Most people think organic farming began in the seventies, imagining California farms with Joni Mitchell tunes blaring across the potato fields, and earnest farm workers looking like cast members plucked from the musical Hair.
But there are a few food producers left who've been truly organic since before organics' first major boom in the 1970's.
"In the late forties, when farmers started using the chemicals," says Peter Gengler, president of Sno Pac Frozen Vegetables in Caledonia, Minnesota, "my grampa never went along with it. He wanted to go another way."
That "other way" led grandfather Leonard Gengler and Sno Pac to become certified organic back in the mid-fifties - predating the modern organic certification system by two decades. In those days, there were no third-party inspectors, USDA organic seals, nor federally accredited certifiers - just a dedication to principles as discussed in the pages of sustainable agriculture pioneer J. I. Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine, which "Grampa" Gengler read and collected diligently.
"Back then, you just signed an affidavit and sent it in to the magazine," says Gengler of how the farm became an organic operation. "We still have those magazines. I grew up with Rodale."
Demand for organic vegetables was modest in the forties and fifties, compared to today's fervor for all things organic, but the customers who wanted it were dedicated. In the dawn of the Green Revolution, with pesticides in growing, widespread use, Sno Pac served the first wave of chemically sensitive folks. "Grampa started getting calls and shipping frozen organic vegetables by train all over the country," Peter says.
Nationwide shipping was possible because the Gengler operation had already established itself as an adept manufacturer of both frozen foods and ice. In 1900, J.P Gengler (A.K.A. "great grampa") had a lumber business, and on the side he was harvesting ice from a spring fed pond, storing it in huge icehouses, and, in summer time, shipping ice to the South by rail.
"That's all there was to make a little more money," explains Peter. "Pond ice."
Later, during World War II, Grandfather Gengler was shipping 1000 locally grown turkeys a day by packing them in "snow" shaved from that same pond's ice. "That's where the company name comes from," Peter says. "We became Sno Pac in 1943."
While the nationwide shipping was an impressive element of the operation, it was the local, rural market that kept Sno Pac thriving and successful. It was also a different economy back then, as one realizes when Gengler describes the strength of the old delivery route. "Grampa sent vegetables to 110 - 130 stores in Winona and La Crosse alone," Peter says. "There was a grocery or little market on every corner back then."
But by 1965, consolidation in the grocery industry had begun to take place, most of those stops dried up, and Sno Pac stopped making the local truck run and concentrated on wider distribution.
Do It So You Can Keep Doing It
Now, a century after Great Grampa's lumber and ice business began, the Gengler's are harvesting much more than pond ice. Today, the Genglers ("me and my brother and sister and Mom and two of my brothers sons") farm 1600 acres. They employ 32 full timers and in the height of harvest, 50 part-time employees. Everything they produce or freeze is organic, except for the cranberries.
For the Gengler's own farm, soil health is essential. Five hundred of their 1600 organic acres typically remain out of production, or "fallow," a common organic practice to let the soil rejuneate Soil health also helps keep the weeds down, and the kind of farming that began on the Gengler farm back in Leonard's day is well-suited to organics. Vegetables like their peas, green beans, and edamame aren't as hard on the soil. "It's a more gentle way of farming," says Peter.
"You want to do it so you can keep doing it."