Kathleen Delate is a professor of horticulture at Iowa State University, where she specializes in organic agriculture. A graduate of the University of Florida with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, Delate came to Iowa State in 1997.
IFT: Do many universities employ organic specialists?
Delate: When I came to Iowa State there were probably 15 programs that had organic specialists, but the number has grown. There is probably organic research being done at 40 of the 50 land grant schools today.
IFT: Draw a picture of the organic industry today. What does it look like?
Delate: It is a $50 billion industry in the United States. There are about 500 organic farms in Iowa, which puts it as about the fifth largest state in regards to the number of organic farmers. There is a mixture of small and large organic farms in the country, although we tend to think of organic farmers as small and locally-owned.
IFT: How has the coronavirus impacted organic farmers?
Delate: It’s a mixed bag. Farmers markets have closed in many areas and that has been a problem. The closure of restaurants has also been a big problem for many farmers because it took away a big chunk of their market. But the demand for organic products has been strong and many farmers have found ways to market their products online. For some of those people. sales are through the roof.
IFT: There has been tension in the organic industry between the small local guys and the big commercial guys. Is that still the case?
Delate: That tension is still there. There will always be a percentage of the market that is all about small and locally grown as much as it is about organic. Those are the people who built the industry. But, especially on the grain side, demand is outstripping supply and that has led to large-scale production, especially overseas. I hate the idea of importing organic products but I’ve come to accept it. It is frustrating to me that we have all this wonderful soil and good farmers and yet we import organic products.
IFT: Commodity prices have been low. What has that meant for organics?
Delate: There are still premiums, but the price of organics is related to the price of commodities. At one time, organic soybeans were $26 a bushel. Now they are more like $18. Generally, organic crops are two to three times higher than commodity crops.
IFT: Weed control is always one of the big challenge with organics. How do farmers deal with weed control?
Delate: That is definitely our biggest challenge. With the rich soil we have in the Midwest we get good grain, but we also get good weeds. There are several different ways farmers deal with weeds. One is through crop rotations, usually incorporating small grains. Another is through higher plant populations. And there are all kinds of implements used for weed control, from cultivators to flame burners to weed zappers. Some farmers also use methods such as ridge-till.
IFT: What are some of the hot topics in the organic world today?
Delate: There is a lot of discussion about 60-inch rows for corn. The theory is to form a solar corridor to get more sun to the plant. Sometimes it may include a cover crop between rows. The jury is way out on that.
There is also some discussion of the idea of no-till organic crops. The way I have seen that done is to use a cover crop in the fall and then to roll and crimp the cover crop, usually right before or after planting. That’s really kind of a holy grail for organic farmers.