Feeding the Need

Organic livestock farmers find new approaches to sourcing animal grain

By Jon Shoulders

»When Darby Simpson began farming in 2007, he realized from Day 1 that raising his animals on feed that is not produced from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would be more costly and time consuming than sourcing from the nearest conventional feed mill. However, Simpson believed in the health benefits of taking such an approach and one year later struck up a business relationship with Central Indiana Organics, a Lebanon-based supplier of certified organic, conventional and non-GMO feed. He still goes the extra mile — literally — for his feed and feels the extra cost, time and energy he’s spent over the years are worthwhile.

“It’s definitely more expensive to go either non-GMO or organic, and Central Indiana Organics is about 50 minutes away from us,” says Simpson, who owns and operates Martinsville-based Simpson’s Farm Market, a poultry, beef, pork and turkey farm. “There aren’t many other suppliers in our area though. If you work smart, you can make it work though, if using organic or non-GMO feed is important to your farm.” Simpson adds that while organic products are, by definition, not genetically modified, non-GMO products aren’t necessarily organic, and producers should choose their desired feed carefully before finding the appropriate suppliers.

Even as consumer demand for non-GMO and organic products continues to rise, both remain niche market products. The 2012 U.S. Census revealed that less than 1 percent of U.S. farms are certified organic or exempt from organic certification requirements. As such, both certified organic and non-GMO feed costs have remained noticeably higher than conventional feeds for suppliers and their customers.

Nathan Shutt, co-owner of Shelbyville-based Liberty Feed and Bean Meal, says the typical price difference between non-GMO and conventional feeds is substantial — roughly $6 to $7 more per bag — but many of his customers feel the health benefits are simply too important to ignore and often find creative ways to offset the additional cost. “We have a bunch of folks that have partnered up, where one of them will take a trailer here and then take back maybe a ton and a half or two tons of feed to their area, and then settle up amongst themselves,” he says. “That can help save on travel cost.”

Shutt’s customers come from all over the state, including Madison, Bloomington and north of Indianapolis, for Liberty’s variety of non-GMO feeds, which include full-fat bean meal, roasted corn and triple-cleaned oats. “Non-GMO corn really isn’t too terribly hard to find, but something like clean oats that haven’t been sprayed with anything, those are really getting hard to find,” Shutt says. “We had been getting them out of Canada, but Parliament recently passed a law allowing the use of Roundup. It’s gotten tough to find people that aren’t spraying oats.”

Jeff Evard, certification manager at Plainfield-based Ecocert ICO, an organic certification agency accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says in addition to checking with the nearest mills and feed supply retailers, farmers shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to fellow producers in their area to learn how they handle the challenges that come with sourcing organic or non-GMO feed. “Not everybody puts out a sign that says they’re organic, and you might find that someone 20 miles down the road stores the kind of feed you need,” Evard says. “You can at least talk to others and get some insight into how they operate or where they source from.”

Simpson says working smarter as a producer to make certified organic or non-GMO feed a realistic option includes three factors: First, always buy in bulk whenever possible so that travel expenses are minimized and invest in bulk bins for storage. Second, keep carefully detailed records of costs in order to charge customers accordingly. “It helps you make a non-emotional decision and charge appropriately for your time and labor and everything,” Simpson says. “You can’t be the same price as everybody else if your feed costs, say, 30 percent more due to being non-GMO or certified organic.”

This leads to Simpson’s third piece of advice — educate consumers as to the reasons for the increased costs. “We spend a lot of time marketing, explaining and educating consumers on why we’re different and why non-GMO matters, and basically justifying the cost,” he says. “It informs and reassures the consumer, which is important.”

Evard says small-scale producers can always pool resources and begin simply milling their own livestock feed. “A lot of organic producers that we work with, they’ll grow a lot of their grains, whether it’s grass or corn or soybean,” he says. “I’ve seen folks going in together and purchasing some sort of commercial apparatus to grind grain, which lives at one guy’s farm where he grinds the grain, and then the group of people figure it out financially.” Evard adds that under USDA regulations, farms that sell under $5,000 worth of farm products annually are exempt from certification requirements when labeling products as organic.

Evard, like Shutt, feels that for those without their own milling equipment, cooperative purchasing of organic or non-GMO feed can be another effective approach, where travel and feed expenses are distributed among a large group. “You’ve got to be creative, and you’ve got to approach it as an entrepreneur,” he says. “You’ve got to find solutions to your problems, and sometimes those solutions don’t come in a package in a box store.”

Consider the following Indiana feed mills for certified organic or non-GMO feed options:

Central Indiana Organics
5780 S. Road 200E, Lebanon
(765) 482-4120, centralindianaorganics.com
Feed types: Organic, non-GMO, conventional

Liberty Feed and Bean Meal
5367 E. Road 700N, Shelbyville
(765) 763-6111, libertyfeedandbeanmeal.com
Feed types: Non-GMO

Egg Innovations
578 N. Jefferson St., Cromwell
(260) 215-8020, egginnovations.com
Feed types: Organic, non-GMO

Honeyville Feed and Farm Supply
9240 W. Road 400S, Topeka
(260) 593-9943, honeyvillefeedmill.com
Feed types: Organic, non-GMO, conventional

Visit the USDA Organic Integrity Database to search for certified organic producers in Indiana, by city and product type, at apps.ams.usda.gov/integrity.

For resources and information on launching a cooperative organization, visit the Indiana Cooperative Development Center website at icdc.coop.