organic grains field day

Farmers interested in growing organic grains visited the farms of Ross and Harold Wilken in Iroquois County, Ill.

DANFORTH, Ill. — Farmers attending a June field day at Janie’s Organic Farm got to see the real challenges of growing organic grains, with weather as the biggest issue this year— just as with conventionally grown grain.

Harold Wilken and his son, Ross, grow about 3,900 acres of certified organic grain in Ford and Kankakee counties in eastern Illinois, including some fields in transition. But the wet spring meant about 900 acres of prevent plant this year, Harold said during the field day June 25.

“Some was planted late and some just won’t get in,” he said. “We are fortunate to have in what we have in.”

While it is discouraging to have so much prevent plant this year, Wilken sees a positive side.

“With prevent plant, if we can get the wheat in the last week in September or October it might be timely planting,” he said.

That might be a benefit because they usually have to wait until soybeans are harvested to plant wheat, he said.

The father and son started their move to organic grain with a 33-acre field and have continued the transition to growing USDA Certified Organic grains, including many varieties of wheat, oats, rye, corn, soybeans, popcorn and seed corn. They also grow einkorn, buckwheat, black turtle beans, alfalfa and Kernza.

Their farming enterprise led them to install a stone mill in 2017 to produce organic whole-kernel and sifted flours. They work with professional bakers to fine-tune products milled at the Mill at Janie’s Farm, 10 miles away in Ashkum.

Among his customers for grain and milled products are restaurants, bakers, a large distillery and six smaller distilleries. Markets for their soybeans include soy milk and tofu, Wilken said.

He welcomed other farmers interested in growing organic grains to the field day held in association with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Organic Grain Resource and Information Network and The Land Connection. The groups said more farmers are interested in other options with uncertain export opportunity and low commodity prices for conventional crops.

But the Wilkens also are dealing with uncertainty this year.

“We had a terrible spring,” Wilken said.

Even with years of practice, some years it is tough to grow a successful crop.

“Our spring wheat crop is a failure,” he said.

Some of his wheat crops are field trials with the University of Illinois. They suffered from too much rain.

“There is theory and there is reality,” Wilken said of the plans he made that were disrupted by the weather. “This is a great example of reality.”

In another field, his theory was to plant 100 acres of hybrid rye to be ready for Oct. 1. It was planted late and he expects a disappointing yield.

Wilken also discovered some of the rye seed he bought had mustard seed in it, which will be difficult to mill out. He said that is the danger of buying seed from other sources.

“I’m all for keeping seed. It gets used to your practices,” he said. “I like to use it over and over again so it becomes part of the farm.”

He can also manage the weeds that way. When seeds come from elsewhere, “we may gain a weed we are not used to,” he said. Garlic seed disruptions can also be a problem.

Along with careful weed control, an organic farm like this also needs to follow specific rotations to avoid contamination from a previous grain crop.

Wilken notes there is more management involved in growing these types of crops.

“If you want to grow food grain crops, you have to treat it like that,” he said.

Information about other organic field days hosted by OGRAIN and The Land Connection this summer are listed at https://ograin.cals.wisc.edu/events/field-days/.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.