RIPE FOR IP PRODUCTION
Non-GMO yellow corn is unloaded from a hopper at Ryan Weeks' bin site in south-central Nebraska. 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. Kelly Brunkhorst, Nebraska Corn Board executive director, notes acres for white and yellow food-grade corn increased 20,000 to 30,000 acres in Nebraska in recent years. Meanwhile, excluding organic, food-grade corn, Enogen corn, seed corn and popcorn bring an extra $75 million worth of revenue into Nebraska producers' operations each year.
IT'S ABOUT PROFITABILITY
For Ryan Weeks, 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."
Gary Witt, an employee at Ryan Weeks' Cornhusker Farms, unloads non-GMO corn into a hopper truck during harvest in October. Weeks notes that while it isn't for everyone, there are opportunities in south-central Nebraska to grow non-GMO and organic corn and soybeans, earn a premium, and maintain consistent yields. "I think we've definitely got some opportunities here, because of our ability to raise a consistent product. Just like popcorn," he says. "We're trying to capitalize on the opportunities we can that's been afforded us in the way of specialty markets."
TOOLS FOR WEED CONTROL
Weeks harvests non-GMO soybeans in October. For those growing non-GMO and 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.
Daryl Hunnicutt opens a truck hopper to unload corn into the Hunnicutts' bin site. His son Brandon says when it comes to growing different types of corn — including non-GMO, organic, and food-grade — access to storage matters. "It doesn't always fit for everybody because you've got to have the right setup," Brandon says. "The way our bins are set up we can do it. Those are considerations you have to take into account. Do I want to lay out money for grain bins?"
Brandon Hunnicutt harvests corn on his family's farm near Giltner. Hunnicutt notes after his first year in the transitional organic process, there are some key take-aways that can be applied to conventional corn, white corn and popcorn acres, as well as organic production. This includes using cover crops like cereal rye as a tool to knock back weeds.
CROPS CAN COEXIST
Brandon Hunnicutt harvests corn, while brother Zach pulls the grain cart. 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 Kelly Brunkhorst, Nebraska Corn Board executive director, refers to as coexistence, or communication to prevent cross-pollination between fields. And this doesn't just refer to corn. "We're seeing new herbicide-tolerant traits on the market for soybeans and potential for more herbicide-tolerant traits in a few years," says Brunkhorst. "It's making sure we're communicating among farmers and producers to make sure each of them understand what we're planting."