Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Winona couple honored for work in organic industry

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:01 AM

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WINONA, Minn. — Two Winona area organic pioneers were honored last month as Stewards of Sustainable Agriculture.

Jim Riddle and Joyce Ford received the Sustie Award from the Ecological Farming Association.

The EFA is a non-profit educational organization committed to sustainable agriculture.

It is based in California.

The couple have attended the conference for 33 years and sometimes spoken there. It is a big conference, with 1,600 people in attendance this year, Riddle said.

They didn't know they were on the list for the award, but were told they had a champion on the board of directors.

Riddle and Ford were on the forefront of the organic movement. They helped organize the Winona Farmers Market in the 1980s when they were raising vegetables.

Riddle never farmed with chemicals, preferring not to handle them. The only time he handled chemicals was for the two years he worked as a caretaker of an environmental research area. There, he sprayed 2-4D on brush.

He grew up on a small dairy farm in Iowa where his family farmed without chemicals. His mother raised a garden.

"I was raised gardening organically," Riddle said, and he was familiar with the process.

Thinking back to those early days, he said the organic standards were piecemeal and largely developed by nonprofit organizations.

They founded the International Organic Inspectors Association in 1991 and co-authored the International Organic Inspection Manual, Organic System Plan and inspection report templates.

Minnesota passed a law defining organic standards in the state in 1986, four years ahead of the Organic Foods Production Act passed by Congress.

"There certainly weren't near as many organic farmers or the market there is today," Riddle said.

Last year, there was more $32 billion in organic sales nationwide. Organic products are available at farmers markets, food cooperatives, Hy-Vee Food Stores and Wal-Mart. You can even find organic foods at the Minneapolis airport. There are more than 600 certified organic farms in Minnesota and three times that many in Wisconsin.

The University of Minnesota has more than 800 acres certified organic and a 100-cow certified organic dairy herd in Morris.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture supports organic agriculture, he said. It is the only state agriculture department that organizes an annual organic farming conference. The climate isn't organic v. conventional.

"This is a viable product and profitable way to farm … but it's not the only way," Riddle said.

Riddle and Ford stopped raising vegetables for sale in 1983 because they were busy doing organic inspections and running the International Organic Inspectors Association, which conducts training for organic inspectors throughout the world.

That was before the days of the Internet and email, he said. It was a big deal when they got a fax machine.

Riddle served on the Land Stewardship Project original steering committee and was on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Organic Advisory Task Force from 1991 to 2009. He was appointed to the National Organic Standards Board by President Clinton in 2001 and served a five-year term. He was secretary, vice chairman and chairman of the board during his tenure.

After his term expired, he was offered a position with the University of Minnesota. He has been the university's organic outreach coordinator for seven years. He's involved in organic field days, writing organic publications and e-organic, an Extension arm geared toward organic agriculture.

Ford served on the Organic Growers and Buyers Association board in the late 1980s and spent two terms on the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services board. Most recently, she's become a site monitor for pipelines crossing organic farms in Minnesota and has established a training program for environmental auditors.

Mitigation plans are required when pipelines cross organic farmland and organic inspectors must be on site during construction to make sure the steps in the mitigation plan are followed.

She also audits organic accreditation agencies to make sure they are documenting things properly.

They have also gotten back into organic production, starting Blue Fruit Farm on four acres. They have more than 1,600 blueberry bushes, hundreds of elderberries, 300 aronia berry bushes, black chokeberry, black currants, honeyberries, 80 blue plum trees and various other perennial blue fruits. Bird control is their greatest challenge.

The couple have two daughters and twin granddaughters who were born in November.