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Farmers dig into details of organic transition

organic field

There is a trade-off for many organic farmers of farming fewer acres but managing those acres more intensively

It isn’t always easy to transition to organic farming, and the challenges are not just the paperwork.

There is peer pressure from other farmers. There are questions about marketing. There are obvious weed control and crop rotation issues. There may be equipment issues. Due to all those things, it may help to have a little bit of an independent streak.

“I’ve got a little stubborn streak in me,” says Jeff Olson, who farms near Winfield in southeast Iowa. “I think you have to have a little stubborn streak.”

Scott Ausborn, who farms in Ida County in western Iowa, said a support system was important when he made the switch on some of his acres.

“Find a mentor,” he says. “There are a lot of organic farmers around who are willing to help.”

Groups like the Iowa Organic Association or Practical Farmers of Iowa also can help.

Both say the change to organic requires management. There is a trade-off for many organic farmers of farming fewer acres but managing those acres more intensively. At the end of the day, they are paid a significant premium per bushel, but they often also use longer rotations and produce fewer total bushels per acre due to their farming practices. The goal is to make just as much money.

Two challenges jump out at many new organic farmers, Olson says. One is weed control when you aren’t using farm chemicals. The other is nitrogen, especially for corn.

There are multiple ways to deal with both of those issues. They involve the use of manure, of longer rotations to control weeds, of nitrogen-fixing crops such as alfalfa, and the use of mechanical cultivation.

Olson says there are organic farmers experimenting with using crimpers to kill cover crops and then trying to do no-till organic farming. Relatively few organic farmers are trying to go no-till organic right now, but it is a goal for some within the industry.

For those looking at potentially making the change to organic, Ausborn and Olson offer some advice.

Ausborn says starting out small may be a good idea for some farmers. Treat it like cover crops in that it may take a year or two to figure out what works on your farm.

“It used to be you really couldn’t be a split operation (part organic and part not organic), but now that is pretty common,” Ausborn says.

A second thing to consider is what fields to transition first. Ausborn says a good piece of land that lays well may be a good place to start.

Third is the paperwork. But Ausborn says a good farmer likely is already used to having plenty of information about his fields.

Fourth is trying to figure out how to handle the nitrogen and weed control, and that likely will mean doing some cultivation. Olson says there are still some old pieces of tillage equipment available that are relatively inexpensive.

Ausborn says one thing to remember is that going organic is not just going back to farming like your grandparents did. You may be using a cultivator, for example, but you will likely also be using GPS technology that can make that cultivation easier and more accurate.

On Ausborn’s farm, the move started in 2016 when he put 50 acres into organic production. He was already selling organic seed, so he had connections in the industry. Today he farms part of his farm organically and part non-organically.

Most organic farmers use a small grain in the rotation. It may be oats or barley or rye or alfalfa. The idea is to break up the pest and weed cycles as well as to provide some nutrients for the other crops. Manure is also an important source of nitrogen. Because of that, many organic producers raise livestock, and those who don’t have a source of manure for their farm.

“Manure is a resource. It’s a nutrient,” Olson says.

He says having some storage where grain can be kept ID-preserved is helpful.

“I’ve got a lot of small bins, so I can keep things sorted out separately,” he says.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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