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 CNS Story:

FARMERS-BLAKE May-5-2009 (670 words) With logo posted May 4 and photos posted May 5. xxxn

Catholic farmer finds it's better the organic way

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WAUKON, Iowa (CNS) --The water tower on the property still reads "J.P. Blake & Sons," but Francis Blake, the one son still involved in full-time farming, has found that growing organically works best for him and for the land.

Blake tends to 5,000 egg-laying chickens, as well as 36 dairy cattle, 30 beef cattle and seven head of bison on the farm in Waukon, in northeastern Iowa.

Blake's brothers help out when they can. John works part time on the farm; he has an off-farm job working for the carpenters' union in Iowa. Another brother, Jerry, also has an off-farm job that limits his participation in the operation; he's a priest in the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

Never having left the farm on which he was raised, Blake is a lifelong member of St. Mary Parish in nearby Hanover.

It takes three years for a farm to earn an "organic" label from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and many private certification associations through such practices as keeping chemicals out of the soil, rotating cropland, and feeding animals food that itself is organic.

"I graduated from high school in '74," Blake said, "and (it was) shortly after that, in the mid- to late-'70s, that we started experimenting with organic. But it wasn't until '94 that we were certified." The Midwest Organic Services Association certified the farm -- now named Blake Family Organic Farm, regardless of what the water tower says.

Blake is able to raise the corn, soybeans and alfalfa grains he feeds his chickens, cattle and bison on the 300-acre farm. He is also able to process the harvest on-site to make the nutritious mix for his animals, adding a touch of calcium along the way.

He has had a contract with Organic Valley, which markets organic dairy products, for about 10 years. "In 2004, we put up this building for the hens and started selling eggs" to Organic Valley as well, Blake told Catholic News Service during a walk-through of his henhouse.

The 5,000 hens -- bovan browns, a relatively docile breed -- can produce 2,500 dozen eggs a week. They reach their peak within two months of arriving at the Blake farm, maintain 95 percent of peak laying capacity for just shy of a year, and then start declining in production, at which point they are sold as stewing hens or other purposes, as a new group of hens arrive.

Blake acknowledged that Organic Valley cut the price it pays him for his milk by $1 a hundredweight -- 100 pounds, the standard measure of milk -- but says his working relationship with Organic Valley is fine. His cross-bred Jersey cows produce about 30 pounds of milk a day on average.

He doesn't have to worry about using a middleman for his beef and bison meat, though. Blake sells it to local purveyors. "I can't raise enough bison to meet the demand," he said.

Blake, who never married and whose mother still lives on the farm, is one of those offspring who followed his father into farming. That number shrinks as the capital needed to start a new farming operation seems at time to be prohibitively expensive. Even inheriting a farming operation, or buying it at a family discount, can be daunting.

But Blake said he's had more good years than bad, and no year bad enough to dissuade him from farming.

"I have a lot of nephews and nieces" who have expressed interest in succeeding him when the time comes, Blake said.

He recalled his high school days, when Future Farmers of America meetings seemed, in his own words, "square." "Interest in the FFA was dying down. But they have a lot of different things that they try today. There are a lot of youngsters (interested in farming), a lot of young girls, too. It's really good to see."

While Blake is, in a sense, wedded to the farm, he is hardly lashed to it. He's vacationed in Europe, and last winter he spent time doing volunteer carpentry in Florida.


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