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Transitioning to organic corn or soybeans is getting easier

soybeans with rye thatch.jpg
Rick Clark planted these soybeans green before rolling and crimping his rye cover crop. Heavy thatches like this, improved soil health and multi-crop rotations have reduced conventional inputs enough that Clark is transitioning most of his his 7,000 acres to organic production.
Support services, market opportunities and tools are on the rise.

Think Different

  • Before you consider going organic, J.P. Rhea suggests an honest self-evaluation in addition to a phased in transition.
  • Are you progressive minded with a business sensibility?
  • Do you have or can you include alfalfa in your rotation as a way to make the transition?
  • Do you understand the costs and the potential of an organic operation?
  • Do you have the management skills to get work accomplished on a timely basis?
  • Have you tried other specialty crops or non-traditional crops?
  • Organic is no longer a dirty word or a niche, but you need to understand the costs and the potential that earns you the premium price.

Double or triple the prices being offered for conventional corn and soybeans, and you can see one reason growers like Tom Cotter and Rick Clark are transitioning parts or all of their farming operations to organic production. The two are part of a growing movement that is creating a demand for expanded support services while finding alternative markets for their crops.

"I would have had to raise 400-bushel-per-acre corn to make the profit I made with 165-bushel corn on my first organic field in 2017," says Cotter, who farms near Austin, Minn., and is currently transitioning additional fields in his 1,000-plus crop acres.

"I felt like I was farming organically anyway with no-till and cover crops, especially with my soybeans," says Williamsport, Ind. based Clark, who began the transition two years ago on much of the 7,000 acres he farms.

Demand for organic

These growers and others like them have their eye on the fast-growing domestic market for organic feed grains...and fast growing it is.

"Demand for organic feed grains is growing by more than 8 percent a year, and the best farmers in the world are not meeting that demand," says J.P. Rhea, whose farming operation is headquartered near Arlington, Neb. "As a farmer, I'm offended that this country is importing organic grain and oilseeds when we should be exporting them."

Rhea has already certified or is transitioning nearly all of his family's 11,000 acres to organic crop production. As the founder of AgriSecure, Rhea is helping other farmers do the same. His company offers agronomic and financial advice and planning, as well as assistance with the paperwork and record keeping required for transition and certification. AgriSecure's new partner, Farm Business Network (FBN), will provide transitioning clients with access to inputs, finance and marketing to end-users.

"We are very complimentary with AgriSecure," suggests Lucas Strom, vice president, Business Development, FBN. "They can help put together a multi-year plan and manage the certification processes and supporting record management, and we can provide the FBN platform enabling network insight and better access to financing, inputs and buyer markets"

Others also see opportunity in unmet demand for support during the transition and later. Minneapolis, Minn. based Pipeline Foods' goal is to bring producers and end users of non-GMO and organic grains and oilseeds together. The company, which piloted their farmer support program in 2018, is working with about 100,000 acres in transition to organic with plans to scale up in 2019. That includes buying and building storage facilities, a key missing ingredient in the farmer support system. They have several elevators in western Canada and North Dakota. Recently they added a 3.4 million bushel elevator in Atlantic, Iowa.

"We are working to build a community of growers and agronomists that our clients can access, while our goal is to handle the grain and merchandise it," says Pipeline Foods co-founder Eric Jackson. "On the economic side, we are identifying landlords, crop insurance agents and lenders willing to work with growers through the transition."

Pipeline Foods is also extending long-term contracts to organic growers for their full rotation of crops, a significant value add for organic growers who often struggle to find markets for their third and fourth crops.

Jackson sees opportunity for not only organic production, but also for non-GMO crops produced during the transition. "Demand doesn't show any signs of slowing down," says Jackson. "Food companies have organic products they have developed that they would like to roll out if they had the supply."

Ready for change

All three companies are focusing on larger farmers as their target market, in part due to the ability to transition a segment of the operation at a time. "The magnitude of change involved is so large we suggest a phased in approach of no more than 20 percent a year," says Rhea.

Jackson is even more direct. "If you struggle with conventional crop production, don't take on organic," he advises. "You have to be good and want to diversify your operation. We don't recommend changing 100 percent. That's not diversification."

Growers like Cotton and Clark are comfortable with change and have diversified their cropping systems with their use of cover crops and alternatives to a simple corn/soybean rotation. Erin Silva, Organic and Sustainable Cropping Systems Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees growers like them bringing organic to a new level. At the same time, she points to new tools and techniques like rolling and crimping that allow farmers greater efficiency while maintaining productivity and healthy soils.

"The last couple years have seen the introduction of tools that will revolutionize the organic landscape," says Silva. "Many more equipment manufacturers are recognizing the opportunity, not only of organic, but of farmers expanding the opportunities for soil health, cover crop management, intercropping and multi-species covers."

Silva has been working with organic growers and growers in transition since 2006. She welcomes the influx of companies like Pipeline Foods, AgriSecure and FBN. "The number of resources and opportunities for farmers to engage in organic farming has grown exponentially in the past two years," says Silva.

Support available

Central Illinois independent crop consultant Will Glazik works with both organic and conventional farmers and cites a huge increase in interest from conventional farmers in recent years. He also welcomes the influx of support systems.

"A lot of people getting started don't know where to turn, how to start, where to buy seed or where to find markets," say Glazik. He is currently working with a group of agronomists on a "train the trainer" program to teach other agronomists the skill sets needed to work with organic farming.

He describes those making the transition today as generally younger (under 50), larger operators who have used cover crops for several years. "Soil health is the middle ground that is overcoming the traditional tension between organic and conventional farming," says Glazik. "The reason to consider going organic may be low crop prices, but they likely have already lengthened their rotation and cut back on inputs. Organic is just the next step."

TAGS: Corn Soybeans
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