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A new approach to farming
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Earthwise stores grain in separate bins, never mixing crops or seed varieties. They do that because all of their customers place specific orders. (MPR Photo/Bob Reha)
Markets are critical to farmers. For years, the approach has been to grow large quantities of a cash crop. Then farmers pray for good weather and hope there's a market for their crop in the fall. But some farmers are changing their thinking.

Moorhead, Minn. — A semi-truck rolls on to the scales at Earthwise in Moorhead, Minnesota. The place looks like a regular elevator, but this is more than an elevator. It's a processor and a marketing team. Workers sample a load and test it for weight, moisture and purity. But business is done a little differently here. Carrol Duerr manages Earthwise.

"When it comes into our facility from the grower, we've identified (it) by the grower. (We've) kept that particular field in a specific bin by itself. Not co-mingled," says Duerr.

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Image Carrol Duerr

He says unlike conventional elevators, Earthwise has never mixed crops or seed varieties. They do that because all of their customers place specific orders. Duerr says Earthwise customers are picky. For example one customer wants a specific variety of soybean, because it works better for tofu. Duerr says if everything is kept separate customers can trace their crop back to their source.

"When it comes into our facility we also do that segregation," Duerr says. "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 says keeping crops separate is something new. Conventional elevators mix crops to meet quality standards. They also accept genetically modified crops. Earthwise does not.

Duerr says 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.

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Image Farmer Lynn Brakke

It's a change in thinking from conventional agriculture. Lynn Brakke is an organic farmer. He's one of the founders of Earthwise. He says 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," says Brakke. "Then Earthwise goes back to its grower base and say this is what we can sell."

Brakke says concern over food safety is another issue. Brakke says Earthwise customers want crops that are not genetically modified and they're willing to pay more for them. Brakke says 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," says Brakke. "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."

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Image Earthwise had sales of $7 million last year

Brakke and five partners started Earthwise two-and-a-half years ago. The operation breaks with traditional agriculture on several levels. Brakke says the biggest change must come in a farmer's attitude.

He says conventional farmers focus on planting a lot of one or two crops. He says Earthwise is successful because growers raise what customers demand. Money remains a challenge, but manager Carrol Duerr says 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," says Duerr. "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 the future success of Earthwise. Cole Gustafson teaches applied economics at North Dakota State University.

"I think a lot of this is spawned by increased emphasis in medicine and nutrition, where people have special restrictions on their diet," says Gustafson. "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. Thats what these folks are attempting to do."

Gustafson says Earthwise is succeeding for several reasons. They don't try to compete with larger operations. They accommodate a smaller but more lucrative market. That means they don't have to move the quantity of grain other operations do. More attention is paid to the quality of the crop, determined by the customer. Gustafson says it's a common sense approach he thinks more farmers will pursue in the future.

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