Farm Progress

Transitioning a farm from conventional to organic isn’t a decision to make lightly.

April 26, 2018

6 Min Read
MULCH MAT: Caleb Akin of Cambridge in early April shows the thick cereal rye cover crop left over after being roller-crimped ahead of soybeans in 2017.

By Jason Tetrick

Driving past A&W Farms near Cambridge in central Iowa, it would be easy to imagine it’s just another typical farm among the thousands across Iowa’s landscape: a house and a feedlot in a sea of corn and soybeans.

It isn’t until March that A&W Farms starts to look a little different. As the landscape slumbers, awaiting spring, tiny green plants —  cereal rye that was seeded into corn last fall — start to sprout from the soil. While other fields are still bare and brown, these cold-hardy plants will become a lush carpet of green helping to protect the soil from spring rains soon to come.

United by farming
The “A” in A&W farms stands for Akin. Co-owner Caleb Akin grew up in upstate New York, far from Iowa’s vast acres of corn and soybeans. In pursuit of a farming education, he attended Iowa State University and earned a degree in agronomy in 2002. He decided to stay in Iowa, and soon after graduating moved to Cambridge to start growing vegetables for local restaurants. For a few years, he grew sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers and pumpkins, and raised some hay until he met Noah Wendt — the “W” in A&W Farms and Caleb’s farming partner.

Wendt grew up in northeast Iowa farming with his uncles, and routinely worked for other farmers. His love for farming led him to ISU, where he earned a degree in ag business. After graduating, he worked in the industry for a year and a half before deciding he wanted to get back to farming.

Wendt and Akin met through a mutual friend and ended up renting a house together. At the time, Akin had been growing vegetables for three years, and Wendt had bounced from job to job. After discovering their mutual love for farming, they decided in 2006 to start farming row crops together. The operation grew, and for the last 10 years, they’ve been finishing 600- to 750-pound feeder steers, feeding grain, and growing corn and soybeans with cover crops. Now, they are embarking on a new farm venture: transitioning parts of their farm to organic.

Transition to organic
Transitioning a farm from conventional to organic isn’t a decision to make lightly. It takes planning, time, patience and strategy to get the system moving in the right direction. It also requires financial investment. “It takes a lot of money to transition,” Akin says, “because generally you’re running a negative cash flow for the three [transition] years.”

They had intended to transition to organic when they first started farming together. But high commodity prices in 2007 led them to postpone that idea. They were making enough money in conventional and weren’t ready to take a risky jump into organic. By 2015, commodity prices had dropped and the partners had a few more years of farming experience. The idea of transitioning some fields seemed to make sense financially.

“To diversify our operation and pose ourselves for a better future, we thought transitioning at least a portion of our ground to organic was going to be what we needed to make our operation successful,” Wendt says. In 2016, they started transitioning a few fields to organic — about 160 acres. In 2017, they began transitioning an additional 160 acres.

Cover crops key
Akin and Wendt started the 2016 transition process by adding oats to the traditional two-year corn and soybean rotation on the transitioning fields. They added more cover crops into the rotation as well, underseeding clover with their oat crop, in part to help with weed suppression.

While cereal rye had been the main cover crop in their conventional rotation for the last 10 years, Wendt says they never could get it to fit quite right until they expanded their rotation with the organic system. “Ten years ago, up until even five years ago, we struggled trying to figure out how cereal rye fit into our system,” he adds. “The transitioning to organic is where we really found out that it does fit right when we’re rotating a little bit more extensively than just corn and beans.”

Cereal rye is widely used as a cover crop in both organic and conventional operations for its ability to establish itself before the winter, survive winter and then come up early to suppress weeds in the spring.

Using a roller crimper
In the past, Akin and Wendt would terminate cereal rye with herbicide, but that’s no longer an option in the organic fields. They’d heard other farmers were using roller-crimpers to terminate the cover crop and decided to give it a shot. Roller-crimpers roll the stand down and crimp the stalk, so the plants lie flat on the soil to serve as a thick mulch, nurturing soil microbes and suppressing weeds.

The farming partners found another farmer they knew who agreed to split the cost of purchasing one, which the two farms would then share. The roller-crimper joined A&W Farms last spring and played a vital role last year on their farm.

“We bought a 10-foot roller-crimper thinking we wanted to at least try this on the beans,” Wendt says. “We were quite pleased with the way it worked.”

While Akin and Wendt had a low soybean yield in 2017, that could have been due to dry conditions that season. And despite the yield drop, they say the roller-crimper still saved them money by reducing field passes: “Four passes with a rotary hoe, four passes with the row crop cultivator, two passes walking beans,” Wendt says. “Even with the reduced yield, I think we’re making up for it, saving probably $100-plus in production costs.”

Akin adds that the crimper provided an additional benefit they weren’t expecting: It was easier to plant oats this spring. With the ground that had been cultivated instead of crimped, they had to cultivate once more and roll twice with a smooth roller before it was fit to plant oats. On the crimped ground, all they had to do was plant.

A diversified future
Cereal rye will continue to play an important role, both as a cover crop in spring and forage for their cattle. They also plan to continue underseeding clover with their oat crop. As they further integrate their livestock and organic operations, they envision the clover could provide a source of summer and fall grazing for a cow-calf operation.

“If conditions are ideal, we could even graze the clover into the winter,” Wendt says.

Akin and Wendt are also musing on other ways they can diversify in the future. “There could be some other crops we grow from a food-grade standpoint,” Wendt says. “We’ll just have to see. A lot of opportunities arise once you get going in it.”

Tetrick is an Iowa State University student graduating this May, and a media intern for Practical Farmers of Iowa.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like