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Farming organically

By Staff | Mar 10, 2019

Dennis Lutteke makes a pass through the field with one of his grandchildren along as his co-pilot. This picture shows the weeds being torched by the flames. Lutteke began organic farming in 1978. In addition to raising organic crops, his dairy operation produces organic milk. Lutteke also has a welding shop and has also manufactured many implements used for organic farming. Lutteke and his wife Diane live near Wells and he farms with his son Chris.

The idea of having a diversified farming operation is nothing new. More recently, terms like niche-marketing and networking have come more to the forefront in agricultural circles.

Dennis Lutteke, who lives and farms north of Wells, may have been a little ahead of his time with his operation.

Lutteke, along with his son Chris, operate an organic farm which raises organic crops and produces organic milk. In addition, they also have a welding shop they utilize to manufacture equipment used for organic crop farming.

Lutteke has farmed almost all of his life, starting when he was able to help his father as a young child. He has owned cows since he was 15 years old. The only interruption in his farming career came in 1966 when he was drafted into the military.

Two years later he was back home and resumed working with his father. In 1972 he and his wife Diane moved to their current farm where they raised four children who are now all adults.

Lutteke was working for Wells Farmer’s Elevator applying chemicals when he stopped and read what was in the product he was applying.

“There were a lot of bad things on the label,” Lutteke comments.

So, in 1978 he stopped using all chemical fertilizers and utilized manure from his livestock operation on his crops.

He stopped using pesticides in 1982 and in 1995 became a certified organic farmer.

To be certified as an organic producer, a farmer has to go at least three years without using commercial fertilizer or pesticides. The seeds he plants have to be organic.

Getting started in organic farming is tough, according to Lutteke, especially the first three years. Once a producer gets past the initial three years life becomes easier.

He mentions there are now more organic farmers in Faribault County than conventional farmers.

However, when Lutteke made the switch to organic farming, it had not gained the acceptance it currently enjoys, which made it more difficult to work with banks to secure loans.

One of the problems he faced in his early years of organic farming was the lack of markets available for organic products.

Now, he is able to enjoy the financial benefits of the changes he made years ago while also engaging in a practice he believes is better for the land and for people.

“Input costs are much lower compared to conventional farming,” Lutteke says. “I do not have to purchase fertilizer or chemicals.”

Lutteke will utilize 6-7 different crops in his rotation including alfalfa, corn, black beans, oats, peas and sweet corn. He will also put land which is around his farmyard into pasture.

Lutteke also plants cover crops. Cover crops can serve a number of purposes including helping to prevent erosion and adding organic matter to the soil. They can also be beneficial in helping to aerate and improve water penetration into the soil.He will grow alfalfa for the seedling year plus two more years. The black beans he raises are edible and end up being used by restaurants such as Chipotle.

He raises organic oat seed for the Albert Lea Seed House and organic peas for Seneca. The organic sweet corn he produces is shipped to Lakeside Foods in Owatonna.

Lutteke says it is not unusual to be paid up to two thirds more for his organic crops compared to those raised using conventional methods.

Typical corn yields have been between 170 and 200 bushels per acre, not as high as conventional farming, but with lower input costs and being paid more per bushel for the crop, the profitability is good.

Organic crop farming does involve more passes over the field. Because more trips over the ground are necessary, Lutteke utilizes lighter equipment to minimize compaction issues.

Following the planting of the crop, Lutteke will tine weed, formerly called dragging, the soil surface. Corn will also be cultivated twice.

They will also torch the weeds, which uses intense heat to rupture the cells of the weeds, causing the weeds to die.

All of Lutteke’s farms are system tiled because it is important the field operations are able to be carried out in a timely matter.

Lutteke builds the implement used for torching the weeds. It looks similar to a cultivator but has burners which emit the flame to kill the weeds.

He started a welding business in 1984 and the main item which is manufactured is the torch-burning implement also known as an LP flamer. The widest one he has built to date was 88 feet wide and was shipped to Moorhead.

Then there is the dairy operation. A fire destroyed his old dairy barn almost 20 years ago. Fortunately, not a single head of livestock was lost in the fire.

It did not take Lutteke more than a few hours to decide to rebuild and the “new” barn currently houses his dairy cows.

The milk produced by his cows goes to Organic Valley Cooperative, a co-op based in La Farge, Wisconsin, which was started by seven farmers in 1988. It is now the nation’s largest farmer-owned organic cooperative.

Lutteke says there are only four or five dairy farms left in the county.

He enjoys sharing his experience with other farmers and helping them get started in organic farming.

“I can’t do the work for them, but I can share what I have learned and give them encouragement to keep going foward,” Lutteke says.