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How to Convert to Organic Farming

Millennial food preferences open organic market opportunities for farmers.

Graying baby boomers and cash-strapped, work-stressed Gen Xers often grumble about those darned millennials who are face-first in their smartphones while playing video games in their parents’ basements.

Well, that’s the stereotype, anyway. In reality, those born between the late 1970s and late 1990s are smart, steely-eyed consumers who will determine what farmers in the future will grow.

“What they want, increasingly, are ethnic, organic, and foods labeled as natural,” says Dave Ross, sales and operation manager for Great Harvest Organics, a sister company of Beck’s Hybrids. Millennials are a major reason why organic sales will continue to zoom as they did from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $43 billion in 2015, he says. 

“If they want an animal fed with organic corn, it’s a market that farmers can capture,” says Ross. “Organic crop production is a business decision.”

There’s plenty of room in this market for U.S. farmers. About 60% of organic soybeans consumed in the U.S. are imported, says Ross. It’s 40% for organic corn.

It’s lucrative, too. “Organic grains typically have two to three times the value of conventionally grown grains,” Ross says. While commodity corn prices have hovered around $3 to $3.50 per bushel the past few years, organic corn prices have bounced between $8 and $12 per bushel, Ross says. 

Converting to organic farming on 60 acres has enabled Scott Ausborn to boost value out of his farm’s 600 acres. “That’s small in today’s terms,” says the Ida Grove, Iowa, farmer. “But with organic, you can sustain a family with fewer acres.”

Ausborn and his father, Jack, had farmed conventionally in the area since the mid-1980s, but they were intrigued by the upside of organic farming when they began a conversion process in 2015. 

“I was selling organic seed with Blue River Hybrids, so I was already working with lots of organic farmers,” he says. “My dad and I wondered if maybe this was something we could do. Dad showed me how to use some of the farm machinery that I didn’t use when I was growing up. I could take care of the input purchases and organic market paperwork.”

so why not do it? 

Paul Mugge
Well, it’s hard. Since organic farmers can’t use commercial fertilizer or tools like genetically modified seed or pesticides, it’s akin to boxing with one arm tied behind your back.

“You no longer have the herbicide crutch to lean on for controlling weeds,” says Paul Mugge, who’s farmed organically since 1998 near Sutherland, Iowa. “As Matt Liebman (Iowa State University agronomist) says, “You need many little hammers to control weeds.”

Following are weed-management steps that organic farmers like Mugge and Ausborn use. 

  • Diversify crop rotations and include cover crops. “My crop rotation disrupts pest life cycles,” says Mugge. He rotates between corn, soybeans, and small grain/legumes including his favorite – winter triticale/red clover. 
  • Cultivate and rotary-hoe. Cultivation is an art that’s been lost since herbicide-tolerant crops debuted. Fortunately, today’s tractor-mounted vision mirrors and automated guidance make cultivation easier. 
  • Seed high. Mugge plants soybeans at 190,000 seeds per acre. This high seeding rate helps soybeans compete with weeds and also compensates for plants that will be lost during rotary hoeing, he points out.   
  • Preserve residue left by ridge-till to shelter weed seed predators like crickets and field mice. These insects can give free weed control. Studies have shown one female cricket ate 223 pigweed seeds in a day, says Mugge. “Ridge-till helps maintain residue through the rows, even with cultivation,” he adds. 
  • Walk soybeans. “It takes time,” says Ausborn.  “But every organic farmer I talk to plans on bean walking or hiring a crew to do it,” he says.
  • Consider topography. “Terraces, waterways, and contours all pose challenges for weed control,” says Ausborn. “The farm we went organic on is the only farm we have with no terraces or contours.”
  • Compost manure. This slices survivable weeds contained in manure. In one case, composting sliced redroot pigweed germination from 98% to 12% after three months in storage, says Mugge.

Ross advises that you start transitioning on your cleanest fields. “Don’t go organic on your weediest field,” he says.

input selection

Not being able to use synthetic inputs means organic farmers must access manure and other alternatives. “We can find those, but it is more challenging than going to the local co-op,” says Ausborn. 

In some cases, cultural practices replace chemical inputs. Organic farmers deal with no seed treatments by planting later, when soils are warmer and fewer early-season stressors are present, says Ross.

Organic farmers also tend to pick defensive varieties and hybrids. “You don’t want racehorse hybrids with an emphasis on yield,” says Ross. “Go with a plow horse instead of a racehorse hybrid. It’s more important for them to withstand pressure from weeds, insects, and fungal diseases.”

You need varieties with strong germination and emergence that can form an early canopy, adds Mugge. 

Organic farmers also tend to plant corn hybrids with broad leaf structures that can aid weed control by shading rows earlier, says Ross. 

a long three years

Clover that underlies oats
Thirty-six months with no inputs like synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified seeds must pass before a field is organically certified.

“The transition is brutally painful,” says Ross. That’s because you must farm organically while receiving commodity prices. 

One bright spot, though, is it stops speculators cold. 

“The price for organic corn could drop from $10 to $1.50 per bushel quickly if speculators jumped in,” says Ross. “Three years makes you think about it. It also lets you figure out how to do it before you bring products to market.”

Transitioning ground is a big step, adds Ausborn. “You need to have your own land or a good relationship with a landlord where you know you will have long-term access to that land,” he says. 

 Yields also can take a hit. Yields can quickly spiral out of control if weeds grow out of control. Subpar fertility is another roadblock that can sink organic yields.

As in conventional agriclulture, much hinges on the weather. In 2016, Ausborn garnered oat yields revolving around 100 bushels per acre, comparable with conventional ones. However, weather was also ideal, he adds.  

Ross points out that organic growers can still come out ahead if the yield hit is minor. With a 175 bushel per acre corn yield and a $3.44 per acre price, gross revenues of $602 per acre result. An organic corn yield of 150 bushel per acre yield with a $7.85 bushel yield (on the lower end of the organic scale for corn) gleans $1,177.50 per acre in gross revenue.

Prepare to tolerate more paperwork. “You have to have a paper trail to track what you have done, because that is the only way consumers will know how the food was grown,” says Ausborn. 

It gets easier once you have transitioned, though. Marketing organic grains can actually be fun. 

“This market is more of a Wild West,” says Ross. “You can have your own auction, saying ‘I have 10,000 bushels of food-grade organic corn.’ Then, you can get all emails back from bidders. Some may try and lowball you, but that is part of it all.”

If you are thinking about making the jump to organic, devote just a small portion of your farm at first, advises Ross. 

“If you farm 1,000 acres, maybe devote 40 acres to organic,” he says. “If it goes belly up and is a weedy mess, it’s just 40 acres out of 1,000. If all goes well, 40 acres can become 80, 160, and so on.”

Organic food demand is driven mainly by millennials who will be around for decades, Ross says. 

“They will find new products – with or without you,” he says. 

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