are the annual production concerns that all farmers face—plus a couple that are unique to the organic farmer.

“The two biggest hurdles for the organic farmer are nitrogen supply and weed control,” Ray states. “If you have livestock, your first concern is addressed. Weed control is a different issue, and it’s more dependent on the weather than anything else. GMO contamination from pollen drift is also a big concern.”

For Ray, however, there’s no question that he’s taken the right path. A 40-acre piece of ground he bought five years ago is proof of that.

“I wanted to see how long it would take to turn that ground over to organic,” he states. “It’s taken longer than I thought it would. I think I’m still a year away. It’s taken a long time to deplete the soil, and it will take a long time to build it back up. But it’s worth it if you’re concerned about the quality of the crop and the environment.

“I’ve helped several guys transition to organic, and what’s amazing is once they’ve switched, they’ll say they feel good about farming again,” he concludes. “When you start using nature’s mechanisms for providing nutrients, it makes all the difference in the world.”

 

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