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President’s Corner

By Fawad S. Shah, MCIA President/CEO

MCIA President/CEO Fawad Shah

The late Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, once wrote that, “Any company trying to compete with competitors should figure out a way to engage the mind of every employee.” Without a doubt, employees are valuable assets of an organization and the key to its success.

Minnesota Crop Improvement Association is a relatively small employer. Currently, we have twenty well-trained, skilled staff members. Due to retirements as well as some staff members who have sought opportunities outside MCIA, employee recruitment and retention has been front and center for management. Over the last year, four employees have departed from three departments: Field Services, Seed Laboratory Services, and Organic Services. While losing an experienced employee is a setback for the organization, it creates an opportunity to assess the scope of the vacant position, and to re-think and retool the position to meet growth and customer expectations.

Recruitment and retention cannot be separated from an organization’s ability to offer competitive compensation. In recent months, heightened inflation has put more pressure on employers to think ‘outside the box’ when formulating wage and benefit packages to attract new employees and retain existing ones. The cost-of-living increase is an interesting phenomenon in that it increases an employee’s salary, but often the actual cost of living is more than the increase.

The MCIA Board of Directors has worked closely with its senior management to address the effect of inflation and the organization’s ability to recruit and retain staff. The Board decided to go beyond the routine cost-of-living increase and approved staff bonuses based on the overall financial performance of the organization. This generous decision not only improved staff morale, but also better positioned the organization to address the challenges of recruitment and retention.


Organic Production Proves Profitable in Upper Midwest

Despite smaller sizes and inflation effects, organic row crop and dairy farms in the Upper Midwest have shown strong profitability and remained competitive compared to conventional counterparts in 2020 and 2021. Minnesota and Wisconsin organic row crop producers managed 325 acres per farm on average and generated $324.24 per acre in median net farm income in 2020 and 2021. Conventional row crop farms, by comparison, were more than three times as large; averaging 1,053 acres per farm while netting $144.65 per acre in median farm income.

Meanwhile for organic dairy farms, profits remained positive despite a 10% increase in direct and overhead expenses from 2020 to 2021. Feed accounted for the largest share of increased costs due to the significant spike in organic grain prices. Similar organic dairy and crop and dairy farms financial performance data is available from a new University of Minnesota report, 2020-2021 Organic Farm Performance in the Upper Midwest: Whole Farm and Enterprise Reports.

The report includes whole farm and enterprise returns as well as traditional financial indicators for organic and organic transition row crops and dairy in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Data for the report comes from the Farm Business Management (FBM) programs in each state as part of a UMN-led benchmarking project in collaboration with the Minnesota State Agricultural Centers of Excellence and the Center for Farm Financial Management. The project is funded by the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative Program.

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Scholarships are available through the project to partially off-set FBM programming and tuition costs for certified and transitioning organic farmers. Learn more about the organic benchmarking cost share program and apply for scholarships online. Find organic reports from previous years and read the full press release online. Contact Gigi DiGiacomo (gigid@umn.edu) with any questions.


2023 Directory Published

MCIA has published the 2023 edition of our annual Directory. The Directory contains listings of agronomic crop, native, and organic seed; certified forage and mulch; quality assured seed and sod; approved seed conditioning and bulk seed handling facilities; and producer contacts. As well, the Directory provides information regarding MCIA’s many services and programs.

To view the digital edition of MCIA’s 2023 Directory, click here.


MCIA Marks 20 Years of Organic Service

Robert and Greta Miernau farm, Caledonia, Minnesota. Photo by Diane Collins.

This year marks the twentieth year that MCIA has provided organic certification services. In 2002, federal regulations, called the National Organic Program (NOP), were implemented that defined the “rules” of organic production and processing. MCIA was among the first group of organizations to apply to become an Accredited Certification Agency (ACA). The National Organic Program is part of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, but the USDA does not itself provide certification service. It accredits organizations, like MCIA, to provide this service. As MCIA inspects or audits each of its clients every year, the NOP similarly audits MCIA and the other ACAs every two and a half years.

The idea of MCIA becoming an ACA was first raised by a few seed grower members and local coffee companies. They thought organic inspection and certification would be a good fit, citing MCIA’s history as an independent, third-party inspection service in the seed industry. They also noted MCIA’s experience and understanding of standards and rules related to state and federal seed regulations. In 2001, the MCIA Board of Directors approved the proposal to add the service.

MCIA applied to the NOP and was provisionally accepted into the program after NOP auditors approved our application and followed our inspectors on the first on-site inspections. We were officially accredited as an ACA on April 29, 2002. MCIA began providing organic services that year to five Minnesota-based clients: Falk’s Seed, Hanson Seed, Café Imports, Morningstar Coffee, and Alakef Coffee.

In 2003, Albert Lea Seed House, Capistran Seed and Sawvell’s Seed were certified, and we added the first crop producers: Jim Remmele, Roger Keskey, Calvin Brower, Christopher Thooft, Chris Byron, and Jonathan Olson. In 2009, we added our first livestock client, Wes Benjamin, after the NOP approved MCIA to add that certification scope. The NOP recognizes four scopes: crop production, wild crop harvesting, livestock production, and processing/handling. MCIA has provided certification under all four scopes.

MCIA’s organic business has grown steadily, by about 10 percent per year. From those first 5 clients in Minnesota, we grew to 100 in 2012. At the start of 2022, we had 582 clients in ten states. The program continues to grow, currently MCIA certifies 467 crop operations, 117 livestock operations, 1 wild crop harvester, and 127 handlers. We focus on businesses in Minnesota and surrounding states where we have closer contact with our inspectors and where we have expertise with the types of crops being grown.

In the early days, most inspections and certifications were done by MCIA staff: field supervisors Brenda Rogers, Ben Lang, Jim Boots, and Neil Wiese. In 2007, as the number of organic clients grew, MCIA hired the first full-time, dedicated-organic staff member, Anne Costello. Following her departure, in 2008, MCIA hired Michelle Menken.

Michelle now manages an Organic Services department of five organic specialists/inspectors, Wendy Paulsen, Diane Collins, Tyler Tisdale, Maddie Barkholz, and Shauna Ilse, as well as Rose-Marie Odell, the department’s administrative assistant. When needed, MCIA field supervisors Seth Dagoberg and Dan Krenz also provide inspection assistance. MCIA also contracts with independent organic inspectors to complete inspections in an efficient and timely manner.

The addition of the organic program has indeed proven to be a good fit for MCIA. The organic program is an example of MCIA’s willingness and ability to adapt and offer services needed by today’s agricultural producers and consumers.

With two decades of experience behind us, MCIA stands ready to meet a future that promises continued and growing demand for certified organic food production.

To learn more about MCIA Organic Services, click here.


Organic Corner

Image by Jan Mallander from Pixabay.

By Michelle Menken, Organic Services Manager

As fall approaches, we are wrapping up the last crop and livestock inspections. There are about thirty files left to send out to inspectors, and we hope to get those out in the next two weeks. Handler files will be going out to inspectors soon so they can start scheduling fall handler inspections.

We have also been busy working through final reviews and certificates—over one hundred issued so far. If you have received a bill for the inspection, please pay that as soon as possible. We do start final reviews on those who have paid first.

Let us know if you need a certificate or Letter of Good Standing to make a sale. Remember, if you have a 2021 certificate, it is still valid, and you can make sales using that certificate until you get the 2022 certificate. Certificates are valid until they are surrendered, suspended, or revoked. If you or your buyer have questions about this, contact the office.

Our new staff members, Maddie Barkholtz and Shauna Ilse, have been busy training and we have had them out on some inspections and to an Organic Expo, where we met many MCIA clients. We still have to collect more samples and complete more unannounced inspections, so I plan to get Maddie and Shauna out to more farms and businesses this fall.


Webinar Offers Guidance on Food Safety Certification for Specialty Crops

USDA’s Farm Service Agency is hosting a webinar in partnership with Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and the National Association for State departments of Agriculture (NASDA), to provide information about USDA’s Food Safety Certification for Specialty Crops (FSCSC) Program, which provides financial assistance to specialty crop producers who obtained or renewed an on-farm food safety plan or food safety certification. Please see the event details below.

Title: Expanding Market Access: Financial Assistance through USDA’s Food Safety Certification for Specialty Crops (FSCSC) Program

Description: Do you grow specialty crops on your farm or ranch? Have you sold less than $500,000 worth of specialty crops, each year, for the past three years? If so, Farm Service Agency (FSA), has a program to help reimburse you for a portion of the expenses associated with obtaining or renewing your on-farm food safety plan and certification! U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing up to $200 million in assistance for specialty crop producers who incur eligible on-farm food safety program expenses to obtain or renew a food safety certification in calendar years 2022 or 2023. Join this webinar to learn about Food Safety Certification guidelines for specialty crop growers, as well as program and eligibility details for the FSA Food Safety Certification for Specialty Crops (FSCSC) Program to help offset some of the costs associated with food safety certification expenses.

Target Audiences: Specialty crop growers and stakeholder organizations that provide support to specialty crop growers

Day/Time: November 3 from 2–3 p.m. EST

Register in advance for this webinar: https://www.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_v4FQsCFLROmC8ZvuZ73VrA.


Field Notes

Soybean field. Photo © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

By Kris Folland, Field Services Manager

As September begins, the Field Services staff has wrapped up the summer seed field inspections and is quickly preparing for soybean inspections. In the north end of the state, although we are done with field inspections, there is still a large acreage of small grains to be harvested.

For buyers and sellers alike, a later harvest may start to affect the quality of seed. We encourage seed growers to run air on grain that is put in the bin at a moisture above the 13.5 percent range. It is always a good idea to run some air on all grain immediately after harvest, and periodically thereafter. Cool it as the temperature lowers until the onset of winter. Wet grain does not store well and can quickly lose germination. Each year, the MCIA seed laboratory tests seed lots that do not meet certification standards for germination. To assess seed quality, you may want to get a preliminary germination test before conditioning your seed lots.

Do not lose track of the status of your seed or any grain in the bin. Small grains harvested later in the season may also lose visual color and test weight, making seed testing and communication between buyers and sellers especially important as both parties make plans for the 2023 crop year.

We conduct soybean inspections when fields have 75 percent leaf-drop or greater. Communication with your MCIA field supervisor is important! We will be contacting growers to do our part to ensure timely and accurate inspections. If you have any information you would like to share regarding your seed production fields or if you are getting close to harvest and have not received confirmation about the status of your field inspection, please give your field supervisor a call. We enjoy hearing from you. It helps us keep up with the maturity of the many seed fields across the state. There is still time to apply for soybean field inspections for all classes of seed from certified to field inspection only according to company standards.

As always, we sincerely wish you a safe and bountiful harvest.


Lab Report

Wheat seeds. Photo: David Hansen. © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

By Chase Mowry, Seed Laboratory Manager

This past June, I attended the AOSA/SCST Annual Meeting, held in Skokie, Illinois. This annual joint meeting of the Association of Official Seed Analysts and the Society of Commercial Seed Technologists provides a great opportunity to connect with colleagues within the seed testing community and to discuss emerging technologies in the industry and issues analysts are encountering in their laboratories.

Throughout the four-day event, committees met to discuss various aspects of seed testing, such as research, cultivar purity, germination and dormancy, statistics, and vigor testing. In addition, board and business meetings for the individual organizations were held.

Attending the AOSA/SCST Annual Meeting also provides analysts (SCST) or laboratories (AOSA) the opportunity to vote on rule proposals, submitted by members, to modify the AOSA Rules for Testing Seeds. Analysts follow these rules when conducting domestic testing. The proposals address such issues as adding germination or purity testing requirements for new species, modifying existing testing methods, classifying contaminants, reporting test results, or simply clarifying current rules.

This year, there were nineteen rule proposals: fourteen passed, four failed, and one was withdrawn. Of those that passed, several included adding germination testing methods for new species, species classifications, the addition or modification of common names of a few species, and the addition of Apiaceae seedling illustrations to aid in germination evaluation.

For detailed information on the AOSA/SCST Annual Meeting proceedings, including individual committee reports and rule proposals, visit the AOSA/SCST website: analyzeseeds.com.


President’s Corner

UMN wheat variety plots. Photo: David Hansen. © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.

By Fawad S. Shah, MCIA President/CEO

Research to develop or improve crop varieties is a crucial component of agricultural productivity, food security, and economic vitality. The public-private partnership in agricultural research has led the way in making it possible to rely on a stable, abundant, and affordable food supply, not only in the domestic market but also in foreign markets that rely on the import of American commodities.

The United States has been, and should remain, the leader in innovative agricultural research. However, public funding for such research has greatly decreased over the years. As a result, public institutions like the University of Minnesota have adopted innovative ways to generate funding to support ongoing agricultural research. One such way is to generate funds through variety development fees.

The University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) has a rich history of having a strong variety development program. In February 1993, the MAES established the Variety Development Fund, commonly known as VDF, to provide financial support for agronomic crop variety development. The VDF is generated through a fee that is collected as part of the sale of registered and certified seed of all agronomic crop varieties developed and protected by MAES under the US Plant Variety Protection Act. The Minnesota Crop Improvement Association, the sole seed certifying agency for Minnesota, is charged with seed certification and collects VDF fees, as established by MAES.

Proceeds from the Variety Development Fund are used to support variety development research as well as related outreach and education. The MAES formalized a process for University of Minnesota researchers to apply for funding from the VDF for support of variety development and related activities, and for investment in potentially new crop species. The Variety Development Fund can be used for equipment purchase as well, with a minimum of 25 percent matching funds from other sources.

Nearly 30 years after establishing the Variety Development Fund fee structure, the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station recently reviewed and increased its fees. Effective July 1, 2022, the VDF fee will increase to $0.75 per bushel for all registered and certified seed sold of wheat varieties (both old and new) released by the MAES. The seed of these varieties sold on or after July 1, 2022, will be assessed at the new $0.75 per bushel rate.

Minnesota Crop Improvement Association informed growers about this fee increase and posted this announcement on our website in May. The new fee will be applicable to all University of Minnesota wheat varieties, including Bolles, Lang-MN, Linkert, MN-Rothsay, MN-Torgy, MN-Washburn, and Shelly. Seed grower support of the Variety Development Fund will continue to be an important part of the research to develop and improve crop varieties.



Shauna Ilse Joins Organic Services Staff

Shauna Ilse

Shauna Ilse joined MCIA on August 1, filling the organic specialist/inspector position formerly held by Cherry Flowers, who recently retired.

While serving in the U.S. Army, Shauna developed an interest in food and agriculture. She pursued that field of study at Washington State University, where she earned a B.A. in agriculture and food sciences, majoring in organic and sustainable agriculture. As a student, she worked at the university’s 10-acre organic farm and, in her senior year, interned as a farm assistant at a small, nearby organic farm.

Since last June, Shauna had been working as garden assistant at Grow-to-Share Community Garden in River Falls, Wisconsin.

To learn more about MCIA Organic Services, click here.