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Corn+Soybean Digest

Organic Opportunities

Organic farmers may not win yield contests. But most of them score high on net profit.

Take Joel Rissman. He harvested 135 bu/acre of corn in 1998, while his neighbors routinely hauled in 200 bu/acre. But shed no tears for Joel - he grossed better than $100 more per acre than surrounding conventional farmers.

Rissman, a certified organic grower at Waterman, IL, sold his corn for $3.50/bu. He produced 49 bu/acre of food-grade soybeans and sold those for $23/bu in 1998.

Rissman, president of the Illinois chapter of the Organic Crop Improvement Association, averaged 150 bu/acre on his 1999 corn. His food-grade soybeans came in at 40-45 bu/acre. He contracted the 1999 corn at $3.30/bu and the 1999 soybeans at $19/bu.

Last year, Rissman grew 140 acres of soybeans, 60 of corn, 40 of wheat, 35 of barley, 33 of grain sorghum silage, 20 of alfalfa, 20 of oats (with an alfalfa seeding), 9 of hairy vetch seed and 8 of flax.

He also feeds 250 head of cattle and 200-300 broilers, and has some laying hens.

He feeds 20 head of the cattle and all the broilers organically and sells them locally. The layers, too, are on an organic diet.

Rissman recently received 80 cents /lb for the organic cattle - about 15 cents /lb above conventional - and $2/dozen for the eggs, nearly three times the retail price of eggs in local stores.

"We could easily have sold 1,000 broilers and many more eggs," Rissman reports. "We will expand both."

Rissman buys conventional corn to feed his conventional cattle so he can sell his organically grown corn at a premium.

"Besides the increased income from organic crops and livestock, our work load is more spread out because we have small grains in our rotation," Rissman notes. "We're not as rushed in the spring, compared to conventional corn-soybean farmers.

"I have a used 12-row planter and can plant all my corn and soybeans in three days. We don't push to plant early because we want the soil to warm.

"One of the other pluses of organic farming is that we make a good living off 370 acres. We are not fighting our neighbors for ground."

Nevertheless, the shift to organic farming has not been a bed of roses for Rissman.

"We started transitioning to organic in 1994," he reports. "A field needs to go three years without any synthetic fertilizer or synthetic pesticides to be certified organic. We started by putting half of the farm in alfalfa and small grains. However, many farmers start with just 40 or 50 acres of organic.

"When we began raising row crops we had a terrible problem with weeds. Fortunately, the yields didn't suffer as much as you might think."

Rissman now controls weeds quite well with a combination of rotary hoeing, flaming and cultivation. He uses a propane flamer to get weeds within the rows and he cultivates between rows.

"My 1999 cost for row-crop weed control was $3.50/acre for propane and tractor fuel. My total production costs for corn - seed, fuel and fertilizer needs - were less than $50/acre. Most of our fertility comes from manure and legume crops."

Landlords can be an obstacle when shifting to organic farming, Rissman points out. If they want absolutely clean fields, they'll balk at organic methods.

"We rent our farm from my uncle and are fortunate that he has wholeheartedly supported the move to organic."

Another challenge is that certified organic farming requires a minimum of three crops. "You can grow row crops only four years out of six on a given field," Rissman notes. "The third crop is needed to reduce diseases and insects. If a legume, it can produce nitrogen."

The outlook for organic farming is bright, says Todd Thompson, production director for the Organic Alliance, St. Paul, MN. "Most projections show a 20% annual growth rate."

Thompson says the European and Japanese organic markets also are growing rapidly. U.S. organic farmers supply a good share of those markets.

"Concern about genetically modified organisms is fueling much of the expansion around the world," Thompson notes.

"The opportunity is there for new farmers entering organic production," reports Allen Moody of the Cooley Region Organic Produce Pool (CROPP) at LaFarge, WI. CROPP is a farmer-owned co-op that is marketing organic dairy, egg and meat products.

"However, a farmer entering organic farming needs a detailed five-year production and marketing plan," he emphasizes. "Both are critical."

For Midwestern farmers, the primary organically grown crops are corn, soybeans and small grains, says Moody. There also is a tremendous opportunity in organically produced vegetables.

Any farmer interested in learning more about organic production can contact his state department of agriculture or state extension service for the names of organic certifying groups in his area. Those certifying organizations can provide basic information and guidance. ?

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