Transition to organic grain requires long-term plan
LINKWOOD, Md. — When he made the decision to move his farms towards organic practices, Chip Fleming, owner of Breckinridge Farm, admits he “was very fortunate in a couple instances.”
Thanks to “a little bit of forward thinking in 2016,” when he began to transition his first 30 acres to USDA Organic certification, Fleming secured a large Conservation Reserve Program parcel of more than 100 acres that allowed him to begin growing organic corn the following year.
“It allowed me to go all in on a large number of acres,” Fleming said.
That began his program of transitioning an additional 30 or 40 acres each year to organic.
While the harvest from those acres in transition cannot be sold as a Certified Organic product during those three transitional years, Fleming said “you can still make money. You’re treating it the same as if it was organic, but still selling it to conventional markets.”
The USDA’s most recent data on organic acreage show Certified Organic acres for crop production in Maryland have grown from 5,883 acres in 2008 to 10,298 in 2016.
Total Certified Organic acres, which includes pasture and grazing land, was 12,450 in 2016, down from its peak in 2014 at 13,978 acres.
Fleming acknowledged that converting his fields to organic is not without its risks.
“To do the transition, you have to have a long term lease of at least 10 years to get back the work and planning that goes into a transition period, because you need to know there’s a reasonable time available to gain some reward from your efforts,” Fleming said.
Yet, countered Jim Lewis, University of Maryland Extension’s principal agent for Caroline County, “the farmers I talk to aren’t convinced” about the viability of organic production.
A grain farmer himself, Lewis cited reduced yields not mitigated by increased price points, steadily declining soil nutrients year over year, and “the additional labor involved, especially if you’re doing tillage.”
Tillage practices are “the biggest issue,” Lewis added, “because we just spent the last 30 years trying to make the soil better” and protect the Chesapeake Bay from soil and nutrient runoff.
Lewis also pointed to cover cropping challenges in an orgnic system without being able to use traditional herbicides for burndown. “They’re burning off with tillage,” he said.
Bobby Taylor, Jr., owner of Taylor’s Fresh Organics in Federalsburg, Md., acknowledged organic farming can be a daunting venture for many farmers currently using conventional practices.
A fifth-generation farmer, who has been growing organic since 2010, Taylor said that successful organic farming means tweaking your management.
“With a conventional system, you can be more reactive to problems in your fields versus an organic system which requires you to be proactive and evaluate where your crops are throughout the growing season,” Taylor said.
“If you manage things well, you can offset the issues,” Taylor said.
Regarding tillage concerns, Taylor said he has achieved good results by combining minimal tillage practices — using high-speed disks tilling to a depth of four inches versus plowing to 10 or 12 inches — with cover crops.
Taylor said a big help in his growing system has been a practice any farmer, conventional or organic, can employ.
He lets his cover crops grow until the first week of May reaching heights of 3 to 5 feet versus the more common practice of killing cover crops in March with less growth.
While conventional farmers have herbicide options, Taylor drives over the cover crop with a roller/crimper to kill it.
Taylor said leaving the cover on the field longer creates several benefits for the coming cash crop.
Heavy spring rains this past spring provided a good example of one of those aspects, Taylor said. “Having the cover crops late meant they were absorbing the nutrients late along with the wet that bare ground wouldn’t be able to do.”
Thanks to that absorption, “keeping those cover crops late also meant we were able to get into the fields earlier to plant our cash crops.”
Another benefit of growing cover crops later and taller includes putting more organic material into the soil, which holds moisture and fosters more microorganisms.
Taylor said that letting cover crops go later also boosts the level of beneficial insects in the fields “because you’re giving them a habitat” to thrive in during the early portion of the season.
Taylor also noted that he’s been experimenting with no-till strategies with “the goal of working towards a no-till system with all of my corn acres.”
He added that because he lets his cover crop go later, the early weeds have less of a chance to emerge with his cash crops, even in his no-till field experiments.
As for yield, Taylor said the biggest challenge is the varieties of corn available for organic growers.
Fortunately, however, that has begun to change and there are more hybrid varieties available to organic farmers.
With those newer hybrids, “I’ve seen as much as a 45 bushel difference in yields for those varieties under irrigation,” Taylor said. “When it comes to yield, the potential is definitely there if you do the management.
“Though, the greater rewards come from the satisfaction of doing it well.”