By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Pete and Anita Ruegemer married in 1980 and were pleased when land became available for purchase in 1982, right across the road from the farm where Pete grew up north of Westport.
Anita was a city girl from St. Cloud who met Pete when they attended school together in Rockville.
They bought 160 acres of bare land, and built a barn and their house that summer.
They now own 330 acres and rent 160 acres. Their milk herd of about 250 head includes 145 milkers.
In the late 1990s, the Ruegemers transitioned to organic farming. Pete had been asked to be a seed dealer for NC Plus, and the test corn plot he tried equaled the other seed brands he had been using.
“We both were natural-minded and didn’t think chemicals were the best idea,” Pete said. “We tried 34 acres organically the first year and did fairly good — that sold us on the idea.”
They had not used any commercial fertilizer since the late 1980s since they “had enough manure,” Pete said. Their crops were fully transitioned in 2000.
When NC Plus was bought out by Monsanto, the organic division was purchased separately by Maury Johnson. Johnson changed the name to Blue River Hybrids, and Pete continues to be a dealer.
Starting in about 2002, increasing milk prices spurred the transition of their cattle to organic.
“It’s easier to farm without antibiotics than with,” said Pete. “There are a lot of things antibiotics don’t work with anymore. When we use all-natural remedies it works better; the cows’ immune systems are strengthened.”
In January 2006, they began selling their milk to Horizon Organic. “The cows need to be fed organically for one full year before the milk can be sold as organic,” Pete said.
The diet of organically-raised cows must be 30 percent dry matter from pastures in summer, which is four months in this region.
“The cows last longer now than they did years ago,” said Pete. “They get outside and off the cement when they are grazed.”
He also observes that prior to transitioning to organic methods, more than half of the cows needed their hooves trimmed at least once a year.
“Since we’ve been pasturing the cows, we’ve only trimmed hooves once in six years,” he said.
Non-chemical methods are used for controlling weeds in the fields; the Ruegemers flame their corn. Once weeds have sprouted and are three to four inches high, the field is burned. Since the corn is still below the ground at that point, it continues to grow — only now, it’s pretty much weed-free.
Jim VonWahlde, agronomy manager at the Osakis Creamery, gives Pete’s name to farmers interested in organic methods.
“Pete does a fantastic job of weed control and managing his farm organically,” VonWahlde said.
The Ruegemers were honored this year with a national award, the Horizon Organic Producer Education (HOPE) Award.
Horizon stated in the announcement that the Ruegemers actively help other farmers make the transition to organic, serving as a resource and a mentor for those in their community. Pete has also participated as a mentor for transitioning farmers through the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), which works to promote sustainable and organic agriculture.
Pete and Anita were thrilled to receive their award at this year’s Farm Aid concert, at Hersheypark Stadium in Hershey, Pa., Sept. 22.
“All of our travel expenses were paid, and we were able to visit Gettysburg too,” said Anita.
For more than 40 years, the Ruegemers have driven to St. Cloud regularly as members of Immaculate Conception. “We’re so used to driving, it doesn’t matter anymore,” Anita said.
“They have attended since the beginning of our parish,” said Father Brendan Hughes. “The long drive evidences their commitment to … the traditional practices of the Catholic faith.”
In the words of their HOPE award, they also honor “a commitment to organic stewardship and willingness to share their passion and wisdom with others.”