No herbicide, no pesticide, no treated seed, no biotech. But your soybeans bring as much as $20-25./bu.

That's the life of an organic soybean grower. And while only a tiny portion of U.S. soybean fields are organic, those devoted to chemical-free production on all or part of their land like the premium that can be more than double that offered by the local elevator.

Mark Nightengale, general manager of Heartland Mill, Marienthal, KS, contracts with growers for everything from organic beans and blue corn and oats to millet, rye, feed milo and wheat. “We buy grain from south Texas all the way into Canada,” says Nightengale.

MOST OF THE Heartland organic beans and meal go into production of feed for organic livestock and dairy production. It used to sell a lot to Japan and the Far East before China grabbed a large chunk of that market in recent years.

Craig Solomon, a Vega, TX, grower, farms mostly conventionally. But having a portion of his land chemical-free for years continues to help him remain highly diversified. “Most of my soybeans are sold through Arrowhead Mills, Hereford, TX,” he says. “For 2005, I received $13.50-14/bu. and made 60 bu./acre.”

The natural food movement has grown beyond a strip mall health food store. Most major supermarkets feature a special organic section with organic soy dairy products, organic soy flour and frozen soy burgers. And someone provides the beans for them.

Marvin Batte, Ohio State University (OSU) agricultural economist, says the demand for organic foods increases by about 20% a year even though “only a small fraction of total acres is organic.”

In Ohio, he says there are a few growers who produce organic soybeans specifically for tofu — and garner prices that are double, triple or more the conventional soybean price. “These soybeans don't yield as well as conventional beans, but the premiums are very high,” he says.

Batte was involved in a survey by OSU to determine consumer preferences for organic foods, conducted to better understand the impact of the USDA's National Organic Program (NOP).

It surveyed consumers at rural, suburban and inner-city supermarkets. They found that concerns over consumer health and food safety were the top determinants of why consumers buy organic products.

He says it was the specialty shoppers, those most committed to organic foods or those more aware of USDA's program, who were willing to pay a premium for organic foods. They would pay anywhere from 37-52¢ more for a typical sized box of ready-to-eat breakfast cereal with non-biotech, locally grown pesticide-free and 100% organic ingredients.

“We also analyzed demographics in the surveys and found that consumer willingness to pay for organics increased with consumer age, household income and the number of children in the household,” Batte says. “Women were also more willing to pay for organic food.”

IT HAS BEEN suggested that by 2009, organic food retail sales will be at $19 billion, Batte says.

As an organic soybean grower, Solomon usually agrees to a contract price before planting. He farms in 30-in. rows, and his irrigated beans yield 55-60 bu./acre. He rotates his organic beans with organic wheat and organic corn. “Since you can't put down most commercial fertilizers, I apply manure from local feed yards that I compost myself,” he says. That is accomplished by keeping the manure in piles for four to six months.

Plant populations are a little higher to help offset any seedling problems. In his organic fields, the rotary hoe is probably his most useful tool. “You can't apply any herbicide, so cultivation is critical in organic production,” he says. “With the added trips through the field and the need for contract hoeing, my input costs are probably 20% more than for non-organic beans and other crops. You save on chemicals, but pay more for equipment use and labor.”

There are paperwork headaches in organic farming. Since each field must remain chemical-free for at least three years before producing a crop, and remain “clean” after that, copious recordkeeping is required. “I maintain records on crop rotations, soil samples, water analysis, irrigation dates and just about all cultural practices,” says Solomon. “The farm is also visited by a Texas Department of Agriculture official to continue state organic certification.”

Nightengale says Heartland Mills, owned by a group of local farmers, is certified organic through Quality Assurance International out of San Diego, CA.

The NOP outlines steps growers must take to become organic certified. Information required includes: the type of operation, history of substances applied over the past three years, applicant's organic plan and organic products being grown, raised or processed.

The plan includes practices and substances used in production and must describe monitoring practices that will be used to verify that the plan is effectively implemented.

Accurate post-certification records for five years are also required. They should document that the operation complies with the regulations and verify the information provided to a USDA-approved certifying agent. The USDA says certifying agents must be notified by a producer immediately of any changes affecting an operation's compliance with the regulations, such as application of a prohibited pesticide to a field. For more information about organic certification, go to www.ams.usda.gov/nop/.

Even with the certification criteria, organic soybean growers realize the many benefits of rotating beans with other crops, says Nightengale.

That's important for organic growers who come back with wheat or other crops that require lots of nitrogen.