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Pennsylvania helps 13 farms become organic

By Jim Hook | Public Opinion Online

Lamar Wadel nudged the family's Shippensburg dairy toward organic farming a decade ago.

Now he's getting help from the state to make the final transition to certified organic.

Wadel's Dairy, 6734 White Church Road, is among 13 farms selected for the Path to Organic program, which encourages organic farming. Each of the farms is eligible for up to $30,000 in grants over the next four years.

The program includes just two dairy farms. The second is in Juniata County.

"As far as I'm aware, this is the first state or privately funded organic transition program of its kind or scope in the country," said Rep. David Kessler, D-Reading. "Organic practices can make farming more profitable by lowering expenses, while also helping the environment."

Kessler, vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, developed Path to Organic.

"There's a tough period getting started," said Cathleen Wadel, Lamar Wadel's wife and farm partner.

During the three-year transition period a farmer pays more to produce milk:

-- Organic certification costs $1,500 a year.

-- Organic feed is more costly, and a farmer making the move must sell his milk at regular market prices during the transition. Chemicals begin to work their way out of the pastures, and dairy farmers cannot yet sell their milk with the "organic" label.

The Wadels farm 200 acres in Southampton Township, Cumberland County, and have a herd of 70 to 80 milk cows. They have a state permit to

sell raw milk from the farm.

The Wadels had planned to begin moving into the organic market on their own a year ago, but milk prices plummeted. The price that a conventional farmer gets for his milk has risen since, but he still spends more to produce his milk than he gets in his milk check.

"The organic market is more stable from the business perspective," Cathleen Wadel said. "We don't want to go through another year like this."

The dairy crisis is only part of the reason the Wadels are going organic.

"Our cows' health issues demanded that we look at something," Cathleen Wadel said.

Her main chore is caring for the calves on the farm. She was afraid of using alternative medicines instead of antibiotics. The concept: Encourage calves to develop their immune systems.

"I thought it was far out," she said. "I was skeptical, but it's working."

Before switching to raw milk and tincture of garlic for the farm's 50 calves, every third one required treatment with antibiotics. Now, it's less than one a year, and the treated calf is not eligible for the organic herd.

Milk cows too have improved on pastures treated with fish emulsion providing trace amounts of digestible copper.

"(Before) Cows were eating themselves full and acting starved," she said. "(After the application) they went out to the pasture, ate and laid down. They were happy."

Farmers in the program will get assistance from finance professionals, organic experts and other organic producers. Cathleen Wadel said they need help promoting the farm on the Internet.

The program also will allow the state Department of Agriculture to measure improvements in soil and water quality, according to Kessler. Technicians will take deep soil samples, Cathleen Wadel said.

The 13 farms include beef, poultry, fruit and vegetable. An Adams County orchard owned by Michael Travis, Fairfield, has also qualified.

For more information about the Path to Organic program visit, click on "Programs" and select "Path to Organic Transition" or call Jared Grissiner at 1-888-PAgrows.

Jim Hook can be reached at 717-262-4759 and [email protected].

The two men running for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate courted the dairy vote on Friday:

- Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Philadelphia, asked Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack to release $290 million in direct payments to dairy farmers before Christmas Day. Congress on Oct. 8 approved increased government purchases of surplus dairy products.

- U.S. Rep Joe Sestak, D-Springfield, asked Vilsack to name at least one representative from Pennsylvania to the Dairy Advisory Committee the secretary is forming to listen to and respond to the needs of dairy producers.

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