Organic Grain Production an Appealing, Yet Challenging Farming Practice

February 27, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio - Organic foods are becoming the fastest growing segment of the food industry, driven in large part by health-conscious consumers and a sense of environmental responsibility.

The United States market for organic products has increased at least 20 percent within the past 10 years, and economists predict the trend to continue. As interest in organic products increases, so does the opportunities for farmers to raise organic foodstuffs, which not only include horticultural crops, but corn, soybeans, wheat and other small grains, as well.

Ohio farmers interested in transitioning their conventional grain fields to organic can attend one of two Ohio State University Extension organic grain production seminars on March 5. The program, conducted by the Ohio State Sustainable Agriculture Team and representatives from such organizations as Innovative Farmers of Ohio and Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Clark State Community College in Springfield, Ohio. A condensed version of the program will also be held at the John Hirzel Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Site on St. Rt. 582 near Bowling Green, Ohio. The cost of the program is $15 per person, which includes a meal and materials.

"On a national basis, there is definitely an interest and growth in organic production and economists looking at the big picture are predicting that this is not just a blip. It's here to stay," said Deborah Stinner, an Ohio State researcher who will present at the program.

Stinner will discuss university research on organic production and how a farmer can transition his conventional field to an organic one. "There has been a lot of focus on the transition process which is very difficult. We are very up front when we say that transitioning to organic is not for the faint of heart," emphasizes Stinner. "There is no standard prescription for us to say, 'do it this way and you'll make lots of money and have an easy time of it'." Organic production is defined as a farming practice that relies upon crop rotation, crop residues, composts and manures, legumes, mechanical cultivation and biological pest control to maintain soil fertility, supply nutrients and control insects, diseases and weeds and avoids the use of chemicals, fertilizers or growth regulators.

"Conventional land is accustomed to having a lot of external inputs," said Stinner. "When one switches to organic production, it forces that land to shift into biologically controlled aspects of crop fertility, nutrient, and weed interactions, and a lot of interesting changes can happen." By far, the biggest challenge for farmers in transitioning to organic production is effectively controlling weeds. In a recent Ohio State survey of organic producers, weeds ranked as the top productivity barrier in organic production, accounting for nearly half of all areas of concern.

"For many organic farmers the challenges with weed control are found in raising soybeans. Organically grown corn under weed stress seems to fair better," said Stinner, citing Ohio State organic corn research last year that yielded at least 120 bushels per acre in a drought year. "That's some good news, at least." An attractive premium price on organic products may lure farmers into raising organic crops, but Stinner recommends that farmers start small and take organic production in stride.

"Certainly, the price premiums are an attractant, but there's more to organic production than that. There's a commitment to the idea of organic production in combination with the benefits of the premiums that carry people through," said Stinner. "It's very important to know yourself and what you can tolerate. My advice would be to start small." A farmer must follow organic management guidelines for three years before his or her farm is certified and allowed to market crops as organic and receive the premium rates. "A grower is not going to be able to take these grains down to the local elevator. Marketing is a very important aspect of organic production," said Stinner. "The organic markets are there, but the grower needs to go out and find those markets and that takes a lot of time." Few premiums for transitional organic products exist currently in the U.S. After October 2002, all products sold as organic will be required to be U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) certified according to uniform National Organic Standards. Information on these federal standards will be presented at the workshops. The number of certified organic acres in Ohio has reached 30,000 with the largest organic farm topping out at over 1,000 acres. "The average organic farm is much smaller than that," said Stinner.

In 1996 organic products accounted for only about one percent of national food sales, and took in about $4 billion annually. In 2000, organic retail sales rose to $7.8 billion and accounted for two percent of at-home food sales. By comparison, conventional food-store sales take in over $400 billion a year.

For more information on the organic production program or to register, contact the Darke County Ohio State Extension office or Dennis Baker at (937) 548-5215.

Author(s): 
Candace Pollock
Source(s): 
Deb Stinner