2. Judging an organic book by its cover crop
Michigan Farm News Sept 30, 2007
By Paul W. Jackson
There's no incense burning in the tractor, no Allen Ginsberg poetry on the tip of Jon Findlay's tongue, and no prophesy about the perils of profit at Clearwater farms.
There's no weed killer, and, contrary to common public opinion, very few weeds to compete with organic spelt, soybeans, dry beans, snap beans, blue and yellow corn and other crops on the 1,500-acre Caro-area farm.
Not even migrant workers hoeing vast flat fields - organic and conventional - distract the organic philosophy here, which is grounded not on outdated perceptions of what an organic farmer should be, but on the dirtiest word in the lexicon of the anti-entrepreneurial spirit - profit.
The potential for profit - like it or not - has driven the pursuit of organic agriculture in the Thumb, and growers such as Findlay can give as well as they take from critics who still believe organic farming begins with an alternative lifestyle and weed-choked crops.
"When we first started, the neighbors would ask how our weeds were growing," Findlay said as he examined a field of snap beans with nary a weed in sight. "I'd say 'good. How's your $1.50 corn doing?'"
The counter jab likely had more impact before conventionally grown corn prices rose above $3, but it still makes an impression when Findlay and others like him are looking at $6.50 to $7 for new-crop corn. Not only that, he said, but market variations are not as hilly as they used to be.
"Organic crops are a more steady market," he said. "We don't have the ups and downs from year to year. Last year we got $5.50 to $5.75 for corn, and a premium of some kind has been there since we started. I have friends who grow conventionally who check the markets two to three times a day. I check it every now and then."
At those prices, Findlay said, he doesn't have to worry about pushing yields higher every year, although he knows from experience that his farm's productivity has increased since he and his father Mike, along with an uncle and grandfather Paul, started making the transition to organic in the mid-1990s.
"Our goal from the start was to be within 80 percent of conventional yields, and we're probably there for beans," he said. "We're probably about back where we were before we went organic. And our goal for corn yields is to get as much as we had before. But we're not trying to grow 200-bushel corn. If we can get 100-bushel corn and make more money, we'll do it."
While the pursuit of profit has been consistent for the Findlays - and all farmers - the methods used to achieve it changed dramatically the first time Jon heard his former high school shop teacher talk back in 1994 about the money he made on organic crops. Sugar beets were the Findlay's main crop then, but Jon decided to try 100 acres of soybeans for a starter.
"When we got $20 for 40-bushel soybeans, that convinced my grandfather," Jon said. "He was the most skeptical among us all, because he had seen what crops were like before chemicals, and sugar beets were his bread and butter. Sugar beets had made a lot of guys good money, so it was tough to get away from that, but we wanted to try. It was a huge learning curve. At the time, one other neighbor was starting, and there were no other organic farmers to talk about it with. So we learned from trial and error. The biggest challenges we had were not being able to apply (liquid 28 percent) nitrogen to the corn, and weed control."
The fear of out-of-control weeds was a major concern for farmers in the Caro area, said Dr. George Bird, a professor emeritus of nematology at Michigan State University and a board member of the Rodale institute, widely regarded as the nation's authority on organic farming.
"This may be just folklore by Bird, but I think it's true that when word got out locally that a few farms were going to transition to organic, it was not received well," he said. "The thought was that organic farms are weedy and would be a source of weed seed for the entire township. So the farmers making the transition made the decision to make weed control a top priority so they could not be criticized for that, and I believe they've succeeded in that idea."
As with many organic methods, weeds must be attacked on several fronts, Findlay said.
"With the beans, we try to work the ground two or three times before we plant, which kills a flush of weeds every time," he said. "Then we plant, and use a tickle-tine spike two or three days before they come up. Then we rotary hoe them when they come up. When they're up and growing, we'll cultivate them three times. All in all, there's much more labor involved."
For tough weeds, especially in corn, the Findlays use a flamer, in which, basically, propane torches mounted on a tractor are pulled through the rows, killing the weeds until the crop grows large enough to shade out its competition.
Fuel costs for the operation are worth the effort, Findlay said.
"Sure we use more fuel, but even with today's prices, all the extra cultivation is less than a dollar per acre for fuel, and the premium we get more than makes up for it."
The large-scale organic approach to nitrogen application also is more complicated than with conventional agriculture.
"We grow spelt instead of wheat," Findlay said, "and in the spring we seed red clover into the spelt ground. When it's two to three feet tall, we plow it down for a green manure source. We also use chicken manure from Herbrucks (an Ionia-area egg producer with organic production as part of the overall business). We try to follow all the practices outlined in the Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs), and so we try to incorporate the manure within 24 hours of spreading. Then we plow it under. It tends to stay in the root zone of this heavier ground all winter. We've tried spreading in the spring, but the results have not been as good as when we do it in the fall."
Soil tests every three years are just as important - if not more - to the organic grower as the conventional farmer, and so is marketing, which was one of the things holding Thumb-area farmers back from organics.
That changed in 1999, when organic farmers Mark and Steven Vollmar began cleaning, storing and drying organic spelt, soybeans, wheat and blue corn.
"We were already farming organically, but we couldn't take our crops to the elevator because it didn't segregate organic from conventional crops, so we built our own," Mark Vollmar said. "It quickly grew into a business."
During the first five years of operations, the Vollmar business, known as the Organic Bean and Grain Co., in Caro, more than doubled, Mark said. The company sells to local, national and international markets.
"Market demand is so strong that we expect to continue to grow," he said. "There's really no limit to how much we can expand. In the last two decades, sales of organic products in the United States have grown about 20 percent annually, and the only limiting factor to growth right now is the supply of organic acres."
While providing cleaning, drying and storage services for about 5,000 acres of organic soybeans; 2,000 acres of spelt, and 1,000 acres each of Thumb-grown blue corn and wheat, the Vollmar brothers started out like Findlay, looking for higher value for what they could grow.
"The combination of higher values and the financials are what attracted us at first, but we learned a lot, and now we eat organic and believe in organic farming," Mark said. "We would grow this way even if we weren't getting higher prices. We need those prices to keep the family farm alive, but we will never use chemicals again."
Traditional organic philosophy, however, is no longer the driving force behind most organic farming or organic product sales, Mark said.
"The majority of organic produce bought by the average American is because he wants to incorporate some organic food into his diet," he said. "That's what drives the market, not philosophy or lifestyle. Even farmers who aren't necessarily organic are looking at the biology of the soil, and the universities and Extension services are recognizing that the soil is a living organism, and we all need to do more than just supply the basic nutrients the crop needs and kill pests. We need to continually feed the soil for long-term sustainability."
Practices that promote that idea, like cover crops and practices similar to those the Findlays use, have helped Vollmar's farm survive adverse conditions.
"With cover cropping and other things that build organic matter into the soil, we see a little more drought resistance," Mark said. "We have healthier plants, and while they're still affected by pests, they have more resistance."
There are plenty of things organic farmers can do to fight pests, which the Vollmars learned after an aphid outbreak when they first started farming organically. But today, with natural oil sprays, proper crop rotations, and other things in the works, such as MSU research on predatory plantings that attract beneficial bugs, they have little problem with aphids. Findlay reports the same situation.
"We can stop aphids with Neem oil, which seems to be the best thing, but you need many applications," Findlay said. "It knocks them down, but they come back a week or two later. But I think what helped us most was beneficial insects. We have a lot of them, and never bought any."
Those beneficial insects may have been destroyed by sprays under the old ways the Findlays did things, but Jon isn't positive that conventional farmers spraying for aphids hasn't helped reduce problems in his crops as well.
Even if that is true, Findlay said he's never been tempted to go back to chemical farming, because the things he's tried have worked. Rye seeded in the fall and plowed down in the spring, for example, controls quack grass. That's important to know, he said, because the more manure that's put down, the more quack grass appears.
Findlay said all his trips across the field made him more aware of how weeds can rob yields.
"You can really see it when you go across a field and see a weed patch," he said.
Drought conditions, which robbed plenty of Michigan farmers of yields this year, are not as great a concern, however.
"I've heard that as the farm becomes organic, the soil becomes healthier, and that as organic matter builds up, the crop will be better than a conventional crop when both haven't had any rain. Look at this corn," Jon said during a tour of the acreage. "This has had only a half-inch of rain in more than two weeks, and the ears are huge. I don't know how or why it is that way, but it's bigger compared to a neighbor's corn on the same type soil who uses chemicals."
That observation is just one of the facts about organic agriculture, Bird said, that changed his way of thinking about organics, and should change the way all farmers think about chemical use.
"Regardless of their size or type, most farmers today know that to remain viable, they're going to have to change," he said. "So today, farmers are willing to listen to things they wouldn't have listened to 15 to 20 years ago. Soil biology has been neglected for 50 years now, and back then, people believed that the chemo-technology revolution would be the silver bullet for agriculture for all eternity. Now we know that's not true. We can raise crops, but when we degrade the soil continually, what's the threshold? I've seen sites where farmers gave up trying to farm because of soil degradation. And on the other hand, I challenge people who have high-quality soil to find a soybean nematode problem."
While Bird acknowledged that some organic philosophy has become close to "crossing the line into religion," he said he believes the pendulum will soon swing from a mechanistic philosophy to an ecological world view, which holds that resources are finite, and we may soon run out of replacements for things that have been exhausted or destroyed, such as chemicals that may become ineffective in controlling some immune pests. However, economic systems are such that organic farming cannot be thought of only as small, subsistence systems.
"Size in organics relates more to commodity type," Bird said. "If you're raising soybeans and spelt, you have to have the acres. If you are growing apples, you may need only 25 acres. So you can't compare organic vegetables and fruit with crops like that. And when you cross the border into dairy, livestock and poultry, then organics becomes small again. So the extremes will be as real as ever, and the middle-sized farmers might still be left to wonder how they can change to be economically viable and have a good quality of life."
If things are going to change the way Bird predicts, farmers are going to have to understand that old adages no longer apply.
"The old idea that organic agriculture cannot feed the world like conventional agriculture is no longer valid," he said. "It can."
3. Fall Field Goals (Sampling time for crop nutrients)
Published in Michigan Farm News Sept 30, 2007
Natalie Rector, Michigan State University Extension with organic info by Vicki Morrone, MSU
There’s more to fall than football and harvest. If you are planning to buy one
dime of fertilizer or spread one tank of manure, be sure soil and manure tests are taken to
direct your nutrient management plans.
Who better to take soil samples than the person who drove the harvest equipment.
They watched the grain go through the machine, they know where the good and bad spots
are. They know where the tree and stone pile are buried and where the back of the field
drops off to that good black dirt. Take this knowledge and soil test accordingly.
Soil samples should represent no more than 20 acres to reduce variability. Divide
fields by the soil types, which are often reflected in yield and crop performance. If the
back half of the field is darker soil and drops off to the woods, then sample this area
separate from the front half. If there is an eroded knoll that does not perform well, but
only represents a small area, do not take any probes in this area, as it will throw off the
sample by not being typical of the area. If the eroded knoll amounts to a large area, then
sample it separate.
Use your field knowledge to direct where to sample and when to divide samples.
If several small fields are one large field today, then sampling based on how the old fields
used to be may show differences. Soil maps can be helpful in determining soil changes,
especially on rental fields with less personal history.
Each soil sample should be made up of 15-20 individual probes. Sample the area
in a zigzag pattern, randomly reaching all the areas but avoiding the headlands. Dry them
on newspapers on the floor and then mix the dry soil for a representative sample.
If someone familiar with the farm jumped on an ATV, they could probably do
over 300 acres in a morning, maybe half the farm in a day. This ends up costing about 25
cents per acre! Now think about how much money is spent per acre on fertilizer. Is it
worth investing 25 cents per acre compared to what you’re planning to spend per acre on
For livestock producers, hauling manure should be considered the same as
planning where fertilizer would be best utilized. When manure nutrients are directed to a
field that doesn’t need them, and another field will require purchased fertilizer, there is a
missed opportunity to save on cash flow and recover some of the cost of hauling manure
down the road.
Manure sampling (This can be applied to a crop field 120 days prior to harvest for organic farms)
No sooner than the crops are off the field, the manure tanks begin rolling. Some
livestock producers only have to complete this task once or twice a year. In these
instances, the opportunity to pull a representative manure sample only comes along twice
a year as well.
Taking a manure sample at the time of mixing and hauling will be the most
representative of the nutrients that are going to the field. Combining a current manure
sample with an accurate calibration of the rate per acre will provide data that is not only
invaluable for your crop and fertilizer plan, but will also keep you in conformance with
the Right to Farm guidelines and prepare you for any additional requirements such as
comprehensive nutrient management plans (CNMP) for CAFO farms or NRCS
environmental quality incentive program (EQIP) funds and organic certification by USDA, NOP.. There is both a science and an art to taking a good manure sample. If a baseline
of manure values has not been achieved, sample each time the storage is emptied. Then
sample every couple years to keep a check on the nutrients. Remember, it is manure, and
varies with seasons, feed rations and water systems, but a trend should emerge.
For systems that are only emptied once a year, take a sample each year. Systems
that are uncovered will be more variable than under-barn concrete pits, so sample outside
storages more frequently.
Sampling liquid manure (This can be applied to a crop field 120 days prior to harvest for organic farms)
Sample manure that is in the manure tank and ready to go to the field. Either dip
into the opening on the top of the spreader or from the bottom unloading port. Semi-solid
manure scraped from the barn will be moderately mixed when loaded into the box
spreader. Again, sample back out of the spreader. Take several samples from several loads, mixing them together for a
After collecting 5-10 sub-samples, mix them and fill a plastic sample jar ¾ full,
leaving room for expansion during freezing.
If there is a noticeable change in consistency of the manure from the beginning
loads to later loads, take samples accordingly. Liquid manure in the beginning loads will
be different from thicker manure toward the bottom of the storage.
Mail samples, frozen, to the manure testing lab, and mail early in the week to
avoid samples sitting somewhere over a weekend.
Bedded pack manure can be sampled by using a pitchfork or shovel, taking 10-20
sub-samples from different depths. Mix these to obtain a composite sample. Two
composite samples may be a good idea, taking the average of the results.
Rate per acre leads to nutrients per acre
A good manure test is only valuable if the rate of manure application per acre is
accurate. Weigh a load of manure and then measure the square feet that one load covers
in a field. Divide this by 43,560 sq. ft. in an acre to see how much of an acre one load
covered. When weigh scales is not available, use a 5 gallon bucket, packed to similar
density of a manure spreader and weigh the bucket of manure. A five-gallon bucket is
approximately 2/3 of a cubic foot. So if you calculate the cubic feet of the manure
spreader the weight could be estimated.
Accurate calibration and manure tests will provide excellent data on the rate per
acre of nutrients.
Soil tests, manure sampling and calibration have been completed. The only thing
left is record keeping. For Right to Farm nuisance protection and organic certification, livestock producers need to be keeping records of manure applications. Information maintained should include the manure analysis, soil test reports, rates of manure applications for individual
fields previous crops grown and yield data. Weather data the day of applications is also
good to keep. Other useful items, especially for improving calibration and knowing the
nutrients per acre, include which manure storage the manure came from, how many loads
were hauled and how many acres were covered.
Fall is a great season in Michigan. Take time to enjoy a football game or two but
also be sure to update soil samples, manure tests and calibrate and record manure
Organic Vegetable and Crop Outreach Specialist
Michigan State University
C.S. Mott Sustainable Food Systems
303 Natural Resources Bldg.
East Lansing, MI 48824
For information on organic agriculture production please visit: http://www.MichiganOrganic.msu.edu/
P Please consider the environment before printing this email
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