OCONOMOWOC — Total U.S. organic sales topped the $50 billion mark in 2018, with organic corn averaging $10 per bushel and organic soybeans averaging $18.50 per bushel. The organic market continues to grow too, with demand outpacing domestic supply, providing opportunities for Wisconsin’s grain farmers looking to diversify.
“There are still huge opportunities in organic right now,” said Erin Silva, a UW-Madison assistant professor of plant pathology, UW-Extension specialist in organic agriculture and OGRAIN program leader.
Silva was on hand during an Organic Grain Resource and Information Network event on June 12, representing OGRAIN and promoting the free resources the organization can provide to farmers interested in adding grain into their crop rotations. She encouraged the 60 or so attendees to visit the OGRAIN website if they are curious and to also join their email ListServ to expand their network.
While organic farmers must use a different set of production strategies and undergo the organic certification process, farmers of all scales are finding success through transition, with many ideas exchanged at the event, from increased soil health to the creation of unique markets.
“It’s not an ‘all-or-nothing’ proposition either,” Silva said. “Farmers are finding success transitioning a portion of their acres to organic while maintaining other conventional acres as well.”
“Even if you’re not certified organic, you can still incorporate organic practices into your conventional system,” added Harriet Behar, OGRAIN outreach specialist. “There’s a lot to learn about biology, tillage and more in these systems. And they can be applied in a small way.”
The June 12 field day was held at the Mapleton Community Center, with fields undergoing organic transition located just across the road from the center. Although rain had passed through that morning, attendees had the opportunity to walk in the fields where Sandy Syburg of Purple Cow Organics has been working with an area farmer to explore the use of crop rotations with legumes, manure and other organic-approved fertility inputs to improve soil fertility and crop yields within an organic production system.
While the field experiments weren’t initially designed to include an organic transition, the goals outlined by Syburg fit easily into a plan. Through the experiment, he wanted to increase organic matter by 1 percent; improve penetrometer readings from less than 2 inches to unrestricted; improve field capacity for water holding by 15,000 to 20,000 gallons per acre; reduce fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide inputs; and repair and restore two erosion-damaged areas back to areas of crop production.
Using organic methods has allowed him to build soil health in those fields; he has also found that many of the goals impact each other, using the example of how increasing organic matter has led to an improvement in water infiltration.
“If we want to get community members, stakeholders, organic and conventional farmers behind one common goal, soil health is that,” he said.
Along with Syburg, other experts presented at the event, including Gary Zimmer, founder and chief visionary officer of Midwestern BioAg; Matt Leavitt, an organic agronomist with Albert Lea Seed; Clyde Morter, a farm equipment representative with Farm Power Implements; Mike Reiber of Dancing Goat Distillery; and John Wepking of Meadowlark Organics. Topics included creating and measuring soil health, importance of seed diversity, tools for organic weed management and making markets for crops.
The event also brought attention to a new OGRAIN tool currently being finalized: the OGRAIN Organic Grain Compass. This free, downloadable spreadsheet can help farmers answer questions about whether it’s profitable to transition from conventional to organic, providing a way for them to compare 10 years of crop rotations, yield estimates and prices, and costs of production by calculating the economics of organic.
“It’s designed to explore looking forward through making different crop decisions,” Behar said. “It is fabulous, user friendly and flexible when changing little things that affect the bottom line.”
The compass tool, along with a “Turning Grain into Dough” publication, will be available July 15 at https://ograin.cals.wisc.edu/resources/ograin-compass.
Additional field days will be hosted on commercial organic farms and at the UW-Madison Arlington Agricultural Research Station this summer. A full list of field day dates, topics and speakers can be found at www.ograin.cals.wisc.edu/events/field-days.