COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The demand for organic products, including grains, is growing, but inadequate information on variety performance may be one factor slowing growers from making the leap into organic corn production. A new study, led by Ohio State University, Iowa State University, and the University of Wisconsin, may help pick up the pace.
"The demand for organic food products has increased significantly over the last couple of years, over 20 percent in 2006," said Peter Thomison, an Ohio State University Extension agronomist. "When we looked at what was going on with production, we wanted to know what the challenges were that are limiting adoption of organic corn, and one that we were hearing from producers was the lack of information on hybrids best suited for organic production."
In response to that, Thomison, co-investigator Deborah Stinner (director of Ohio State's Organic Food and Farming Education and Research Program), and colleagues in Iowa and Wisconsin and the Organic Crop Improvement Association-Research and Education, launched organic corn hybrid performance trials to compare the performance of organic corn hybrids, open-pollinated varieties and conventionally produced corn hybrids (untreated seed). The two-year study, which began last year, is being funded by a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant and is supported by the OCIA.
Researchers analyzed the performance of nearly two dozen organic corn hybrids from seven seed companies at three locations in each state, focusing on such characteristics as grain quality, seed germination and yield potential. Results conducted in Ohio can be found by logging on to http://agcrops.osu.edu/corn.
The multi-state performance trials, which will continue this year, were conducted in response to a 2006 OCIA survey of OCIA members in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin on their current organic management practices.
"Many organic grain farmers are seeking information and knowledge to help them identify organic hybrids and varieties that perform best under varying environmental conditions," said Thomison, who also holds an Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center appointment. "This is becoming increasingly important as demand for organic corn increases locally, nationally and internationally, and as the number of organic farmers increase."
While organic farming in fruit and vegetable production is taking off, field crop organic production is moving at a much slower pace. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, organic corn production only comprises about 0.2 percent of U.S. corn acreage.
Thomison said that farmers face a variety of challenges with organic production. The practice is defined as crop production using little or no off-farm inputs and recognizes "management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony," according to the USDA. And there is a list of guidelines that must also be met for certification.
"You can't just jump into the organic corn production. Growers who go into organic corn production have to go through three years of transition," said Thomison. "During this period farmers may not be obtaining certain benefits of traditional corn production and they are not getting the premiums from organic corn production."
Organic producers should also use organically produced seed. However, such seed of particular hybrids may be difficult or impossible to acquire. As an alternative, Thomison said that many growers are using untreated seed from conventional sources. According to the OCIA survey, of the 85 hybrids planted, one-third were untreated conventionally produced hybrids. The trick in using conventional seed, however, is to keep the seed from contamination, and increasing popularity of transgenic corn production is posing a challenge for growers interested in organic corn production.
"Probably more than half of Ohio's corn acreage this year will be planted to transgenic hybrids (with Bt and herbicide resistance). Organic growers can't use transgenics, but the burden falls on those growers to maintain GMO-free corn. If the corn grain contains transgenic grain exceeding a specified level set by organic end users, the organic growers will lose their premium status," said Thomison.
Some growers are interested in open-pollinated corn to avoid possible transgenic contamination and maintain their own seed supply, said Thomison. However, open-pollinated varieties often yield 50-80 bushels less than conventional corn hybrids.
"They may take a hit on yields with open-pollinated varieties, but the upswing is that open-pollinated varieties have slightly higher protein and oil content than conventional hybrids. So it's a trade-off," said Thomison.
By far the No. 1 challenge organic producers face is weed control. Over half of the OCIA survey respondents indicated that effective weed control was their major concern in organic corn production.
Thomison said that part of the performance trials included hand weeding to determine how much yield was lost to weeds and cultivation.
"With good weed control, many organic growers could probably get the same yields with an organic hybrid as they could with a conventionally produced hybrid seed," said Thomison.
Adequate fertility is also a major issue with organic production. "Relying on soybeans in the crop rotation is not good enough. Using composted manure or a cover crop is needed for good fertility," said Thomison.
In the OCIA survey, 68 percent of the respondents indicated that corn was planted following red clover, alfalfa, hay/pasture or some other unspecified cover crop. Seventy-two percent of the respondents used some form of manure to maintain soil fertility.
Despite the myriad of challenges in a production practice that is labor intensive and has higher up-front establishment costs, organic production is attractive because of the premiums. Thomison said that growers can make anywhere from $4 to $10 more per bushel per acre than conventional corn production.
Thomison recommends that growers who are interested in organic corn production use evaluations like the performance trials as a starting point.
"In our organic trials, there was somewhat more variability, more weed pressure and unevenness than in a conventional hybrid trial where herbicides are used, but there were hybrids that were consistently at the top at each location. It's one reason why growers should consider the results of these trials," said Thomison. "Growers could lose a lot of money right at the beginning of the season if they plant the wrong hybrid."
Thomison said that growers must also realize that organic corn production is on a different scale than conventional corn production, with many fields only averaging 60-65 acres. In addition, organic hybrids mature earlier and are harvested later in the season. Organic corn is also just one part of an organic grain farming system that typically includes organic soybeans, a small grain and a forage or cover crop.
The U.S. government is doing its part to boost interest in organic production. In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress has outlined a proposal to provide transition payments to aid producers through the three-year transition period and to become better established in organic farming.