Organic Broadcaster

Small grains can be entry point to organic

By Nick Ohde, Practical Farmers of Iowa

If you want to grow corn and soybeans, abundant resources are out there to help you. Extension agents, seed sales reps, and co-op agronomists are all readily available to draw on decades of university and industry research and development to make recommendations.

Growing small grains is a different story. In parts of the country where small grains production is common, there are resources; Kansas has lots of good information about growing wheat, for example. But 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.

Paul Mugge, an organic farmer from northwest Iowa, has turned this lack of information into his own opportunity to learn, and he’s willing to share the knowledge he has gained. He has tried growing about every grain crop that can be grown in his area.

Tried to grow is right,” Mugge laughed. He has grown barley, oats, wheat, flax, canola, triticale, even grain amaranth, and has run into about every problem under the sun. But he has learned a lot from that process.

“Growing small grains gets you started thinking about the whole system, the whole rotation—and that’s pretty important for organic, much more so than for conventional,” he explained. “Each of them has its problems,” he added, referring to various issues such as weed pressure, grain quality, and marketing troubles he has run into over the years with various small grains crops.

Currently, Mugge’s go-to crop is winter triticale, which he grows for seed for Albert Lea Seed House in Minnesota. He likes growing the crop because it helps with weed management.

“Winter annuals [like winter triticale] will screw up the cycle of summer annual weeds,” he explained. “Anything you can do to change things up will help you. You don’t want to let any one weed get a foothold.”

When farmers grow small grains, they learn a lot about the ecology and the agronomy of different crops. Seeing how cool season crops like oats can out-compete problematic weeds gives farmers a hands-on understanding of how different plants grow, Mugge said. And, that ecological and agronomic knowledge is precisely the knowledge that’s important for being a successful organic producer, he added.

“You have to understand weed ecology and crop ecology when growing organic,” Mugge emphasized. “In organic production, you don’t have the biochemical crutches. When growing conventional corn and soybeans, you don’t have to think about ecology. You don’t have to think about nearly as many factors. You just do what the fertilizer and chemical dealer tells you.”

For farmers who are transitioning to organic, weed management can be a scary prospect. Not having a pesticide safety net can be intimidating. But when it comes to weeds, growing small grains crops allows farmers more opportunities to “know the enemy.” Understanding the life cycle of weeds helps farmers fight back with “many little hammers”—tillage, cultivation, timing of planting, cover crops, and other practices.

Much of this knowledge was once more widespread in the Midwest. The most basic example of exploiting the life cycle of weeds is the practice of interseeding clover or alfalfa with oats. Oats, once grown on millions of acres in the Upper Midwest, are seeded as early as possible in the spring, and grow quicker than most weeds. While the green manure or hay crop is growing, the oats shade out later-germinating summer annual weeds. This is just one example of how ecological knowledge can help reduce or eliminate herbicide use.

Mugge started transitioning to organic in 1998, but for him, it had been a long process, one that was helped along by his participation in Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). He joined the organization in 1989, a few years after it was founded, and quickly became a leader, conducting on-farm research on ridge-tilling, late spring nitrate testing, and reducing herbicide use through banded application. Through trial and error, he said he gradually got the hang of farming without chemicals, and by the late 1990s, he was ready to transition.

For Mugge, protecting the environment and conserving natural resources were the main reason to go organic, but since then, he has been able to make a better living on fewer acres, which is very important to him.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” he added. “If I can make a good living on 300 acres, and my neighbor needs 3,000 acres, what’s better for our small towns, our churches and schools?”
The values of community, collaboration, and quality on-farm investigation have been some of the big reasons Mugge has been so involved with PFI over the years.

“There’s a mindset of helping other farmers, sharing knowledge, and setting up research based on statistics so that it actually means something at the end of the day,” he explained. “One of the greatest things about PFI is the collaboration,” he said, mentioning the various collaborations between PFI and other institutions, such as Iowa State University Extension, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. “This has been modeled throughout the country many times,” he said. “PFI has established that there is a place for on-farm research. There’s a place for university and lab research, but there’s a place for on-farm research, too.”

Since 1987 when the PFI Cooperators’ Program began, more than 240 different farmers have conducted more than 1,100 research trials on their farms. Results from this research are shared through research reports, the PFI quarterly newsletter, in various agriculture magazines, at PFI and MOSES field days and workshops, and at annual conferences and the annual PFI Cooperators’ Meeting. Knowledge from these research projects has influenced both farmers and university researchers to tweak their designs to better fit farmers’ needs — and have even been the foundation for hypotheses that ultimately led to university research projects.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Practical Farmers of Iowa. The group celebrated the anniversary last month at a field day at Rosmann Family Farms near Harlan. For more information regarding on-farm research, field days, and the 30th anniversary, see practicalfarmers.org.

Nick Ohde is Research and Program Assistant with Practical Farmers of Iowa. He welcomes farmers’ emails at nick@practicalfarmers.org.

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