Wende Elliott realizes a profit from raising organic turkeys, partly thanks to a unique arrangement that allows her to share labor and inputs with other members of her Midwestern growers cooperative.
Wende Elliott realizes a profit from raising organic turkeys, partly thanks to a unique arrangement that allows her to share labor and inputs with other members of her Midwestern growers cooperative. Photo courtesy of Wende Elliott

New Iowa Organic Crop/Livestock Farmers win over Skeptics

Joe Rude and Wende Elliott, who grow alfalfa, oats and corn and raise pastured poultry, ducks, turkey and lamb on 120 acres, routinely receive compliments on the appearance of their alfalfa field.

But it wasn’t always that way for the two farmers from Colo, Iowa. After they bought their farm in 1999 and planted their first alfalfa crop, “people drove from miles around just to look at the weeds in the field,” said Rude, who now laughs about it. One person even stopped to inquire about renting the field, unaware that it had been planted.

With repeated mowing, however, the alfalfa rebounded, and by the second and third year, Elliott and Rude were harvesting excellent yields. The crop response, along with a good sense of humor and confidence they were doing the right thing, helped Rude and Elliott remain steadfast in their commitment to farming organically.

“We were organic consumers before we were organic farmers, and we thought for our health and other people’s health it was best not to use pesticides, hormones and antibiotics,” Elliott said.

Moreover, as new farmers, Elliott and Rude couldn’t afford a large farm and needed high revenue per acre. Organic products, they thought, would be more profitable.

Trying to get their crop and poultry production in harmony and working with nature is a challenge they both enjoy.

They market in more than five states now, including the high-end horse market for hay. They also grow corn and oats for their animals, selling only what they can’t use on the farm. But Elliott and Rude also know that to compete with the larger farms and international operations entering the organic market, they need other ways to promote their product. Their main idea: starting a meat marketing cooperative to pool products, share responsibilities and improve efficiency and bargaining power.

Using a SARE grant, Elliott conducted a feasibility study on direct marketing that helped her write a business plan to apply for co-op start-up money. The marketing strategy of the co-op emphasizes that the products are locally grown as well as organic to give them an edge over the international and large production.

“We can’t compete on cheap food,” Elliott said, “but we can compete on quality and freshness and the fact that our product is local.”

With 13 other farms, Elliott and Rude co-market their poultry, ducks, turkeys and lambs, and share such tasks as monitoring quality, codifying genetics and nutrition, and sales. The co-op bargains collectively to get better prices on inputs, such as chicks, and members share labor, marketing and equipment.

“As small producers, if we each tried to be a one-man show with direct marketing to the same customers, we would be working against each other,” Elliott said. “With the co-op, we can reach bigger markets, and by improving efficiency, we can each grow our farms to greater profits.”

Elliott advises farmers to transition to organic one field at a time as they did – phasing in row crops first, then small numbers of animals.

Now that they’ve proved successful at growing and marketing organic products, neighbors – rather than driving by and laughing – stop by to ask what they’re doing. One neighbor even began raising ducks while another renewed his interest in vegetable crops.

“What we’re doing makes everyone think about the possibilities,” Elliott said.