Field Crop Fact Sheets:
Ask an Organic Specialist: Field Crop Answers
I’m transitioning to organic. When should I start looking for markets for my new organic production?
One of the most important—and most overlooked—steps in the process of transitioning is to plan ahead for a marketplace where you will be able to move your organic products. Because an outlet for your goods is such an important part of the financial health of your farm, you should make an extra effort to set yourself up for success long before you have organic goods to sell. If you’re coming up on your certification date and haven’t yet found a buyer, you risk losing the important price premiums that will help your organic farm thrive. Instead, plan ahead!
Begin conversations with grain elevators, creameries, co-ops, farmers’ market managers, wholesale buyers, or whoever helps you move your products long before you’re ready to sell. You may even want to begin these conversations before you begin transitioning to organic so that you can be certain the plans you’re making will be well received at a price point that works to support your production.
Depending on what you’re producing, the new “marketplace” may be similar to (or even the same as) your previous one—or it might be vastly different. An example of a marketplace that doesn’t require many changes in marketing might be transitioning from selling non-certified produce to wholesale accounts or at a farmers’ market. Producers making this sort of transition may find that the price point they can request improves with proof of certification, but little else has to be modified from previous relationships and sales methods. Certification may even increase your opportunity to expand into additional farmers’ markets or wholesale accounts by giving you a preferred ranking.
However, some marketplaces treat organic products completely different than they do non-organic. If you sell commodity crops to local co-ops or elevators, you may need to seek out new buyers in order to maintain the organic integrity and price point of your crops.
In that same vein, if you are a dairy producer, you may be surprised to learn that you’ll be signing a multiple-year contract to produce for a creamery purchasing organic milk instead of having your prices fluctuate frequently due to the marketplace demands. While it requires learning a new system, these contracts can be extremely valuable as you plan the future of your business and consider accessing credit for farm infrastructure. You may have to seek out new relationships if your current creamery does not deal in organic milk. Again, it is much better to get on a list and have a buyer expecting you than to learn too late that the creamery you’d hoped to work with will not be accepting new producers at the time you are ready to start selling organic product.
While finding a new buyer can be daunting, it’s also good to learn about the opportunities that are available to you. Because the relationships and structure of your sales may differ significantly from your previous experiences, it’s important to begin preparing for these changes well in advance. As you research the local landscape of organic marketing opportunities, you might learn that certain crops will not be well supported while others might offer an exceptionally good price. The more of this information you have at your fingertips before beginning your farm’s transition, the better prepared you can be with contracts and rotation plans that will allow you to be successful in your newly established organic enterprise.
Keep in mind that the more you can utilize the transition period to practice your organic production skills, organic seed varieties, and relationships with future buyers, the more likely you will be to experience success when your certification finally comes. Planning ahead and preparing for the future will help you find stable footing as you move into new mindsets for your production.
I am having my organic corn (or soybeans or small grains or hay) custom harvested. What should I do to protect the organic integrity of my crop?
When using a combine to harvest grains, soybeans or corn, the machine must be cleaned thoroughly between any non-organic crop and the organic crop. If the combine operator is working with another organic operator before harvesting your crop, you may not need to have the combine cleaned. You will need documentation that the last crop run through the combine was organic, and not a buffer strip, a transitional crop, or non-organic crop the other organic producer may have grown.
Cleaning a combine is labor-intensive and still may not remove all traces of a non-organic crop. Running the combine with all of the doors open is one way to shake out kernels and dust. Blowing out with compressed air and/or a shop vac is also an option. After either of these is done, you also must run the combine through a swath of your organic field, separating the first 30-60 feet or more of the crop that has been harvested. This harvest must be stored, used and/or sold as conventional. Keep a receipt or other documentation to show your organic inspector that this combine “purge” was either fed to your own non-organic livestock or sold as conventional. The distance you harvest for this combine “purge” depends on the size of the combine and the density of the crop. You should be able to justify to your inspector the amount of your purge. Typically it is 10-20 bushels.
Combine cleaning is done routinely by farmers who grow crops to sell as seed in order to maintain seed purity. Many custom operators know how many bushels they need to run through their combine to remove traces of the previous crop, especially if they combine small grains in mid-summer and then beans and corn. You must document who cleaned the combine, what they did and when. Some manufacturers may have information on how many bushels must be run through the combine to clean it out.
If the previous non-organic crop was Genetically Modified (GMO), even a trace of non-organic crop dust in your organic crop could result in a positive GMO test and rejection of your organic load if and when it is tested by the buyer. An ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure in this case.
If someone is custom harvesting your hay or swathing your small grains, make sure the equipment arrives at your organic field clean. The cutting and windrowing equipment is easy to inspect. If it is traveling any distance over the road it has most likely been shaken enough to remove any non-organic hay or straw. This is true for large round balers, as they are mostly self-cleaning. However, it is still your responsibility as the organic producer to verify and document that there is no residue of non-organic crop in or on the equipment before it is used to harvest your organic hay or straw. If a custom operator first harvests your own conventional hay, a buffer zone, or transitional hay, you will need to clean the equipment before using it on your organic crop.
Small- and large-square balers are more problematic since they typically retain a partial bale or two. You will need to run at least three small-square bales or one large bale of your own crop through the machine as a “purge,” and document that these were stored and sold or used as non-organic. Many large square balers have some sort of preservative that is injected into the large bale. The preservative container should be emptied of any prohibited substances before the baler is used to harvest your organic crop; note this in your records. If the product is a bacteria or other naturally occurring substance you should verify with your certification agency that it would be allowed on your organic bales. Ask your custom operator what type of preservatives might be used in the equipment, and check it with your certifier at least a week before the operator shows up to bale your hay.
Rented storage areas as well as any transportation vehicles also must be verified clean and free of previous crop residues or prohibited substances before being used for organic crops. Document that you verified they were clean before you used them. This documentation can be part of your field activity log or calendar, or you can use the various forms your certification agency may provide.
I shipped one load of organic corn, and it was rejected by my buyer as having GMO contamination and was then sold to a conventional buyer. What should I do for my next load?
Before signing a contract for purchase of your crop, or selling a crop on the spot market, it would be a good idea to find out what, if any, GMO testing is done and what level of GMO contamination would cause the load to be rejected by the buyer you are considering. You can also find out what level of GMO contamination your previous load had, and try to take some precautions next year when planting corn to lower your risk and level of contamination. You might try planting later than your neighbor to avoid cross pollination, increasing the size of your buffer strip, or choosing to grow corn where it is more isolated from neighboring GMO corn. Even though corn pollen will travel great distances, higher levels of contamination will occur when the non-GMO and GMO corns are grown in close proximity.
Typically, all organic crops sold for direct human consumption are tested for GMOs, sometimes numerous times in the process of cleaning and readying for sale. However, most livestock feeds are not tested for GMOs. In 2011, a report by the Office of Inspector General noted this lack of GMO testing of organic livestock feed, and encouraged the National Organic Program to require more testing of livestock feeds, especially those sold to organic dairy farmers. At this time, there is no specific direction from the NOP on GMO testing of organic livestock feeds.
It is unfortunate that the organic farmer bears the brunt of the weakness of GMO technology; that it is promiscuous and does not stay on the user’s side of the fence. Depending on the amount of GMO contamination, you may have the option of selling your crop as organic to another buyer with lower requirements, telling that buyer about the GMO contamination.
You must keep documentation that the seed planted during your transition meets these requirements as part of your application for organic certification. If you plant a corn seed treated with captan after two years of transitioning to organic, for instance, you must restart the 36-month clock on your transition, to the day you planted that seed on that field. If you are unsure if a seed treatment is allowed, ask MOSES, or the organic certification agency you are planning to use when you become certified for organic production.
If your operation is certified organic, you are required under the organic regulations to plant organic seed, unless you cannot find an “equivalent organically produced variety” in the form, quality or quantity that you want. For example, you may want organically approved clay-coated carrot seed for ease of planting, and it is not available on organic seed; or, you want 1000 pounds of bodacious sweet corn seed and you cannot find organic seed in that quantity; or, the germination rate for the organic barley you found is only 65%; or, you cannot find the specific variety of seed in an organic form that the buyer of your crop wants you to grow. In all of these cases, you can use non-organic seed. It cannot have prohibited seed treatments, as described above.
Note that the rule requires you to seek out an “equivalent” variety. If you are new to organic and are unsure whether the organic seed varieties are equivalent to the familiar non-organic varieties you are used to growing, you should trial out organic varieties with similar characteristics at the same time as planting your untreated non-organic seed, to see if you can find one to your liking. Higher price is NOT an acceptable reason to avoid planting organic seed.
Organic seed is an investment in our future as organic producers. Since organic seed is produced under organic management, and the seed breeders are specifically working to provide characteristics that organic crop producers need, it makes sense to purchase from these companies and support their efforts. For example, organic corn producers cannot plant in cold ground in the early spring, since their seed is not treated with fungicides. Therefore, they want a seed that will germinate quickly as well as canopy thick and early to help with weed control in their organic fields. Organic seed breeders work to have crops that respond well to natural, slower release forms of fertility inputs, whereas nonorganic corn seed breeders don’t do this.
I have some organic corn and hay to sell, but see the prices have dropped from last year. Why the change?
Prices for both organic and non-organic corn and hay are lower than in recent years because the supply is greater now, and the demand is lower. Weather was one factor behind the unusually high grain and forage prices in 2012 and 2013. Drought during the summer of 2012 caused a lot of crop failures and substantially reduced yields everywhere. Forage production suffered, too, causing many livestock farmers to dip into their stored feed supplies much earlier than normal. The unusually long and cold spring of 2013 only increased the shortage problem.
Demand rose for purchased feed because of these shortages, but also due to increased demand for organic dairy products. Most of the organic milk companies were expanding their new farm base during this same time period to meet consumer demand. These two factors created strong demand for a very limited supply of feed and drove prices up to historic highs late in 2012 and through the first half of 2013.
2013 saw a reversal in fortunes for both supply and demand. Despite the slow, cold start, organic grain and forage production was good to excellent in most areas of the country. Pasture was ample, so farmers were able to restock their hay and silage stores. 2013 also saw a softening of the organic dairy market. The downturn was not as bad as 2008-09, which saw quotas and flat sales, but sales did not meet budgeted increases and efforts were, and are still being made to reduce organic dairy production.
A year ago organic feed corn was $14.14; now it’s $10.25 to $12. The recent USDA forecast put non-organic corn at $3.90 per bushel in the coming crop year.
I am harvesting organic grain and want to make sure it retains quality in storage. What can I do to prevent insect infestations?
Many organic producers use diatomaceous earth, commonly called DE, to control insect infestations in organic grain storage. This fossilized remains of an ancient hard shell algae is used in many food-grade products, including as a filtration aid for liquids and in toothpaste. The fine powder kills a wide variety of insects or larvae by absorbing lipids from their exoskeletons’ waxy outer layer, causing them to dehydrate. Due to these characteristics, anyone handling this product should use a tight-fitting filter or respirator over their nose and mouth and goggles over their eyes to prevent health problems. Long sleeves, pants and gloves would be a good idea, too.
Typically, DE is scattered on the floor of the grain bin and periodically added to the grain as it is being loaded into the bin. Add 1 cup of DE to every couple of bushels or so of grain for good coverage. If you have a perforated floor in your bin with a fan, you can have the fan running on low as you load the bin to incorporate the DE into the first few feet. It is also a good idea to lift up the floor and clean underneath before loading it with this year’s crop.
If you can, run the grain through a spiral screen air cleaner before storage (pictured below). This will lessen the chaff, screenings, and insect load in your stored grain. It also dries grain better for higher quality long-term storage. Running your grain through the same cleaner before loading to your buyer would also be appreciated, since DE can be abrasive to their cleaning equipment. Shipping clean grain also means there will be less dockage from your payment due to screenings and foreign matter.
Make sure you leave head space at the top of the bin to allow for moisture to escape. If you are concerned about vomitoxin or other issues, test before you put it in the bin. The grain will not improve in quality when in storage, so knowing what you have at the start will help you make decisions on where to sell your crop and how long to store it.
I know I am supposed to plant organic seeds if I sell my crop production as organic. How do I accomplish this?
The National Organic Program (NOP) mandates the use of organic seed for crops that will be sold as organic unless you can show that you could not find the quality, quantity or equivalent variety of seed you wanted to plant. Under no circumstance can seeds treated with GMO nitrogen-fixing bacteria or non-approved synthetic fungicides or insecticides be used when you sell your crop in the marketplace as organic. This rule also applies to producers who sell less than $5,000 in organically labeled products, making them exempt from organic certification (but not from following organic standards). If prohibited materials are used on the seed, or a GMO seed is planted, the land cannot be used for organic production for three years.
More and more seed companies are developing organic seed varieties that function well in organic systems to meet the demand of the organic marketplace. By supporting organic seed suppliers, you encourage further research and development of organic seeds that compete well with weeds, grow vigorously with slow-release fertility inputs and are resistant to disease and pests. Also, certified organic seed would never have prohibited seed treatments.
An excellent resource for finding organic seed of all types is the website www.organicseedfinder.com. Field crops, vegetables, fruits, herbs and flower sources are all listed. This website is also helpful for finding seed suppliers that would be the most likely to carry organic seed varieties.
A broader list of organic seed suppliers is in the Upper Midwest Organic Resource Directory. The “Seed Suppliers” section lists not only suppliers of seed, but also farms that supply seed potatoes or grow crops for seed. The directory also is available in print. You may request a copy by calling the MOSES office at 715-778-5775.
If the specific variety of seed you want is not available, you are required to purchase organic seed of an equivalent variety. If you are unsure if the organic variety is similar or equivalent, consider purchasing some organic seed and trialing out new organic varieties to see if they do as well as the non-organic seed that you are used to growing. Remember, the NOP does not consider price to be a valid reason not to purchase organic seed.
If you plant untreated non-organic seed, you will need to document why your search for organic seed was unsuccessful—quantity, quality, and variety are all valid reasons for buying non-organic seed. For example, the organic seed only came in one-ounce packets and you wanted to purchase 20 pounds (quantity). Or, the organic seed germination rate was only 20%, and the non-organic seed had a germination rate of 95% (quality). Or, you wanted to grow an orange oxheart tomato, and could not find it from at least three sources that typically sell organic seed (variety). Searching at your local garden center which does not typically sell organic seed is not considered a viable organic seed search by most certification agencies. You should be trying to find organic seed from the many suppliers that offer it. Even a search on the Internet for organic seed varieties can be fruitful.
Organic seed can be in short supply. It is a good idea to start your organic seed searches in winter and not wait until late spring when they often are sold out.
I would like to purchase an older sprayer that had been used with prohibited synthetic materials. Can I do this and use this sprayer to apply products approved for organic production?
Yes, you can purchase and use this sprayer. However, you will need to perform some cleaning and refurbishment activities and document these before you may use it on organic land.
Most certifiers recommend a clear water rinse first. Completely fill the tank and spray it until empty on non-organic land. Second, fill the tank again with diluted household ammonia, such as one quart of ammonia per 125 gallons. Run this through the sprayer again on non-organic land. Perform another clear water rinse as above. If you continue to smell the residues of the prohibited chemicals, do another ammonia and clear water rinse again. Poly tanks are porous so you may need to repeat this procedure a few times.
Replace all rubber parts including hoses, washers, and nozzles with new ones, as these are very difficult to clean completely.
Many certifiers require that once you have converted this piece of equipment from non-organic to organic production, you can no longer use it for spraying prohibited materials. In other words, if you are sharing this piece of equipment with a non-organic farmer, or you manage split production on your own farm, you may need to dedicate this sprayer, once cleaned, to organic and not go back and forth between organic and non-organic use, even if you perform this cleaning activity each time. Check with your certification agency on its policy for sprayer use to see if it mandates dedication to organic.
Note that burning of crop residues, such as burning off residues either before planting or after harvest—a typical non-organic practice in some crops such as wheat, cotton, sugar cane, and rice—is not approved under organic regulations and may be subject to further restrictions under state or local laws that deal with impaired visibility and air quality.
Burning branches from pruning your fruit trees or brambles would also be allowed, since disposal of these items would prevent the possible spread of disease.
If you plan to use the ash from your burning as a soil amendment or in potting soil to provide potash or for pest control on vegetable crops, the ash cannot come from a material that was treated or combined with a prohibited substance. This means that synthetics not listed as “allowed” on the National List or a natural product listed as “prohibited” cannot be part of the vegetative matter being burned or mixed with it.
Section 205.203 (d) covers the use of ash. Pay attention to the specific annotations for limited use, such as copper.
Do not burn treated lumber, since toxic chemicals can be produced in the smoke and the ashes.
Resources & Research:
SARE shows how farmers are seeing multiple benefits from cover crops, including increased yields of corn and soybeans following the cover crop. The new report reveals other benefits farmers gain from planting cover crops, including increases in soil organic matter, reduced soil erosion and compaction, improved weed control, and the availability of “free” nitrogen through soil fixation by legumes. The report also shows rapid growth in the number of acres seeded to cover crops.
A one-day informational event for ag industry representatives, agency and extension staff, and other farm advisors on the latest developments with cover crops. The event took place April 2014 and posted online are all of the presentations.
Created as part of the USDA’s Organic Literacy Initiative to connect organic farmers, ranchers, and processors with the USDA resources available to them. Include information about organic requirements and best practices, and explain the certification process.
Cover crops in a crop rotation can provide a range of benefits to soils, crops, and water quality. They can control erosion, smother weeds, reduce soil moisture loss, and add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Nearly all survey respondents identified “soil health” as a key benefit of using cover crops.
Another benefit, cover crops can also slow climate change or reduce its impacts on crops. Cover crops increase capture of carbon from the air when they are used during the cash-crop dormant season. They add more carbon to the soil, where it can be stored, than cash crops alone.
University of Wisconsin-Madison research is helping farmers fine-tune irrigation to save water and the energy needed to pump it. An online tool called WISP 2012 makes it easier to make better decisions about when and how much to water. Growers enter the type of crop, soil type, and rainfall from the field. WISP 2012 uses that information, NRCS data on soil field capacity, and daily evapotranspiration rates to make a recommendation on when to irrigate.
An Ohio farmer strays from the norm on his farm by performing these three uncommon practices: planting off-season cover crops, not tilling, and adding wheat to the corn-soy rotation. Advantages to these practices include building up the soil health long-term, saving small amounts of moisture from evaporation and disrupting weed and pest patterns to cut down on herbicide and other agrichemical use.
Including Bi-Weekly National Organic Grain and Feedstuff and Weekly Feed and Seed Summary. From the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
The centralized database offers a way for organic growers to find reliable sources for organic seed. Seed vendors pay a fee to post on the site, which provides free access to growers. The site was created to make it easier to find certified organic seeds and to expand overall organic production. Created by the Organic Seed Alliance and the Association of Official Seed Certifying Agencies.
From the Organic Broadcaster:
Annual retail sales in the U.S. of products made from hemp top $580 million, yet U.S. farmers can’t access this market because it’s illegal to grow industrial hemp in this country. Read more.
Marketing Organic Grains covers a variety of topics, such as the importance of organic standards, as well as addressing the actual nuts and bolts of contracting organic grains. Read more.
Of the 20 million acres of cropland in Illinois, only 0.15 percent (41,000 acres) are certified organic (USDA 2014 Organic Agriculture Census). But, the trend toward organic is growing…. Read more.
My husband, Doug Alert, and I have been intrigued with the idea of no-till organic. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to grow crops with no herbicide and no tillage? Read more.
Farmers can grow a green manure crop between winter wheat harvest in July and corn planting the following May. Green manures are plants grown specifically…. Read more.
Finding good information about local small grains agronomy—how to produce the crop in your region—can be challenging, especially if you want to grow small grains organically. Read more.
The ancient wheats—einkorn, emmer, and spelt—are “trendy” right now thanks to demand by increasing numbers of consumers. Read more.
Multiyear crop rotations are a central tenet of organic crop production, and for good reason. Read more.
Through organic soil management practices, farmers foster a very important soil microbial and biochemical resource for successful biological control of potential pests affecting their crops or livestock. Read more.
The unlikely hobby of growing apricots in Minnesota may have led a research agronomist to a new way to control in-row weeds on organic farms: blasting them away. Read more.
Marvin Lynch, an organic dairy farmer from Cascade, Iowa, hosted a field day July 15, to share how he transitioned CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land into organic production. Read more.
Farmers, like professional gamblers, are used to taking risks. The weather typically is the biggest risk factor in farming. When genetically engineered crops entered the game…. Read more.
It has been known, at least since the 1950s, that popcorn cannot set seed if pollinated by yellow field corn. Read more.
Dow AgriScience is pushing for deregulation of its Enlist Duo™ program—herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans genetically engineered…. Read more.
The potential benefits of using cover crops are wide ranging and well documented. The potential benefits of using cover crop mixtures, however, have been less thoroughly explored. Read more.
Cereal rye and oilseed radish have been appearing in a growing number of fields around the country in the past few years. A standard practice for successful organic farmers…. Read more.
Rotary hoeing and in-row cultivation during the grain growing season help suppress weed populations. Read more.
Implementation of specific cover cropping strategies that cost-effectively capture benefits while minimizing challenges is easier said than done. Read more here.
Seasoned farmers Jonathan and Carolyn Olson started with a conventionally managed 300-acre farm and now manage more than 1,100 acres of certified organic land. Read more here.
“We want to implement pollinator conservation at the field-level scale.” Read more here.
Friends or foes: Farmers talk about their relationships with weeds
January | February 2014
Whether or not we like it, we all have relationships with those plants we call “weeds.” Read more here.
Flame weeding has received renewed interest for its potential in not only organic, but also conventional cropping systems…. Read more here.
Diversity is the foundation of any sustainable agriculture system, and cover crops are a great management tool for bringing diversity to the farm. Read more here.
Organic farmers know there is no silver bullet to address all crop and soil needs. But, what if you planted a crop that one year produced grain…. Read more here.
It’s hard to find a more enterprising, determined couple than Bryan and Theresa Kerkaert, who began crop farming five years ago. Read more here.
Begin with the end in mind! This popular saying, written about extensively in Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is especially pertinent…. Read more here.
Weeds are one of the major yield limit factors in both conventional and organic crop production systems. Read more here.