The transition to organic crops may not be quick or even easy, but it is lucrative.
Nebraska producer Martin Kleinschmit admitted that when he first thought about transitioning his farm to organic several years ago, it was about the bottom line. Now an established organic farmer in Hartington — bringing in returns on organic crops that he’s rarely seen during his years of conventional crop production — he mentors other farmers looking to cash in on the growing market. And there’s plenty of room to grow. The U.S. claims a small fraction of the global organic food production, well behind the 17.2 million hectacres of the leader in organic growth: Australia.
“Instead we have farmers who are starving and going under,” Kleinschmit said with chagrin, shaking his head.
A 30-year member of the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society, Kleinschmit spoke about his history as an organic grower at the Jan. 31 NSAS Healthy Farm Conference in Grand Island, Nebraska. Addressing a room of farmers with shrewd questions on the subject, Kleinschmit offered his advice on how to begin the transition to organic production.
With organic, baby steps and patience will be your very best friend.
Kleinschmit’s foremost suggestion was to start small — transition just a few acres the first time, so that the changeover can be more easily managed. Big mistakes will be on a smaller scale, and you’ll leave time to study soil fertility and pest management applications in your field throughout the growing season and record your practices.
On Kleinschmit’s first try, he transitioned just 20 acres to organic soybeans. A good starter field, he said, will hit a few other key points:
g Medium soil
g Good to fair fertility
g Low risk of herbicide and pesticide drift from neighbors
g Livestock on annual forages
g Out of sight
He recommended choosing a familiar commodity crop with low fertility needs and high weed tolerance to make the first years of transition easier. Additionally, Kleinschmit suggested planting a low-cost crop to reduce risk in the event of loss.
To combat insects, Kleinschmit suggests numerous strategies — everything from mixed forage and plants with high brix content, foliar feeding with sugars, fish emulsion and kelp, to bug vacuums and releasing beneficial insects. There are also a few approved synthetic fertilizers, such as Neem, Rotenone, Sabadilla and Spinosad.
Crop rotation and releasing beneficial bugs will help combat pests as well as weeds. Other effective weeding measures for organic crops include flame weeding, plastic mulch, and biological, botanical and mineral inputs.
For fertility, Kleinschmit suggests an array of methods, from green manure and cover crops to compost and crop selection.
“Remember, we’re feeding the soil, and then we let the soil feed the crop,” Kleinschmit advised. “That’s different than commodity.”
With all of these measures in mind, Kleinschmit said it’s important to leave plenty of room for trial and error. Playing around with his organic crops reinvigorated his love of farming, and that also plays a part in success.
“Experiment. If you do everything everyone else does, it’s not fun,” Kleinschmit said.
Also, leave a control strip, so you know if a new measure you’ve tried has netted positive results.
Organic production changes the landscape of a farming operation, and it can come with a few drawbacks. He cautioned that there’s more time spent in the fields, more tillage, more storage bins and more cleaning required if the crop will be sold at food-grade.
He also forewarned that an organic transition takes a full three years to develop. Certified organic crops must originate from a field that has been free of all prohibited substances — fertilizer and pesticides — for 36 months. That means if there is substantial drift from neighboring fields, you start all over again. He recommends installing “no spraying” signage near the fields and gateways and communicating with neighbors to avoid drift scenarios.
The thought of losing three years of work because an aerial sprayer dumped chemicals on the wrong field is nerve-racking, Kleinschmit admitted, but with all high-risk, high-reward ventures, the benefits speak for themselves.
Aside from the money — a lot more money, Kleinschmit said — successful organic growers enjoy independence from bankers, and high-yielding low input production on a crop that sells into a high-demand market.
In 2017, he reported that organic feed prices were $8.50 to $9 on corn and $17 to $18 soybeans, with food-grade prices landing another 10-20% higher.
Though it’s a somewhat lengthy process to market, Kleinschmit added there’s benefit in having two years to learn what you’re doing and improve your organic operation.
And with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) program, Kleinschmit said, there’s a lot of help to be had in making the organic switch.
“EQIP is designed to get you through the transition so you learn how to do this,” he said. “(It removes) the risk from the transition so you can go to your banker and say, ‘I’m making this transition and here’s what I have to help.’”
He added that with the Nebraska EQIP program, any grower interested in enrolling will be accepted, as it has a separate cache of funds.
The National Resources Conservation Service (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/) recommends starting the process by speaking to a conservationist at your local NRCS office (https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app). They will evaluate your land for potential organic certification and introduce you to the process of becoming a certified organic grower.
To learn more about organic crop production, there’s a bevy of online resources:
- Rodale Institute offers a full spectrum of education on organic agriculture, https://rodaleinstitute.org/
- ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, attra.ncat.org
- Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, www.sare.org
- Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service, mosesorganic.org
- Organic Trade Association, www.ota.com
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, www.nal.usda.gov/afsic
- Network by locating other growers in your area. Use the USDA National Organic Program’s advanced search at https://organic.ams.usda.gov/Integrity/ to find certified organic growers in your county or state.
Katy Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.