Rural Weld County finds booming business in organic grains
Colorado’s national ranking in organic acreage
1st — Wheat
3rd — Millet
3rd — Lettuce
4th — All cropland
4th — All grain
6th — All vegetable acreage
Source: Colorado Department of Agriculture
Were it not for the grain silos, Hereford, Colo., might flash across the rear view mirror, passing entirely unnoticed by most traveling motorists.
The unincorporated Weld County community sits just 2 miles south of the Wyoming state line on the northern edge of the Pawnee National Grassland. To find its exact location takes some planning — Hereford is not listed on the map, nor are its neighboring farm communities.
Rebecca Talmadge, co-owner of S T Organics, estimates between 15 and 20 people call her community home.
The grain silos that mark the town’s skyline belong to Talmadge and her family.
While Hereford may appear sleepy to the naked eye, its grain elevator has a far-reaching impact on the organic food market both locally and nationally.
Organic grain farmers turn to Talmadge’s elevator to store their wheat, barley, oats and corn harvested in northern Colorado, southeastern Wyoming and western Nebraska. Much of this grain will eventually land on grocery store shelves, providing flour for organic breads and feed for organically produced milk.
When S T Organics took over the community’s grain elevator in 2007, the Talmadges found that while many producers in the area were already farming organically, they struggled to find storage options and get certified.
The company now provides a once-elusive resource for area farmers to both store their grain and submit consultations on getting organic certification.
“The ones that didn’t have storage options, they basically didn’t certify organic, even though they were farming organically anyway. They just didn’t do the paperwork and sold it on the conventional market,” Talmadge said. “So they were losing financially because of the differences in the commodity prices.”
While an organic farmer cannot guarantee notably higher prices every season, organic grains typically yield a higher market price than their conventional counterparts.
As of Tuesday, a bushel of conventional hard red winter wheat sold for $6.22, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. As of late February, organic hard red winter wheat sold for $12.17 per bushel.
Conventional and organic yellow corn show a similar price spread. Conventional prices ranged from $3.47 to $3.69 per bushel, while organic ranged from $11.00 to $14.50.
Harry Strohauer, a conventional and organic farmer based in LaSalle, said for his farms, the price premium for organic products has made the investment worthwhile. After harvest, his organic wheat is sent to S T Organics.
While onions and potatoes represent the main organic crops for Strohauer, organic wheat has served as a useful option in crop rotations.
Since wheat is not his primary focus, he is able to grow the cover crop with minimal inputs and send the harvest to store with S T Organics’ other feed-quality grains.
Although alternative storage options exist for high-quality, organic grains, Strohauer said S T Organics provides one of few local options to store both feed- and food-grade products.
As a result, the elevators’ feed grain is in high demand among organic livestock producers. Talmadge said its feed wheat has been shipped as far west as Washington and California, where operators may use the grain in chicken or dairy feed.
For food-quality grains, milling wheat has traveled as far east as South Carolina. Locally, demand has been high as well.
Denver’s Ardent Mills and Platteville’s Bay State Milling are both major S T Organics’ buyers.
As a small operation, Bay State Milling has chosen to focus much of its business on the organic market, said Doug Lockwood, the company’s specialty grain originator. He has watched the category grow 10 to 20 percent annually over the past five years, encouraging the company to continuing investing in organics.
“The specialty market in and of itself probably has a higher margin. It’s also more sustainable and actually touches our goals more than competing in the conventional market,” he said.
On any given day, the mill processes roughly 8,000 bushels of wheat, translating into seven truckloads of flour.
Even with S T Organics’ 250,000-bushel storage capacity, the Hereford elevator alone cannot satisfy the mill’s demand. The facility must also source grain from other national and international suppliers.
Accordingly, the elevator has raced to satisfy both demand for storage and demand from the market. With high yields across the board in 2014, the elevator reached full storage capacity and even had to turn farmers away.
Amy Stafford, organic program manager for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, said she has seen organic certifications rise in recent years. So far this year, she reported 212 organic certifications registered through CDA, and over 380 across the state from all certifying bodies. She anticipated CDA certifications would soon reach beyond 220.
When she began working at CDA just under a year ago, the department’s organic certifications fell just under 200.
On the buyer end, interest is booming.
Talmadge said she has seen public interest in organics and health foods climb steadily in recent years, pushing the category from niche to mainstream status.
“It’s good to be in organics,” she said. ❖