Carl Schmidt (center) talks about the organic transition process on Banner Farm (Image Credit: Maureen Casey)
Pennsylvania is ranked second in the nation for organic sales, led only by California. These strong sales are being driven by the demand for organic dairy, poultry, and eggs, all important sectors of Pennsylvania agriculture. Because of a severe shortage in the availability of domestically-produced organic feed grains to supply organic animal-production, the U.S. imports the majority of feed–grade corn and soybeans. The strong demand for organic crops and a price premium for organic corn and soybeans of two to three times the conventional price presents an opportunity for Pennsylvania farmers interested in transitioning their production to organic.
A group of about 30 farmers and ag professionals spent a couple hours at Doug and Trish Thomas’ Banner Farm near Watsontown, PA, to see and discuss the results of their transition to organic grain production. The twilight farm tour was organized by Penn State Extension educators Dave Hartman and Anna Busch. The Thomas’ bought the 119-acre farm in 2015, with the intention of farming it organically. Doug’s father, Carl Schmidt, a long-time organic grain farmer whose home farm is near Muncy, PA, advised the Thomases through the transition.
Attendees of Banner Farm twilight tour take a closer look at organic corn crop. (Image credit: Mary Barbercheck)
Organic production prohibits the use of virtually all synthetic inputs, e.g., fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, and transgenic crop varieties. The transition period is three years from adoption of production methods that are compliant with organic regulations. Additionally, the producer must maintain an Organic Systems Plan, which consists of a comprehensive record of all cropping activities, inputs, and yields; and submit to an annual inspection of the premises and records. More information on the recordkeeping and other requirements for certified organic production can be found at the USDA’s National Organic Program website.
The main goals for the transition of the Banner Farm were to grow a cash crop from the start and to keep production costs low. The soils on the farm are fairly heavy, so Carl didn’t want to plow. In the first year of the transition (2015), they no-till planted soybeans. There were a lot of weeds in that first soybean crop, but Carl felt that the first year was successful, even though yields were about 40 bu/ac and were sold conventionally. There is currently no price premium for crops in transition to organic, and farmers must be prepared for the risks presented by a possible reduction of yields while both the land and farming practices are going through the 3-year transition. Following harvest, they disked in 2 bu/ac of cereal rye, which they rolled and planted to soybeans in the spring of 2016. Doug fabricated a planter with roller-crimper units in front of the planter units so that they could roll down the cover crop and no-till plant in a single operation.
The spring of 2016 was very dry, and the thick mat of rolled cereal rye helped to suppress weeds in the soybeans. However, before rolling, the rye removed a lot of moisture from the soil. The resulting soybean population was good but the plants were small. Carl and Doug did an experiment by hand watering a section of a row of beans to see if moisture was the limiting factor, and the beans responded. That year the soybean yield was very low, about 25 bu/ac, which Carl attributed to drought. After harvest, poultry manure was applied and a mix of red clover and spelt was planted. The following spring, in 2017, was challenging because it was very wet. Carl and Doug were not able to disk in the red clover-spelt cover crop and plant corn until the second week of June because the ground was too wet. In 2017, they produced 118 bu/ac dry corn. Following corn, a spelt cover crop was planted. The regulations for certified organic production require crop rotation; therefore, if a producer wants to grow corn two years in a row, a winter cover crop must be grown following the first year of corn.
In 2018, they disked in the cover crop, applied poultry manure, and planted 111-day and 114-day corn at 30,000 seeds/ac on June 6. The corn was rotary hoed twice, and cultivated twice, resulting in a population of 27,000 plants/ac, which we observed at the twilight tour. Even though 2018 has been an extremely wet year, the corn looked green and healthy, with filled ears, and weed pressure was low. At harvest, the corn crop will be eligible for certification and marketing as organic if inspection is passed. Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) in Spring Mills, PA, will be the Banner Farm’s certifier.
Since the farm is surrounded by conventional farms that are also growing corn, there was a discussion among attendees about the possibility of GMO contamination. Carl thinks that because of the late planting, tasseling and silking dates of the corn, contamination by GMO pollen from neighboring farms will not be a problem. They documented the dates of planting, tasseling and silking in their production records in case any questions about protecting the organic integrity of the crop comes up during the certification inspection.
Asked if they would do anything differently, Doug and Carl replied that they would have liked to have used the first two years of the transition to grow cover crops to build the soil and reduce weeds, but felt that they couldn’t afford to not grow a cash crop. If the weather had cooperated they would have liked to have planted corn earlier. They were happy with cereal rye as a cover crop because it suppressed weeds. They would consider using small grains to diversify their rotation, but are concerned about marketability of the grains in a wet year that promotes fungal disease and the development of vomitoxin, and the current lack of local market options for organic small grains.
Carl and Doug’s plan moving forward is to no-till plant soybean into the residue left after the harvest of 2018 corn. Although they know that cover crops could benefit the soil, the delayed planting date and long season corn will not provide enough of a planting window to use winter cover crops this year.
Also attending the tour was Jonathan Zeiset, of Zeiset Ag Consulting in Millersburg, PA. Jonathan is a distributor for Agri-Dynamics products; and he discussed the importance of soil health for producing healthy crops, and the benefits of building soil carbon and foliar-feeding trace minerals to crops and soil. He also asked the people attending to think about the function of corn leaves as “solar collectors” to maximize carbon production in the plant that is translocated to the roots. The exudates from roots supports beneficial microbial life around the roots. Healthy soil contributes to healthy plants that are more tolerant to pests than are unhealthy ones. Jonathan made the important observation that he, like everyone else, was there to share information and learn from others.
Dave Hartman, Penn State Extension, shows a healthy corn plant while Jonathan Zeiset (right), Zeiset Ag Consulting, talks about soil health. (Image Credit: Anna Busch)