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Moorhead grain elevator brings new approach to farming

(Monday, May 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Bob Reha, Minnesota Public Radio, 05/11/03: MOORHEAD, MINN. -- A semitrailer truck rolls onto the scales at Earthwise. The place looks like a regular grain elevator, but this is more than an elevator. It's a facility for processing and marketing.

Workers sample the load and test it for weight, moisture and purity. And business is done a little differently.

"When it comes into our facility from the grower, we've identified [it] by the grower," said Carrol Duerr, manager of Earthwise. "[We've] kept [the crop from] that particular field in a specific bin by itself. Not co-mingled."

Unlike conventional elevators, Earthwise does not mix crops or seed varieties, Duerr said, because its customers place specific orders. Duerr said Earthwise customers are picky. For example, one customer wants a specific variety of soybean, because it works better for tofu. If everything is kept separate customers can trace their crop back to the source.

"When it comes into our facility we also do that segregation," Duerr said. "Sometimes just by variety, sometimes it's by a given farmer. It depends on our client, even within a specific variety sometimes there can be trait differences or customers being fussier than others. Some customers will buy a specific variety, period."

Duerr said keeping crops separate is something new. Conventional elevators mix crops to meet quality standards. They also accept genetically modified crops. Earthwise does not.

He said it doesn't matter if the crop is organic or not. Customers want to know where it came from -- and are willing to pay a higher price for the knowledge. It's a change in thinking from conventional agriculture.

Organic farmer Lynn Brakke is one of the founders of Earthwise. He said it's a simple concept.

"We really go at it in reverse. We go to the end consumer, the purchaser, the manufacturer whoever it might be, and find out what they're looking for," Brakke said. "Then Earthwise goes back to its grower base and says this is what we can sell."

Brakke said concern over food safety is another issue. Earthwise customers want crops that are not genetically modified and they're willing to pay more for them. Brakke said it's a perfect fit for Earthwise because their growers don't want to raise genetically modified crops.

"When you talk to the consumer, it's not what the consumer wants," Brakke said of the biotech crops. "I've been to Germany, I've been to Japan several times talking to buyers and they absolutely will not under any circumstances ever buy a GMO product."

Brakke and five partners started Earthwise 2 1/2 years ago. The operation breaks with traditional agriculture on several levels. Brakke said the biggest change must come in a farmer's attitude.

Conventional farmers focus on planting mostly one or two crops, Brakke said.

Earthwise is successful because growers raise what customers demand. Money remains a challenge, but Duerr said the company is doing well.

"Seven million dollars in business last year is what we did, and we anticipate some growth again for the following year," Duerr said. "We've had substantial growth in our sales since we've started. So it's been very kind to us and it seems like there's an opportunity that, there's more consumers trying to get closer to the farmer."

Establishing a link between customer and farmer is critical to Earthwise's future success.

Cole Gustafson, who teaches applied economics at North Dakota State University, said:

"I think a lot of this is spawned by increased emphasis in medicine and nutrition, where people have special restrictions on their diet," Gustafson said. "They're finding out they're increasingly allergic to components of our food. For us to provide that safe and reliable food it's going to have to be done in an identity-preserved or source-verified manner. That's what these folks are attempting to do."

Gustafson said Earthwise is succeeding for several reasons: It doesn't try to compete with larger operations. It accommodates a smaller but more lucrative market. That means it doesn't have to move the quantity of grain other operations do. More attention is paid to the quality of the crop, which is determined by the end customer.

Gustafson said it's a commonsense approach he thinks more farmers will pursue in the future.