Organic Broadcaster

Tim Raile (right), his son, Michael, and Michael’s son look over one of the fields the family is transitioning to organic production. The Railes operate 8,500 acres that they are systematically switching to organic over the next five to six years.

Kansas farmer gradually transitions thousands of acres to organic

By Bailey Webster, MOSES

Tim Raile comes from a long line of innovative farmers. The Railes were German farmers from the 16th to 19th centuries, moving to Odessa, Russia in about 1800. To escape military service, then considered a death sentence, Gottleib Raile Sr. emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1885. Gottlieb Sr., Tim’s great-grandfather, put down roots in Northwest Kansas. The family farm has been passed down from father to son for four generations.

Today, Tim Raile and his son, Michael, operate the farm. Tim’s wife, Robyn, manages the farm’s accounting, and Michael’s wife, Ashley, also offers support. Tim’s daughter, Jessica, and her husband, Geiler, have also been instrumental in developing the farm’s website and business plan.

Tim and Michael operate 8,500 acres in St. Francis, Kansas, and just across the border in Colorado. About one-third of that acreage is land they own; the rest they rent from other landowners, many of whom no longer live in the area. The farm is located in a semiarid climate, where average annual rainfall is 14-15 inches. By contrast, the average annual rainfall for most of Wisconsin is upwards of 30 inches. Dryland farming techniques, the primary focus of which is moisture preservation, are practiced throughout the region.

Challenges of Dryland Farming
The lack of precipitation in semiarid regions presents unique challenges to farmers, particularly organic farmers. The first pioneers to settle the Great Plains in the late 1800s were met with an unusually wet period, which led to a complete misunderstanding of the ecology of the area. A popular phrase among real estate agents at the time was “rain follows the plow.” Decades of continuous wheat production and overgrazing, coupled with severe drought, led to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

As a result, the practice of fallowing was developed as a method of moisture retention. In a fallow period, no crop is grown for a year, and the land is tilled 6-7 times to keep weeds from pulling moisture out of the ground. In a wheat/fallow rotation, winter wheat is planted in October and harvested the following July. During the fallow rotation, the land is tilled in August and September, and then again in the spring, and through the summer as needed. By October, little residue is left and winter wheat can be planted again, benefitting from the moisture kept in the soil during the fallow period.

An obvious drawback of fallowing is that the soil is bare for a year at a time. Although the preservation of moisture in the soil has decreased erosion problems significantly since the Dust Bowl days, wind and water erosion are still issues with fallowing. The concept of no-till was developed in the 1940s to address erosion issues, and began to gain traction with the advent of chemical herbicides after World War II. No-till began to emerge as a mainstream farming method in the mid-90s, gaining traction in the early 2000s. Few farmers are completely no-till; most farmers use a version of minimum-tillage to varying degrees.

In a no-till system, the previous season’s crop is killed with an herbicide and the next crop is drilled into the residue. The soil is covered at all times, which not only prevents erosion but also prevents evaporation of rainfall and increases water infiltration into the soil.

From No-Till to Organic
Tim considers himself an agroecologist—one who “views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices.” He speaks with pride of his family’s long history of curiosity and innovation in farming, adding that he has always been intrigued by organic farming. A lack of understanding of national organic standards coupled with prohibitive financial hurdles have kept Tim from transitioning Raile Farms to organic—until now.

Since joining his father on the farm in 1980, Tim had been growing a corn/winter wheat/fallow rotation in a conventional no-till system. Although no-till solves many of the problems brought about by continuous wheat farming leading up to the Dust Bowl, it is hugely dependent on chemical herbicides to kill the weeds before drilling in the next crop. Frustrated by the problems inherent in a no-till system, and finding the farm to be in a financial position to do so, Tim has begun the process of transitioning his land to certified organic production.

Reflecting on his decision to transition the farm to organic, Tim recalled a “perfect storm” of circumstances that tipped the scale. Seeking education on organic practices, he learned about NOP standards, realizing that there are more inputs available to organic farmers than he had previously thought. Herbicide-resistant weeds were becoming an increasing problem in his conventional no-till system.

Most importantly, his son’s young family joined the farming operation, causing Tim to seriously question the safety of the chemicals he was handling for his two grandsons, Cole and Brooks. “In 2015, it became apparent no-till farming was not a sustainable practice on our farm,” he said. “I was talking to my chemical rep more than my wife! It was time to become an agroecologist.”

Transitioning Nitty-Gritty
Because of the enormity of the task, Tim and Michael will be transitioning the farm to organic systematically over the next five to six years. This July they will harvest their first acres of certified organic wheat. A little over a third of their acreage now is certified transitional, which is not translating into the price premium Tim was hoping for.

“That has been the biggest disappointment about this process,” he said. He had been working with a broker at a large mill in Colorado to secure a transitional price for his crop, but gave up on that after several phone calls to the mill went unreturned. The lack of a liquid market for transitional crops makes it nearly impossible to secure a higher price for crops during the already vulnerable transition period. If the deal had gone through, “I could have transitioned to organic in half the time,” he added.

Currently, conventional wheat sells for about $3/bushel, whereas organic wheat goes for approximately $12/bushel. The organic price premium for wheat is consistently three to four times higher than the price for conventional wheat. During the 3-year transition period, there is often a decrease in yield as the farmer learns a new system of farming and controlling weeds. As a result, the transition period before becoming certified organic can cause economic stress, especially for such a large farm. Tim was originally told that he could get a transitional price premium of $6-$8/bushel, which would have significantly eased that economic burden during his farm’s transition period.

Since beginning to farm in the 1980s, Tim has increased the diversity of his rotation significantly. Instead of the original corn/wheat/fallow rotation, he has incorporated a wheat/corn/sunflower/milo (grain sorghum)/fallow rotation into his no-till system. Transitioning to organic will mean returning to a simpler wheat/fallow rotation, but Tim is already experimenting with the introduction of yellow peas into that rotation. Yellow peas are a dual-purpose food/cover crop that is growing in popularity in semiarid regions. Most cover crops are challenging in a semiarid climate because of their water requirements, and yellow peas have required some seed adaptation to be used in such regions.

Ancient Grains
Both Tim and his wife, Robyn, have experienced inflammation-related health issues. Instead of looking to medication, they have chosen to address these issues with nutrition. Robyn discovered that gluten causes an arthritic reaction in her joints. As a result, the couple has converted to a mostly gluten-free diet. Tim acknowledges that sounds a little strange, “coming from a wheat farmer.” Their personal experimentation with nutrition has led Tim to an interest in cultivating ancient grains, i.e., grains that have not been subjected to the rigors of modern selective breeding.

Tim and Robyn Raile are proud of their farm’s heritage and its new organic production system.

Einkorn is the original cultivated wheat variety, dating to ca. 8500 BC. It contains a different form of gluten than modern wheat varieties, which is easier to digest for many gluten-sensitive individuals. It also contains nearly twice as much protein as modern wheat. Robyn has experimented with Einkorn flour in baked goods, and has not had the same negative reaction that she has had to regular flour. Intrigued, Tim was able to track down some Einkorn seeds, and will be trialing them this year.

There are a number of challenges unique to ancient grains. For example, Einkorn yields much less than modern wheat, as it has not been bred aggressively for yield. It is also a tall variety of wheat, and lodging makes harvest difficult. Modern wheat has been bred to be a dwarf variety, eliminating that problem. Weed control is an issue in ancient grains due to lack of uniformity. Additionally, harvest requires an extra operation – Einkorn has a hull that is not removed in the threshing process, and so must be put through a de-huller. It is difficult to source seed for ancient grains, particularly in quantity. They are often only available in very small amounts from seed banks, and so it takes several seasons just to build up a seed stock.

In spite of the challenges, Tim remains committed to experimenting with ancient grains. This year he trialed spelt, and will keep the harvest as seed stock for next year. He is also interested in trialing farro and kamut, other ancient wheat varieties. He is also interested in developing mainstream markets for his ancient grains.

Influencing Others
Tim calls the landowners he rents from “land partners,” and plans to use the success of transitioning his own land to organic to “work with and encourage our land partners to do the same.” He explained his personal farming philosophy this way: “If you are not moving forward and making changes in your farming operation, you are moving backwards; there is no neutral in farming. We farm by our motto, ‘Challenging the Conventional – Seeking New Ideas in the Pursuit of Better.’”

Tim has had mixed reactions from neighbors to his decision to transition to organic. Most are indifferent, some have shown curiosity, and a few have had negative responses. His voice is optimistic as he explains that the reaction depends on the personality of the person, their tendency to think progressively or regressively, and whether they feel threatened by organics. He is quick to say that most of his neighbors are very careful about chemical drift near his fields. It is clear that he will be a patient and quiet role model to other farmers in his area.

Promise of Organic
Tim is enthusiastic about the transition he’s making to organic production. “What excites me most about organic agriculture is the prospect of growing clean, healthy, high quality crops naturally, instead of growing crops strictly for yield as in the past,” he explained. He is proud to be the fourth generation on his family’s farm, and hopes that one or more of his three grandchildren may come to be the sixth generation to carry on the family tradition.

Bailey Webster is the Events Coordinator for MOSES, and an organic vegetable farmer.


From the May | June 2017 Issue

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