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Congressman visits organic farm
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Joe and Kelly Placke talk with U.S. Representative Mark Pocan during a tour of their organic farm, located on Fever Hill Road west of Cuba City on Aug. 24. - photo by Dena Harris

CUBA CITY—U.S. Congressional Representative Mark Pocan stopped in rural Cuba City on Aug. 24 to tour an organic dairy farm. Pocan is a part of the agriculture subcommittee for appropriations, the group that appropriates the funding for agriculture-related programs at the federal level.

“We are hoping a farm bill will come through,” Pocan said. “The biggest problem we face in congress right now is not much has happened period. It is difficult to change from one president to another, even if it is the same political party, and when you go from one party to the other you have more disruption. This president has brought us a little more disruption given that he doesn’t have as deep of experience, along with a lot of the people he has brought in. We are still trying to figure that out. Hopefully that will all change. We do have to get through a farm bill, by Sept. 30, our fiscal year.”

Representatives from Organic Valley discussed several priorities they had for the farm bill. Specifically, the growth of organic farming has created new challenges as the oversight and enforcement needs to grow to keep pace. Enforcement should be stopping fraudulent products being imported to the U.S.

“The integrity of organics is really important,” Adam Warthesen of Organic Valley said. “In some areas of the world you have people who are willing to cheat and drive that cheating into the U.S. market. We need our agencies to be able to rebuff that.”

Farmers attending the program echoed that they were looking for better enforcement for organic products.

Organic Valley, located in Cashton, has 502 family farms as a part of its group. The Placke farm is part of that group.
Joe and Rita Placke bought the farm located on Fever Hill Road east of Cuba City in 1980, with the help of Joe Placke’s father.

“We farmed conventionally for 13 years,” Joe said. “We were milking 100 cows and we were still having a hard time making ends meet.”

As farms were encouraged to go bigger to compete with other dairies, Joe and Rita researched organic practices. Joe said the big turning point for him was when his brother was hospitalized for insecticide poisoning and he had cancer caused by exposure to farm chemicals.

When Joe found out another local farmer had switched to organic farming and that Organic Valley was looking for more organic milk in the area, he started to transition his farm to organic practices in 1993. By 1996 they were certified organic, but they had to wait another year before Organic Valley was ready for their milk. Joe and Rita were the first organic farmers in Lafayette County.

“Since we’ve been organic, we’ve noticed our cows are so much healthier,” Joe said. “We hardly ever have serious mastitis or serious health problems. The land is healthier, it seems like the cows are healthier, and I think it goes for people, too, who are healthier when they eat organic.”

Joe said he learned how to treat cows organically and had more success with those practices than when he used antibiotics.

He also had to learn about different practices for weed control.

Joe and Rita have four children. Their youngest daughter, Kelly, earned a degree in art in Arizona but soon returned to her farming roots.

“I was kind of slowing down, thinking about maybe getting out of milking,” Joe said. “Now she [Kelly] is doing all of the milking and I do all of the field work.”

Kelly owns 80 acres and the farm buildings. She went into business with her parents and now manages the herd of 36 cows and does all of the milking in the family’s stanchion barn. Joe continues to work the crops.

“It took getting away from here to realize how good it is back here,” Kelly said. “I know how difficult it is for young farmers to be able to get into farming. I appreciate that I have a family who is supportive to keep the prices low enough for me to be able to afford to do it.”

Kelly said she’s interested in finding ways to help young farmers be successful starting their own farms.

“The landscape of farming has changed so much,” Joe said. “It used to be a farmer could make enough money where they could get their family in a farm and it stays small enough that a family could do all of the farming. I think we all know the way conventional [farming] has gone. Organic is still a way we can do that. By keeping more small farms in the community, we keep the community healthy, too.”

Organic status requires that 30 percent of the animal’s diet is from grazing. The Placke herd is grass-fed, meaning no grain is integrated into their cows’ diet. The herd is rotationally grazing April through September and then supplemental hay and baleage is provided to the cows the months they aren’t able to graze. Minerals are added to keep the cows healthy. Joe also plants clover, alfalfa and a variety of other plants for the pastures to keep the grazing diverse.

Joe Klein, regional Organic Valley representative, said organic is a philosophy and system of production that mirrors the natural laws of living organisms with emphasis on the interdependence of all life.

“To me, when I think of that definition of organic, I think of the word ‘life,’” Klein said. “All farmers have a lot of tools at their disposal, but organic farmers choose not to use the antibiotics when we don’t need them, herbicides, pesticides, the things that kill. We promote life.”

Klein said a lot of the organic farmers work from the soil up, focusing on promoting the living organisms in the soil.

“Healthy soil promotes healthy crops and healthy pastures,” Klein said. “That produces healthy animals, which in turn produces healthy milk and healthy meat for healthy people. That’s really the focus of organic.”

Kelly rotates her herd between several 1-acre paddocks. Each day they are in a different space, each pasture divided by one wire of an electric fence.

“I have very polite cows,” Kelly said. “Some days I forget to plug it in and they still mind the one wire.”

Kelly lets her calves drink from their mothers unencumbered, eliminating the need to provide a separate housing and bottle feeding for the calves. One of the perks of having calves with the rest of the herd is that they learn about the electric fence early and grow up knowing how it works.

“I can’t say that I really have changed too much,” Kelly said. “Dad did all of the smart decision-making as far as transitioning to organic and transitioning to feeding our cows only grass.”