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January 18, 2024
Most farmers take it slow when transitioning from conventional to organic production practices, but not Missouri farmer Aaron Stark, who went all in on his acres four years ago.
Stark raises corn, soybeans and wheat in the northeast region of the state. “I went cold turkey and jumped the whole farm in at the same time,” he says. “That was a terrible experience. But when you hit that 36-month mark, you’re thinking, ‘I’m glad I got all that done at the same time.’”
Still, the first-generation farmer would not recommend others follow suit.
“Do a few acres at a time, every year,” Stark says. “Then you can learn how to adjust to the challenges that come with organics on a smaller scale.”
Organic row crop farming is gaining popularity as consumers increasingly demand variety in their food choices. Diving into the world of organic farming is not for the faint of heart, especially during the transition years as farmers face significant obstacles that can affect productivity and sustainability.
Financially, organic farmers receive a premium for their product, but not initially.
“It took three years before I could harvest an organic crop,” Stark explains. “That’s kind of tough because you’re going to treat anything you plant during those years as an organic crop, but you’re only going to get paid for it as a conventional crop.”
Then there is adapting to farming without conventional amenities.
On the first day, Stark stopped the use of any prohibited substance on the farm. “You give up synthetic nitrogen and chemical control for pests and weeds,” he explains. “You must make sure everything you put on your ground or in it is organic or certified organic.”
PILE IT UP: Randy Clair turns out compost materials at his farm in Illinois. Clair created his own organic humus compost and shared the process with Missouri farmer Aaron Stark. “I was always learning something new from him,” Stark says. “He was one of those innovative, positive people you want to surround yourself with.” Clair passed away in November 2022. (Courtesy of Aaron Stark)
Then he looked for non-GMO crops to plant during those first two years of transition. Sourcing non-GMO and organic crops has eased over the past 10 years as the network of organic farmers continues to expand.
“There are a handful of farmers that I depend on that have what I want,” he notes. “It’s really not hard to find organic seed.”
In the third year, Stark was able to plant an organic crop that would pay organic prices.
Organic row crop farmers grapple with significant challenges related to weed management, nutrient balance and pest control to achieve their final product.
Here are a few, along with how Stark addresses them:
Weed management. Weeds compete with crops for nutrients, sunlight and water, which ultimately threatens yield and quality. According to a report by the Organic Farming Research Foundation, organic farmers often face greater difficulties in weed management because of limited herbicidal options.
Stark incorporates cover crops for weed suppression. However, his main weed management tool is cover crops and a rotary hoe. He generally runs two passes per year, three depending on conditions. The rotary hoe plucks out weeds and keeps the soil surface loose. Stark also tries new methods such as weed electrocution in soybeans and flame suppression in corn.
Nutrient management. Maintaining soil fertility and nutrient levels without traditional ag products require a bit of ingenuity. Stark makes and uses organic humus compost.
He bales cornstalks and places them in a row about 275 feet long, 11 feet wide and 4 feet tall, then adds livestock manure and a little hay to it. He turns the pile multiple times.
“It is roughly an eight-week process, but that pile turns into potting soil more or less,” he says. “I build beneficial microbes by doing this.”
The compost is also rich in nutrients and helps the soil become more porous. Stark spreads it at a low rate onto fields. “If you take care of the soil, the soil will take care of you,” he says.
Pest control. Pests are a problem for all farmers, but a report by the Organic Trade Association says that fostering a better understanding of ecological interactions can lead to the development of innovative and sustainable pest control strategies suitable for organic row crop farming.
Farmers such as Stark take that to heart. He applies products that contain citrus and sugar to fight pests at the plant level. “Bugs do not like high-sugar, high-Brix levels,” he says. “If you have a high-sugar plant, they will not bite it. If they do bite it, they can’t digest the sugar, so they will die.”
Stark subscribes to the belief that “organic production makes the soil healthier, which makes the plant healthier, and bugs don’t eat healthy plants.”
Stark is part of an organic network of farmers finding sustainable solutions to these challenges, which is essential for the long-term success and viability of organic row crop farming in the U.S.
While farmers transitioning to organics may focus on financial and soil benefits, Stark offers a few extras — improved customer interaction, farmer networking and lifelong learning. Here are some tips:
Talk directly to buyers. A woman in the state of California called Stark looking for a bag of organic soybeans to make her own soy sauce. “She was wanting to deal directly with the farmer she was buying from, which I appreciated,” he says, “but I told her I could find someone closer.”
There are more organic buyers in the marketplace today. Once a farm is certified organic, it is listed in the USDA Organic Integrity Database. From there, Stark says, expect phone calls from individuals or brokers from across the country. “My first year, I sold corn to a guy in Kentucky.”
With more organic chicken houses going up and the increase in different organic plant-based products, Stark says buyers sourcing organic crops continues to expand.
Networks build the farm. For Stark, the greatest benefit of the organic farming lifestyle is its people.
“Everybody is willing to help each other,” Stark says. “There’s no secrets. If a farmer raises 200-bushel corn, he’s probably going to lead a seminar telling you exactly how he did it.”
If it’s not a seminar, he adds, “There are 10 farmers I can call with a problem, and they will help me out.”
Stark says new organic farmers should also tap into groups such as Practical Farmers of Iowa and resources from Western Illinois University at Macomb, which offer information and opportunities to learn from other farmers.
Watch webinars to improve. The ideas may not exactly work in your operation, Stark notes, but chances are they’re doing something that you can change a little bit to work on your own farm.
As the demand for organic products continues to grow, more farmers like Stark look at transitioning their farm operations. It is a lifestyle, he adds, not only full of challenges but also possibilities.
Organic farming was not how Stark started his journey in agriculture.
Twenty years ago, at 14, he worked for a neighboring farmer who operated with traditional crop production methods. It was there he found a passion for industry.
“I married into a farming family and was given the opportunity to farm with them,” he explains. “Then it turned into a full-time job.”
Soon after, land became available, and Stark ventured out with some of his own as a conventional row crop farmer.
However, while attending a regenerative agriculture conference, he met an older gentleman, Randy Clair from Illinois, who was farming 100% organic and making humus compost.
“He turned out to be a great mentor,” Stark adds. “He invited us out to his place. I noticed his ground was in better shape. Seeing the kind of output he produced sparked my interest.”
At the time, Stark owned his own chemical applicator. “I was spraying modern herbicides,” he says. “But after talking with other farmers and researching on my own, I came to the conclusion that chemical use has no positive impact on soil health.”
So, four years ago, he made the leap into organics.
“I’ve always wanted to do something different,” he says. “I don’t know that how we traditionally raise corn and soybeans is always the best way. Randy told me that the right path is not always easy, but it is worth it.”
Clair died in 2022. Stark misses conversations the two shared during his pursuit of organic agriculture.
“How I farm now is a tribute to all of the advice he gave me along the way,” he says. “It is my way to honor him as my mentor, friend and fellow organic farmer.”
While organic farms have a buffer of a minimum of 20 feet, Stark says it is best to talk with neighbors before transitioning to organic production.
He also suggests signing the farm up on driftwatch.org, a website that lets farmers, neighbors and cooperatives view where organic farms are in a state.
Editor, Missouri Ruralist
Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.
After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.
There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.
“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”
Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.
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