Would $20+ soybeans or $10 corn be worth living without glyphosate or Bt – or virtually all weed or bug killers? The idea doesn’t bother certified organic grower Jimmy Wedel, who’ll take a few hoe-handle blisters for his niche markets any day. When he sells his non-biotech, low-input corn and beans, he sees prices near 40-60% over CBOT futures prices.
After 18 years of organic production, you could say this Muleshoe, TX, farmer uses old-style production to meet new age and beyond niche markets for natural food and fiber. Wedel farms 4,500 acres, all but 50 organic. “Organic farming became a business plan for me years ago and provides me a marketing advantage over conventional farming.”
A.J. Blair, Dayton, IA, has some organic and non-biotech corn and beans, but unlike Wedel, isn’t betting the farm on them. “We’ve had trouble getting the nitrogen right for corn,” says Blair, whose production is about 3% organic. “Up to now, all we could use economically was swine manure. We just put up a cattle feedlot to get some more nutrients for organic ground.”
He expects organic corn or soybeans yields to be lower because of typical Midwest insect pressure and the lack of Bt genes and an arsenal of insecticides. There are a few biological insect controllers, but nothing like what’s available from ag chemical companies. “There aren’t a lot of options, so you go into organic with assumption for lower yields,” says Blair.
He says the corn market hasn’t been that much better for organic in his region of northwest Iowa. “In the long run, organics might make more money,” he says, “but right now organic corn is only about $1/bu. more here.” He’s happy with the program he has for growing non-biotech seed for Pioneer and might add more acres.
The number of non-biotech specialty corn or beans is certainly higher. Mark Loux, Ohio State University Extension weed specialist, says that probably 30% of corn grown in Ohio is non-biotech, while soybeans are likely about 5% non-biotech.
It’s much more difficult to qualify as a certified organic farm than for growing non-biotech. Land must be free of virtually any herbicide, insecticide or fungicide use for three years.
You must have records to document production practices for the three-year period. No Roundup Ready or Bt seed can be grown for three years; only organic fertilizer can be used, usually manure.
Of Wedel’s production, about 700 acres are in corn, including 450 sold as organic silage; 300 are soybeans; 200 are cotton and about 2,000 are organic wheat. He’s fortunate to have local markets.
“Our organic corn goes to two or three local organic dairies and a regional grain company which has a local delivery point,” he says. “We sell the dairies organic silage and deliver corn for grain and organic soybeans to the grain handler.”
Getting crops produced for those markets is the trick. And it’s much more demanding than 21st-century biotech production. It takes a lot of hoeing, and then some, along with a rotary hoe and cultivator.
“Timing is everything,” says Wedel. “You have to devote full attention to the crop during the heart of the growing season. You can’t let any sign of a weed get away from you.”
He runs a regular hoe crew of 12-20 people to control any weed breakout (50 or more in early summer). “I usually spend about $50/acre on hoeing,” he says. “If I have to spend $200/acre for hoeing I’ll do it.”
In a typical corn crop, he plants in wet soil as deep as the planter allows. Once the crop gets off and early rains come, he rotary hoes with double wheels to break the crust in the sandy loam soil. Then he cultivates, using several 15- to 20-year-old cultivators to knock down weed breakouts.
“Corn is usually the easiest organic crop for us,” says Wedel. “Soybeans can take more trips through the field. We’ll probably run the rotary hoe twice. We then run a special tool, a Tined Weeder, with prongs that drag across the soil and handle most weeds. We’ll also run a cultivator two times.”
Wedel says volatile grain and cotton markets can catch organic growers off guard just like with conventional crops. “Last year we contracted some corn and beans before the market rallied, so our premium wasn’t what we expected,” he says.
“I have niche markets, but I also farm in a manner that’s good for the environment and don’t have the health risks involved with handling a lot of chemicals. It’s safer for my family, safer for me and safer for my employees.”
Loux says weeds, especially those with resistance, can slam non-biotech crops. “Weeds tend to be a major problem in non-biotech soybeans due to populations of ALS-resistant weeds,” he says.
“We have a lot of good corn herbicides and growers don’t need to plant Roundup Ready or LibertyLink corn to get good weed control. Non-biotech soybean growers should plan to spend more on herbicides than they do in Roundup Ready soybeans.”
A clearinghouse for growers in search for premium bean programs is available online at http://soybeanpremiums.org.
“The site (supported by Iowa, Illinois and Indiana soybean associations) is for buyers and producers of specialty soybeans,” says Grant Kimberley, director of marketing, Iowa Soybean Association. “Seed companies and other end users can post opportunities for premium contracts. Growers can look at the various contract opportunities available.”
Producers can identity preserved, food-grade, low-linoleic and other specialty beans, along with non-biotech varieties. “Low-linoleic beans usually bring a 60¢/bu. or higher premium,” says Kimberley. “If they’re non-biotech, it could be $2/bu. higher. Food-grade, high-protein varieties also bring good premiums.”
He says growers should see opportunities to contract for high-oleic varieties that will likely be available commercially soon. There should also be new premium markets for high-protein soybeans for aquaculture. “This could become a good specialty crop,” he says.
Even though organic and non-biotech are small percentages of overall soybean and corn production, Kimberley says growers can use the soybean premiums site and other sources to locate premium markets.
“There are niche markets out there if growers are looking for them,” he says.
There are about 14,500 organic farms nationwide, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. They operate about 4.1 million acres, of which 1.6 million are harvested cropland. There are many more acres in non-biotech production, including some 6-7 million in conventional soybeans, according to USDA.
There were 2,146 farms that grew organic corn for grain on about 143,000 acres, yielding 15.7 million bushels. There were 1,336 farms growing organic soybeans on 98,000 acres. Yields topped 2.58 million bushels.