February 2, 2018
By Linda Schwarz
With tight margins, lower commodity prices and changing consumer tastes, some producers are incorporating alternative cropping systems into their farming operations. What potential is there for return with diversified cropping systems, along with management challenges and opportunities, including for weed control?
In the United States today, there are great opportunities for farmers to think outside the box. The demand in the organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, direct marketing and cage-free markets is increasing every year, and I see this as a wonderful opportunity for Nebraska farmers.
With today's low commodity prices, even a 40-cent-per-bushel premium could make a difference in the bottom line, and some of these alternative cropping systems can provide that and much more. These value-added products are not always easy to transition to. Certified organic, for example, requires a three-year transition period, during which the farmer will have all of the challenges of farming organically without the price benefits at harvest (though in some cases it is now possible to certify a crop as transitional and receive a premium). Because organic crops require certification, farmers who use this method must keep extensive paperwork and submit to annual inspections.
There are also challenges that come with the actual production. Organic farmers spend more time doing fieldwork because weed control is done mechanically. In other words, be prepared to break out your rotary hoes and cultivators, or to fork out some cash for a rogueing crew or a flame weeder.
This production method is more management-intensive because of the rotation requirements and weed challenges. Weed pressure often forces us to change game plans midseason, and we've learned to be flexible and creative. Those who can handle spending extra time in the tractor, keeping up with record keeping, and dealing with more extensive management are best suited to this farming method. You'll certainly be rewarded for your efforts. (We can currently contract certified organic field corn for next year at nearly $9 per bushel.)
New and interesting opportunities continue to arise in our field as consumers demand more options. But before you jump in headlong, it is important to make sure the method fits both your personality and your operation. If you have no desire to farm without chemicals, perhaps you could look into certified non-GMO. If you have cattle, but not enough pasture to grow them for the grass-fed market, you could look into raising designer beef or other meats on a smaller scale and selling directly to the consumer.
Many people love to meet with a "real" farmer at a farmers market, which could lead to a loyal customer base for your beef or pork. Other customers would love to come to your farm and pick their own sweet corn. I've seen articles about farmers who grow sunflowers and charge a small fee for families to take pictures in the fields, as well as a stem charge for the flowers. Other customers love to pick strawberries or pumpkins, so what about popcorn or potatoes? The possibilities are endless, especially if you live near a population center. Even if you live in the proverbial middle of nowhere, there are opportunities to market your products in an online shop or even via Amazon or Facebook.
Of course, there are many farmers who just want to be left alone to farm the way they always have, and that is OK, too. There will always be a market for your product, and hopefully, the price for your commodities will improve soon.
For some, though, the situation is dire enough to require a change of some kind. But that doesn't have to be a death sentence. We should look at changing customer demands as an opportunity, not as an insult to our way of life. Our differences are what make us a vibrant and thriving country, and we should be responsive to people's differing nutritional preferences. After all, don't we have a responsibility to feed all of the people in the country and not just those with whom we agree?
Schwarz, LEAD XXVIII, farms with husband Tom (LEAD X) and daughter, Becky, in southwest Nebraska. They have a certified organic operation and have grown corn, alfalfa, field peas, oats, soybeans, popcorn, blue corn and milo, as well as organic produce in high tunnels. They also feed organic and conventional Holstein and Holstein-Angus cross cattle, and have a hay grinding business. Their son, Alex (LEAD 34) lives and works in Kearney.
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