By Billy Sammons
To the editor:
Your “Timely Tips” farm management column ran a question from a farmer who is considering switching some of his acreage to organic corn and soybean production. With low prices for conventional corn and soybeans today, he’s interested in organic production because of the profit potential.
Thanks for including information in Wallaces Farmer about the consideration of transitioning to organic. However, the answer to his question — “Is organic too risky?” — missed important details.
As a farmer who recently transitioned to organic, I noted there was no mention of “why” a farmer chooses to shift to a more environmentally conscious system of farming. The main reason, if you were to ask just about any organic farmer isn’t for the price premium as was expressed in his question and in the answer by the Timely Tips panel. Instead, it is to develop a sustainable set of practices designed to build soil health, limit erosion, increase water infiltration, eliminate toxic effects from synthetic chemicals, promote a renewal of beneficial insects and significantly reduce nitrate leaching.
Conventional farming practices do little to meet those goals. Instead, heavy tillage (a common practice) contributes to significant carbon loss and then requires synthetic supplements in an effort to provide enough nutrients for the plant to produce a potentially successful crop.
In this scenario, soil health isn’t a very important part of the equation. A conventional farmer, planting genetically modified (GMO) crop varieties and applying commercial fertilizer, is locked into a method that feeds the plant, rather than the soil. It has been published widely that such a system is not sustainable in the long term.
Financial and consulting assistance are available from USDA programs for farmers interested in transitioning to organic practices.
Yes, there are challenges in the transition years because soil health has been cast aside for so long as if it is of minimal importance.
USDA understands this conundrum and provides significant resources to offset it with the EQIP transitioning-to-organic program. A farmer can get up to $20,000 per year for implementing practices designed to build soil health, for development of transition plans, use of cover crops, nutrient management assistance, pollinator strips and an array of other sustainable practices.
In addition, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Iowa Organic Association provide a wealth of information and include many members who at one time asked the same question about transitioning to organic.
Interest in organic farming growing
Regarding fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, there are products that meet USDA National Organic Program guidelines and can help mitigate extreme pressures from weather-induced situations, insects and weeds.
There may be more interest among your readers about the “ins” and “outs” of transitioning to organic than you realize. It’s important for interested farmers to learn there is much more involved than just being rewarded a premium. The greater reward is to know by embracing a philosophy of farming that helps protect our fragile environment, and by adapting to organic production, a willing farmer can actually help to ensure a healthier future food supply.
This is a tough time for farmers, organic and conventional alike. Yet, demand for organic crops far exceeds those grown conventionally. Look at the stagnant commodity prices compared to organic ($9 or so for organic corn vs. $3 for conventional). Are conventional farmers trapped with high costs for equipment, land leases and input costs? Yes. Is there a way out of that log jam? Yes.
In this regard, I would like to see Wallaces Farmer highlight a potential path to high water in detail. Would such a publication risk advertiser participation? I don’t think so, as some organic farmers I know have lots of newer equipment. In fact, there could be a new collection of advertisers who promote use of organic soil amendments, natural fertilizers, suitable cover crop mixes — the list goes on.
Sammons writes from Greene County.