Natural Foods Merchandiser

Tapping The Heavens, Tilling The Earth

Gazing out over his 280 acres near Marquette, Neb., Dave Vetter sees beyond the corn silk fluttering in the breeze, beyond the cattle grazing on prairie grass, beyond the two generations of his family tilling the soil.

He looks beyond the surface and sees the underlying spirituality.

"There's a big expression of faith in engaging in agriculture, even if you're willing to admit it or not," Vetter says. "We joke that every farmer who puts seed in the soil relies on faith it will grow.

"In the Genesis creation stories, we were instructed to tend the garden. I interpret that to be the first commandment we were given."

As an organic farmer in the 1970s, Vetter needed an extra dose of faith and spirituality to deal with neighbors who laughed at his radical growing techniques, a public that didn't care much about organic food, and the money woes and isolation that came from being a pioneer. He and his father were among the first Nebraskans to convert their farms to organic, and one of a small group of organic farmers nationwide. Says Ron Rosmann, president of the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation and an early organic farmer in Iowa, "As far as those openly trying to market food as organic in the '70s—I could count them on one hand."

Vetter's work as a pioneering organic farmer is enough to make him a natural legacy. His integrity and commitment contribute to the image. "Dave is like working with Mahatma Gandhi. He's so honest, so interested in things, so selfless," says Greg Harrison, a veterinarian who buys organic birdseed from Vetter's processing plant.

But what truly sets Vetter apart from the average organic farmer is his work outside the farm. He and his father built Grain Place Foods, one of the first organic processing plants in the Midwest, to serve the small-scale organic farmers ignored by the big processors. He was instrumental in creating the Organic Crop Improvement Association standards organization. He teaches organic farming techniques through seminars and annual farm tours, and he speaks out against genetically modified crops.

"He didn't want to be just a farmer. He wanted to be a farmer who could make a difference," says Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and Vetter's teacher at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

"Dave told me that he wanted to do a 'ministry to the soil,' " Kirschenmann says.

Father Knows Best
Vetter literally learned organic farming at his father's knee. "We had Organic Gardening and The Bio-Dynamics Quarterly, and books by Sir Albert Howard, Friend Sykes, Lady Eve Balfour, John Storer, et al, around the house as long as I can remember," Dave says.

Vetter's father, Don, studied farming for two years at the University of Nebraska's College of Agriculture before leaving to fight in the South Pacific during World War II. When he returned to the family farm, he was seduced by the new pesticides and chemicals available to farmers.

"1948 was when so-called modern farming began, and I was one of the first in the area to have a sprayer for my fields. The neighbors would stop by to see what I was doing," Don Vetter says. "I thought [those pesticides] were great."

But Vetter's love affair with chemicals ended when he remembered his college days. "I thought back to the biology and agronomy courses I took, and I worried about contaminating the soil [with chemicals]. I made up my mind that it was the wrong approach—the wrong thing for the environment, for general health, for the soil. That's when I became an organic farmer, even though I didn't know it."

Vetter stopped using farming chemicals in 1953. "I was kind of an oddball," he says. "Probably one of the toughest things was peer pressure. So many people thought I was a moron." He relied on books and magazines about organic farming to learn how to work his fields efficiently without chemicals. "Maybe I instilled some of that in Dave," the eldest of his four children, he says.

By 1960, Vetter was no longer able to work the fields because of war-related health problems. A tenant farmer took over and promised not to use insecticides or herbicides, but he did use nitrogen fertilizers and didn't practice crop rotation.

Dave Vetter was a teenager at the time. By the time he went to college, he had moved far enough away from his agricultural background to decide on a pre-med major. But halfway into it, he changed his mind, transferred from a small college in Iowa to the University of Nebraska, and earned a bachelor's degree in agronomy soil science. Still, those pre-med biology and chemistry classes served him well. "He can see there is a connection between the environment and soil quality," his father says.

After graduation, Vetter enrolled in the master of divinity program at United Theological Seminary. "My long-term goal was to work in missions in agricultural and economic resource development," he says. "A lot of divinity has to do with stewardship issues."

Kirschenmann saw Vetter as a "worker-priest."

"In the late '60s, young people were ideological. They wanted to do good in the world, but not through traditional churches or social organizations," Kirschenmann says. Vetter enrolled in Kirschenmann's Dual Career Training Program, where he learned to combine social and ministerial skills. "He didn't want to be just a minister, and he didn't want to be just a farmer," Kirschenmann says.

While in school, Vetter worked as a farmer and a guard at a prison farm in southeastern Kentucky. From 1972-74, he worked for the Dayton-Montgomery County Park District. He convinced his bosses to encourage organic farming in the public garden program. Demand was so great, the park system doubled the number of plots available for amateur gardeners.

"I saw young urban and suburban families that wanted organic. The question they most often asked was: 'Where could I get grains and beans that are organically grown for my family?'" Vetter says. "Most of those families were two generations or more removed from the farm. They were looking for some way to connect back with the land, and the simplest and most intimate way to do it was through food. That convinced me that the organic and specialty farm market would be appreciated."

In early 1975, the Vetters' tenant farmer left, and Dave, emboldened by his success in Ohio, moved back to Nebraska to try organic farming. But the first year, with no seed, little machinery and $1,500 in the bank, he didn't have the money to farm organically. He used nitrogen fertilizer on 60 percent of the acreage, and planted only corn. "We had to compromise. We used organic techniques early on, but planted too much corn because we needed cost returns," he says. Still, in 1977, the farm's first field was certified organic, and the entire farm was certified by 1978. Vetter added soybeans, wheat and oats to the corn for diversity, and practiced green manure application, crop rotation, and control and management of wheat patterns.

"I thought long term. I knew I needed to think about the impact on the system 100 years down the road. I still see effects on the soil texture and type based on things my father did."

Bob Quinn, owner of the Quinn Farm and Ranch in Big Sandy, Mont., and president of The Kamut Association of North America, says that vision is one of the many things that impress him about Vetter. Quinn, whose farm was certified organic in 1987—the first in Montana—has visited Vetter's farm many times.

"He gave me a lot of encouragement. He taught me the principles of organic farming. He taught me how to go through the transition period and look years ahead—not to be concerned with the now.

"He's very much a long-term, visionary type of guy. He sees the whole farm as a holistic component and understands when you change one thing at one end, it affects everything. And that's not how farmers really think—it's more about fixing one thing now." Quinn valued Vetter's viewpoint so much that when he was a member of the National Organic Standards Board, he would call Vetter "to give me a broader vision—the whole picture rather than just one little piece."

Quinn notes that "much of what I teach and tell people now comes from Dave's ideas. If I had to pick one person who influenced me more than anyone else, I would pick Dave."

Joining The Crowd
But being a visionary was difficult. "Clean fields and straight rows and good German farmers are the rule in Nebraska. For any farmer to do something different takes a lot of courage," says Tom Larson, an organic farmer with 320 acres near Vetter's farm.

Vetter quickly learned the loneliness associated with organic farming. "A lot of organic farmers complain about being isolated now—try 30 years ago. The closest organic farmer was 75 to 80 miles away." Decades after his father took flak from the neighbors for farming organically, Vetter experienced the same thing. "My kids got guff from the other farmers' kids—'those crazy,' or 'those dumb' organic farmers."

To combat the isolation and ridicule, he helped form the Midwest Organic Producers Association, a group of a dozen or so farmers in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois. The group was so important to him, "I'd drive to meetings in Omaha, meet from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., drive home, sleep two hours and get up and farm," he says.

"You can't be an organic farmer in isolation—everything you do is contextual. My chances of long-term success grow if I can get my neighbor to be an organic farmer, even if it means he's competing with me."

Group members discussed organic structure, reducing environmental risks from chemical contamination and runoff, organic fertilizers, crop rotation and organic standards. "People talked to people about tradition and concepts—about living on the land, about organic history all the way back to the Mayan culture. The same issues were important then—taking care of the land, looking for balance, diversity," Vetter says.

Vetter continued to be a student of organics, attending lectures at Boys Town, the 1,500-acre Omaha, Neb., farm that specialized in biodynamic agriculture from 1942-77. "Dave was doing what needed to be done long before anyone else in the state," says Bob Steffen, former farm program director at Boys Town and owner of the 80-acre Massena Farms near Omaha.

Vetter worked with the fledgling Nebraska Sustainable Agricultural Society and joined the Organic Crop Improvement Association in 1987. "He was put on the OCIA certification committee, then became chairman and secretary. He contributed a lot of stability and integrity. He created an atmosphere of cooperation and facilitation when everyone was jockeying between certifiers for leadership," Quinn says.

Vetter notes that the "infighting [among regional certifying agencies] was probably a pretty good thing for the industry. The conflict and territorialities made everyone do better work and a better job at defining and developing standards."

Learning The Business
By 1980, Vetter was producing organic grains and soybeans, but not many people were buying them. "We probably sold less than 7 percent to 8 percent as organic product," he says. Mainly, he sold to those interested in buying locally, rather than organically, produced grains—to food clubs, small health food stores, vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventist groups and nearby families. "We had a lot of customers a long way away. I spent a lot of time on the road," he says. He admits that he couldn't have made a living had his wife not had a full-time job.

Part of the problem was that he specialized in grains. "They're the kind of products that didn't lend themselves well to natural foods markets, and there was no organic processing for bread makers or tortillas." He had to drive 100 miles to find a processing plant that didn't use chemicals to treat his soybeans. Finding reliable cleaning and grading of grain was even more difficult. "We tried all kinds of things—food plants, popcorn processors—but we'd end up with popcorn in our soybeans."

So Vetter and his dad decided to build their own processing facility.

Vetter admits the idea was insane. "We were proposing to do something no one had a model for. We had no good market research to back up a business plan. And it cost a lot more than we had—$100,000. We had to borrow everything when interest rates were going up a point a day."

Lenders routinely turned the Vetters down. After seven months of courting bankers, they finally signed a lease-purchase contract through a local leasing company at an 18.9 percent interest rate. They leased all the processing equipment. But for the Vetters, the risk was worth it. "We figured, do we go ahead and do this and take the risk, or do we don't do it and always wish we had," Vetter says. "Sanity certainly didn't explain what we did."

Vetter and his father built the Grain Place Foods processing plant on farmland and worked the first three years without employees or salaries. They processed grains from their farm and signed an agreement with a marketing company to bring in clients from as far away as Europe and Japan. But most importantly, they offered processing at fair prices for local organic farmers.

"A lot of processors don't want to work with little organic growers. Farmers can get screwed by processors," points out Yvonne Frost of Simple Organic Solutions in Jefferson, Ore.

Tom Larson, who processes his grains at Grain Place Foods, says: "Twenty years ago, the organic food business was just a joke—a hippie trying to sell a wormy apple. There was no infrastructure. Dave was instrumental in getting a lot of that infrastructure started."

Still, Vetter admits: "We had a lot of trial and error. We were able to survive because people were glad to get what we were producing. Some of the product was second-rate. We put some things on the market—I shake my head. Now our customer base is no longer that small group that would eat [our grains] if they were organic, no matter what."

Others believe Vetter modestly discounts his substantial achievements. "He has a vertically integrated system that utilizes product from all over the neighborhood. When a farmer can connect to that strategic partnership, he's able to raise prices immediately," says Tom Harding, president of AgriSystems International, a Wind Gap, Pa.-based organic consulting firm. "Dave's providing an opportunity for farmers to have a better economic quality of life. He pays fair Farmgate prices based on his real cost—he treats farmers fairly because he knows the real cost of organic products."

Charles Francis, professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska, notes that Grain Place Foods is a "very socially conscious operation. It hires a number of people from the local community—pensioners, stay-at-home moms, part-time people."

It's still a rarity to find organic farmers who are also successful. "To make a capital investment in a processing facility is very, very difficult. You've got to be a really darn good business manager in addition to being a farmer. Not many people like that are still around and still have their integrity intact," says Mark Lipson of the Molina Creek Farming Collective in Davenport, Calif., and OFRF's policy program director.

Others agree. "Dave's the most incredible businessman I've ever seen," says John Doran, senior soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. "He just has a head for business. He's a philosopher, but he doesn't have his head in the clouds. He knows what he has to do to make a niche market work. He's always looking for value-added [opportunities]."

Harding believes Vetter is a leader in showing farmers how to vertically integrate their operations and "convert their ideology into a value-added system. Small farmers have to be marketers. Dave's always looking for new ways to earn value."

Despite the kudos, Vetter points out that the processing business took a long time to pay for itself. From 1980-89, the Vetter farm, incorporated under the name Grain Place, subsidized Grain Place Foods. In the early 1990s, Vetter shifted Grain Place Foods' focus from low-performing, high-maintenance bulk grains to higher-value products, including edible beans, specialty seeds, cereal grains, soybeans and popcorn. He developed microwave popcorn for Bearitos and the Natural Value line. In 1992, he began processing certified organic bird food for Greg Harrison, DVM, president of HBD International in Lake Worth, Fla., and developer of Harrison's Bird Diets.

Harrison had had bad experiences with suppliers and distributors who falsely promised that the whole grains, beans and barley he bought were organic. So Vetter went to work as a broker for Harrison, connecting him with certified organic farmers who supplied everything from sunflower seeds to barley. "Organic farmers might just sell you corn, but Dave asks, 'Do you want high-dent corn, low-dent corn, hand-pollinated corn?' I didn't know what the heck he was talking about. He's a real grain scientist," Harrison says.

"Dave works so diligently with organic farmers on our behalf, as well as on their behalf. He would develop things for people and never think, 'Why don't I get a piece of the action?' "

Farming For The Future
Although Grain Place Foods processes the entire Vetter farm crop, 90 percent of its business is from outside the farm. Vetter works full-time in the processing plant, along with his 83-year-old father and 16 employees. Vetter's brother-in-law manages the farm. Vetter's OK with the division, but admits, "I'm still a farmer at heart."

He's also still an innovator. "You can always tell when an organic farmer is going to fail—when he tells me he's got it all figured out," he says with a laugh. "If you're going to be an organic farmer, you have to be willing to make big mistakes by the highway where everyone can see it. In all our marketing plans, I haven't been able to figure out how to bill for that entertainment value."

Vetter is currently adding more legumes to his crop mix and more grass for cattle. "It helps develop the soil, makes it more like the prairie. Grass has the most lasting impact on the soil," he says. He can also market his 25 to 30 head of cattle as grass-finished rather than grain fed. He's in the second year of what he figures will be a six-year conversion to grassland.

Although friends point out that Vetter is self-effacing and modest, he speaks out against genetically modified crops and recently completed a video on the subject for Greenpeace. He teaches classes and gives seminars, but admits it's something he's not comfortable doing. He hosts annual farm tours and lectures: His most recent, in July, drew an audience of 60 and featured university professors, representatives from OFRF and a group of European journalists.

"He takes a leadership role in the heartland," says Bob Scowcroft, OFRF executive director. "He's been outspoken about organics for a long time. That takes a lot of courage."

Vetter believes it also takes a lot of faith. "In most traditions, the way you talk about spiritual renewal is that it happens in the context of the wilderness. In a lot of traditions, people involved in those faith stories go out in the woods or the desert to be alone and to fast and repent, to renew. From my perspective, there's no better way to do that than to work with the soil."

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 28, 32, 34, 36

TAGS: Archive News
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.