Ryan Weeks says for him, "change has never been a four-letter word." Weeks grows everything from conventional yellow and white corn and soybeans to non-GMO soybeans, and non-GMO yellow and white corn on his farm near Hastings. "We've always tried to diversify," Weeks says.
"When you look at cash flows and can get an extra 40 to 50 cents per bushel raising similar yields, popcorn was our first step. But we felt like going non-GMO was a good fit for us,” he says.
Weeks has been growing popcorn for over 10 years, and began growing organic and non-GMO corn and soybeans two years ago. For him, growing organic and specialty crops isn't about a philosophy, but profitability. With the irrigation available in Nebraska, growers like Weeks have the opportunity to provide a consistent, quality product for consumers, he says.
"I believe, and some major companies really believe, south-central Nebraska is going to be the epicenter of organic production," Weeks says. "To most farmers, there's an emotional attachment to ground. When it comes down to it, it's dirt that goes to its best and most profitable use. In my situation, it's organics."
Opportunities are growing in the area to market different identity-preserved products. These include Gavillon and Bunge, which accept non-GMO yellow and white corn and non-GMO soybeans, and local dairies that supply to Dannon, which requires its dairies to use non-GMO feed, says Kelly Brunkhorst, executive director at the Nebraska Corn Board.
"We've seen acres for white and yellow food grade corn jump 20,000 to 30,000 acres here in the last few years, which is great for Nebraska," Brunkhorst says. "Outside of organic, when you look at food-grade, Enogen, seed corn, popcorn, there's an additional $75 million worth of revenue that comes into Nebraska producers' operations through those markets [annually]. That does not include the opportunity of organic, which would potentially double the price compared to No. 2 yellow corn."
Stepping up management
Growing IP and specialty crops comes with not only a premium, but also challenges, and isn't for everyone. Brandon Hunnicutt, who farms near Giltner with his dad and brother, notes he has raised popcorn and seed corn for "as long as I can remember." However, last year, they began growing non-GMO yellow, and this year non-GMO white corn and non-GMO soybeans on transitional organic acres.
Hunnicutt notes the first requirement is adequate access to storage. "For us, it works well, because most of our crops are within 5 to 6 miles of our bin sites," he says. "At the same time, we have a market close to us that makes it successful to grow those other crops. If we were too far out, we might have to consider transportation and other costs."
Monitoring inventory is key when it comes to growing food-grade, non-GMO or any other kind of IP corn and soybeans. That's why both Hunnicutt and Weeks note keeping a close watch on inventory, and planting acres to meet grain storage capacity are key.
For example, Hunnicutt's bin sites are set up to store about a quarter's worth of corn in a bin.
"Not only can we isolate non-GMO white corn or non-GMO yellow, but if we can really do it right, we can isolate different hybrids. We can isolate them for specific markets for hybrids," he says. "I might have two-quarters of a non-GMO yellow for one specific hybrid and it can all fit in that bin."
For those growing non-GMO or organic crops, weed control is another factor, with limited or no pesticide use. That's especially a challenge on soybean acres, where canopy closure takes longer than corn.
However, Weeks notes with the help of cover crops like cereal rye — which he usually doesn't terminate until at planting or later — weeds like Palmer amaranth aren't nearly as big of a problem. Although in a few cases, Weeks has resorted to hiring roguing crews to remove Palmer by hand.
"I've found for the most part, my organic soybeans are as clean or cleaner than conventional," says Weeks. "We use cereal rye, and I'm in those fields every day. The second I see white root weeds, we run a rotary hoe. This year, we ran a rotary hoe two to three times in beans, and we also cultivated."
And Hunnicutt adds some of these techniques can be applied to conventional acres, too.
Last fall, he first tried his hand at cover crops on his transitional organic acres. This year, he's hoping to expand covers to every acre. Next year, Hunnicutt plans to use a roller-crimper to terminate his cereal rye cover crop, and he notes if it goes well, he will use this termination tool on his conventional acres as well.
"We're using cover crops on next year's popcorn acres, and we're going to follow that on what will be organic popcorn in 2019. It gives us a year to experiment. So if something goes wrong, we always have a fallback plan of killing it with a herbicide or strip-tilling. If it works, not only does it work on organic acres, but maybe we can use it on our regular production acres."
Coexisting with other crops
With the wide range of corn and soybean varieties potentially being grown as part of IP programs, one of the biggest hurdles ahead is what Brunkhorst refers to as coexistence between different crops. This means communicating among growers to keep everyone up to speed on what varieties are grown where to prevent cross-pollination, and in some cases, herbicide injury.
"We've got to make sure we coexist with all these varieties, and that is in communication. But it isn't just corn, but soybeans too," says Brunkhorst. "We want to reduce the potential for cross-pollination to happen between those fields. It may be planting date difference, which reduces the potential for pollination differences, or it may be a rotation between neighbors' fields, so one is planting corn, one soybeans. Or it may just be some stewardship plans that require a buffer around the field."
While many of the same practices can be applied back on conventional acres, Weeks notes growing organic crops has been like learning to farm all over again. "We've had to do a 180-degree on a lot of our thinking," he says. "Honestly, it started as a profit opportunity. Now, it's the challenge that keeps things interesting."