From: Mikkel Pates, Agweek Magazine
Published November 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Organic Farmer Wins Siehl Prize for Excellence in Agriculture

MOORHEAD, Minn. − An organic farmer and volunteer youth educator has been named a winner of the prestigious Siehl Prize for Excellence in Agriculture.


Noreen Thomas, who farms with her husband, Lee, and three children north of the village of Kragnes, Minn., received a $50,000 cash prize and sculpture Nov. 8 at a ceremony at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. The award is given for "contributions to the production of food and the alleviation of hunger."


Thomas is the "producer" award winner. Also winning the award in 2004 were David Johnson, Inver Grove Heights, Minn., retired president of Cenex/Land O'Lakes, in the "agribusiness" category and Jerry Nelson, a southern Minnesota native and U of M graduate, who lives in Columbia, Mo., where he is a forages researcher.


Thomas, now in her 40s, grew up in the Dickinson, N.D., area, and in Paulson, Mont. Her father's family owned orchards in the Missoula, Mont., area. She graduated from high school in Valley City, N.D., and went on to receive degrees in food nutrition and microbiology at North Dakota State University in Fargo.


Thomas started her professional career with General Nutrition Mills in Fargo and worked as a "tea tester" for Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colo., and for the State Laboratory in Bismarck, N.D., before meeting Lee in 1986. The couple married in 1987. Early in their marriage, Thomas worked as a research technician, but eventually stayed home to work on the farm and with her growing family.


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The Thomases sold some sugar beet stock and in 1999 started converting to organic. They started with soybeans, adding some 300 acres a year until they were fully organic two years ago. Thomas says their interest in pesticide residues and other environmental issues helped cause the shift, although she is not a basher of conventional farmers.


The Thomases produce grains, feed and beans for domestic and international markets. Thomas does some of the marketing for the farm and also uses brokers.


Thomas regularly participates in academic studies involving the farm. In 2002 and 2003, Jim Stordahl, an Extension Service agent, worked with Thomas on the impact of buckwheat on phosphorus nutrient mobility. For the past two years, she's worked on a U of M study on the impact of planting rye together with soybeans to suppress weeds.


She's also worked with Rebecca Phillips at the University of North Dakota's Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium Aerospace and the University of Minnesota. This project is designed to measure the impact of organic farming on carbon sequestration -- an environmental benefit for which there is a developing potential market for farmers.


Among these projects, Thomas has worked with hand-held global positioning technology and satellite imaging to record issues such as spray drift, insect infestation, and effect of storm damage and varietal differences.


Thomas also has been cited for years of service in numerous community service projects, including after-school programs in Moorhead, teaching students about remote sensing technologies. She also is a Master Gardener who has taught Spanish language students gardening techniques in after-school programs. Those students have in turn helped teach gardening to some 300 Spanish-speaking middle school children. She also helped establish a community gardens and food preservation program in Missoula.


According to the award sponsors, Thomas' work "is based on the belief that knowledge shared with others can collectively aid in resolving world hunger."


This is the fifth trio of winners to receive the awards, which are announced every three years.


Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News


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