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Family finds market for organic dairy

By Staff | Mar 27, 2009

Jersey dairyman Greg Wirtjes, of rural Forest City, with daughters, from left, Anna, 5, Abigail, 7, and Elise, 3. Not pictured is daughter Allison, 14 months.

FOREST CITY – Both farms and farmers can resemble each other, but a closer look at either of them usually reveals that both are as individual as fingerprints. No two are alike in spite of their similarities.

The farm of Greg and Kristi Wirtjes in Hancock County, just southwest of Forest City, looks like the many farms that surround it. However, an indication that the Wirtjes farm has its own uniqueness is the sign at the end of the driveway announcing it as a member of the Organic Valley Cooperative.

Greg Wirtjes’ path to his present-day lifestyle was not a typical one.

Wirtjes grew up in Forest City and spent summers working on nearby farms. After graduating from high school, he attended Iowa State University, graduating with a degree in agronomy.

Rather than going to work in agriculture after graduation, Wirtjes enrolled at a seminary and, upon graduation, returned to Forest City in 1998 as a youth pastor for the next three years.

His wife, Kristi, was reared on the farm that she and Greg work today. Her father died in 1998 and over time Greg Wirtjes became less of a pastor and more of a farmer, starting with a quarter section of his father-in-law’s farm in 2001.

Wirtjes’ path less traveled to farming continued when he decided he wanted to go into the dairy business. The first person he had to convince, once he made his decision, was Kristi who understood the large commitment they were about to make.

Greg Wirtjes sees organic production as a health issue. Consumers of his organic milk are guaranteed that it is from a cow free of synthetic hormones and all antibiotics.

The farm’s barn was still equipped with dairy gear, but there was no cattle. Because the equipment in the barn was small in size, the Wertjes’ decided they would milk the smaller-bodied Jersey cattle. They placed an ad in Dairy Star, a newspaper dedicated to the dairy industry, saying he was looking to buy open or bred Jersey heifers to start his dairy farm.

A farmer in Pelican Rapids, Minn., saw the ad and contacted Wirtjes. The farmer said, “I better help this kid or nobody will.” Greg and Kristi Wirtjes traveled to Pelican Rapids in January and eight heifers were bought from the farmer who read the ad and ten from his neighbor. The 18 head of Jerseys were delivered in March.

Starting a dairy operation is one thing, but starting an organic dairy operation is even more difficult. Wirtjes’ neighbors watched in disbelief when he seeded his pasture in 2006. He sold his first organic in milk in June 2007.

Wirtjes has 100 of his 1,100 acres dedicated to organic crop production. Seventy more acres will be certified for organic crop production this year. As an organic grower, he is limited, because he can not use antibiotics, hormones, commercial fertilizers or herbicides.

Wirtjes’ crop rotation is corn, beans, barley, followed by two years of alfalfa. It takes three years of farming with organic practice before a field can be certified organic and its crop fed to organic livestock.

Weed control is accomplished with three cultivations, and usually two passes with a rotary hoe. Wirtjes’ main weed problems are lambs quarters in his soybeans and Canadian thistle in his pasture. He uses rotational grazing to control the thistle and smiled when he said he has been known to take his lawn mower out at 10 o’clock at night to keep them from going to seed.

Wirtjes’ neighbor Dave Nedved, of Garner, has been milking 140 head as an organic dairy farm for two years. He is a good resource for the Wirtjes’ as their dairy operation grows. Nedved has been helpful in lining up nutritionists and advising on health care.

Wirtjes’ milk is sold to Organic Valley Cooperative and it is hauled to St Paul, Minn. Organic Valley provides much support to Wirtjes’ including subsidizing his farm in the transition to organic. Organic Valley has its own veterinarian for advice and can source feed for organic livestock producers. Greg Wirtjes said he “is very happy with them.”

Greg and Kristi Wirtjes are parents of four daughters. Abigail is age 7, Anna is age 5, Elise is age 3 and Allison is 14 months. Their daughters are home schooled and are in charge of naming the cattle. Abigail is a member of the Clover Kids 4H program and showed a Jersey heifer for the first time at the Hancock County Fair last summer.

You can contact Clayton Rye at crye@wctatel.net.

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