Farms R Us? Part 1


By Mary-Howell Martens (with Klaas’ help!), Lakeview Organic Grain
Originally posted on July 20, 2004

When our friend Sandy asked us in January to “franchise the design of our farm” onto his farm, that seemed like a crazy idea. After all, we fiercely independent farmers are accustomed to reinventing the wheel for every problem that comes along, rightly convinced that our farm and our problems are unique from all others. Franchising is for McDonalds, not for farmers like us!

However, Sandy is from the business world and he looks at problems and solutions very differently than most farmers do. Maybe there is something to this franchising idea—identifying a package of key factors that work on one farm and transplanting them reasonably intact to a new situation, leaving sufficient flexibility for appropriate adaptation. If nothing else, it helps us look at organic farming more as a holistic system with a definable set of interrelated pieces that must be managed.

Never ones to resist a challenge, we will attempt here to develop a franchise-ready model for an organic grain farm, knowing full well that some vital elements may be quite difficult to transplant. But if it means that toxic pesticides are eliminated from even a few more acres on this earth, then the exercise is worth doing.

Farm management

The choreography of work on an organic farm during the season is complex and can be very stressful, especially if the weather doesn’t cooperate for desired timing of operations. The ‘ideal’ is rarely achieved!

A successful farm manager must be able to ‘see’ both the details and the whole picture of what needs to be accomplished at all times and be equipped to quickly make well-reasoned and appropriate adjustments in operations and timing while staying calm under stress. They must think about not only what needs to be done but also why it is needed. The farm manager must be able to coordinate all the interrelated activities throughout the season as well as the people doing them. This type of person is certainly not unique to organic farms—we frequently see that the best conventional farm managers make the best organic farm managers if they are willing to apply the principles of organic farming to what they already know.

The successful farm manager must take a balanced ‘whole farm’ view of day-to-day activities, medium-range activities (within the week) and seasonal activities, providing stability, positive attitude and vision. They must project and plan input and machinery needs, making sure that the right amounts of seed, fertilizer, inoculant, wear parts, repair parts, wagons, etc., are in the right place at the right time and that required machinery is prepped and ready before it is needed. They must be able to prioritize and coordinate jobs efficiently and attentively, on time, with minimal downtime, and in the most effective order. They must also be able to maintain and analyze the records and plan/implement changes to make the farm more profitable, less labor-intensive and more humane for all associated with it.

If there are employees, the farm manager must facilitate and optimize personnel issues, monitoring output, providing fair and calm stability, and setting priorities. They must anticipate needed technical support, making sure all workers are supplied with inputs and materials when needed.

These jobs can be done by one extraordinary and exhaustingly overworked person, or they can be shared among the available people according to ability, interest and need. All the jobs are important. As Klaas regularly reminds me, the most important job on a farm is the one that is not getting done!

Soil management

The first step in organic soil management is to take representative soil samples from all fields and have them analyzed for macro and micronutrients, cation exchange capacity (CEC), and percent base saturation. [Cations are nutrients—Ca, Mg, K, Na—occurring in the soil as positively charged molecules; CEC is the capacity of organic matter to store cations in “exchange sites” and make them available to plants. Percent base saturation indicates what percentage of exchange sites are made up of which cations.] The results from these soil tests will guide you in choosing the right amendments needed to correct specific problems, but first you must familiarize yourself with those fertility amendment products allowed under organic standards, and with their anticipated effect.

Unfortunately, soil tests results are not absolute. Researchers at Rodale in the 1980s took one sample of soil, sent it off to 70 different labs and got 70 very different results. Indeed, the pH of the sample ranged from 4.7 to 6.9, with lime recommendations ranging from 0 to 7 tons per acre! Readings and recommendations for NPK and micronutrients were equally variable. It is not uncommon for labs to liberally recommend ‘insurance’ or excessive fertilizer that may not be necessary and may not be correlated with any crop-response data. You need to work with a lab that is familiar with organic farming and with your general geographic area, and then compare your results year to year from that lab rather than trying a different lab each year. It is also a good idea to calibrate any lab’s results to your own farm by taking a soil test from one of your best producing fields. This will give you an approximation of what a good soil test from that lab should look like and also give you a better idea of what range of results you will want to see for your other fields.

Calcium and magnesium play a critical role in weed control. Many of us in New York have found that on soils with a CEC above 8, 7:1 (percent base saturation) calcium: magnesium ratio will probably be optimal for weed control and crop plant growth. This is equivalent to approximately 11:1 or 12:1 Ca: Mg if measured in pounds or parts per million. This particular ratio appears to be a key factor regulating weed population size and strength. When magnesium levels are high relative to calcium levels, high weed populations and soil compaction are likely to be problems. Many prevalent weed species—such as foxtail and summer annual grasses—thrive in hard compacted soils that are often also low in calcium and high in magnesium. For this reason, weed control can often be improved by calcium amendments—such as gypsum (calcium sulfate)—that do not add extra magnesium (as do some Ca boosters, such as dolomitic limestone). However, if a soil is excessively high in calcium, other weed species may be favored. A correct balance between the two minerals is key.

It is important to interpret soil tests for the organic farming production system model. Many soil testing labs only recommend units of chemical fertilizer and therefore the rates are not always useful for organic farmers. It will usually be far too expensive to apply a recommended number of NPK units using typical low-analysis organic amendments (and it is completely unnecessary, since most organic amendments contain lots of nutrients that are slowly available but will not show up using the standard fertilizer-analysis tests). Many other native soil nutrients will become more available when a soil is limed. The nutrients were there all along; the lime did not supply them but facilitated change in the biology and pH of the soil that converted them to a more available chemical form.

Many people take their soil tests during the winter because it is more convenient and the fields are not covered with crops. However, the time of year that a soil test is pulled can make a significant difference. Under a SARE grant in 1999 and 2000, we conducted soil tests on six fields every six weeks to see if there were seasonal fluctuations in nutrient availability. Generally, most nutrients stayed fairly constant throughout the year, but there were major fluctuations in organic matter and phosphorus. This is hardly surprising, since phosphorus is so dependent on microbial activity. In some fields, a soil test taken in the winter showed low levels of phosphorus, while soil tests taken in the same field in late spring and summer showed high levels of phosphorus. Using the winter reading to plan soil amendments might very well have resulted in over-application of phosphorus.

When adding soil fertility amendments, even lime or gypsum, treat your soil gently—don’t forget that it is alive! If the recommendations call for more than 1 or 2 tons of lime, apply it over multiple years to allow the materials to react and move into the soil slowly. Otherwise, even good materials can have a negative effect on the soil by disrupting the microbial balance.

There’s much more to soil fertility than just going out and buying stuff. The real source of soil fertility and soil health is the microbial activity of the soil and the activity of the soil organic matter. Organic matter and a healthy diverse microbial population will provide important plant nutrients, boost the cycling of nutrients in the soil, improve soil structure and tilth, stimulate crop plant rooting, provide microbial competition to keep pathogens in check, darken the soil so it warms up earlier in the spring, and buffer the soil against drastic changes in chemical composition. Many conventionally farmed soils around here barely have 1 to 2 percent organic matter. We are aiming for at least 4 percent, and that takes time and intentional work. Including cover crops that produce lots of biomass (such as red clover), chopping straw from small grains back into the field, and incorporating composted vegetable matter and manure will all contribute to active, healthy organic matter. This organic matter feeds the microbes and cycles nutrients as it turns into humus.

Careful analysis of soil conditions, especially drainage, is also necessary. Adding tile drains, diversion ditches, and strip cropping can slow erosion, increasing both yields and the effectiveness of field operations. These proactive measures can pay for themselves many times over. Cost sharing funds often available through governmental programs for land improvement provide good incentive for such needed projects. Check with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices to see if you qualify for these programs in your county.

Crop management

Organic certification requires a diverse crop rotation with a variety of crop types. Crop rotation is also our defense against insects, diseases, weeds, and the best way to manage soil fertility and organic matter. Where conventional farm subsidy programs and broad-spectrum herbicides reward an ever decreasing number of crops on a farm, organic farming works best with a wide repertoire of crops. Indeed, it can be argued that there is rarely ‘bad’ land on an organic farm (though there may be land for which we have not yet found the appropriate crop). We need to use care in selecting the crops that will grow well and produce a high-quality product in our area; one that we will be able to sell at a profit.

In general, it is a good idea to alternate row crops and solid-planted crops, legumes and non-legumes, and soil-depleting and soil-enriching crops. Deep-shading and allelopathic crops can ‘treat’ particularly weedy areas. Cover crops can add valuable organic matter and nitrogen and reduce erosion, weed and pest problems, and nutrient loss. Remember that you will need to use organic untreated seed, unless it is not available in the quality, quantity and variety you require. Finding sufficient supplies of organic seed will take somewhat more effort until the seed supply develops.

In developing a multi-year crop rotation plan, it is useful to ask:

• Which crops are well-adapted to my soils and climate and will maintain and improve the long term productivity and health of my soil?
• Will my intended crop rotation control erosion, minimize pest damage and disease, break weed cycles and add organic matter to the soil?
• Will my intended whole-farm crop rotation produce a consistent and adequate income over multiple years by producing a variety of crops that have a reliable market and price?
• Will my intended crop rotation make effective use of my available resources—including labor, time and equipment?

Our basic crop rotation consists of:

(Year 1) field corn
(Year 2) soybeans or red kidney beans
(Year 3) spring small grain such as oats or barley, under seeded with medium red clover
(Year 4) winter grain such as wheat, spelt, triticale, rye, or barley underseeded with clover
(Year 5) field corn or processing vegetables

Sometimes winter small grains go in after the soybeans, and sometimes field peas or barley/pea/oats replace the spring small grain. The red clover supplies sufficient nitrogen for a good corn crop, the straw and red clover supply organic matter, and the alternation with row and sod crops allow for effective weeding and pest control. The addition of winter small grains to the rotation is also important to spreading out the workload—they are planted in late summer/early fall, when we are between harvests, and harvested in mid-summer, when we have just finished cultivating.

All crops have an optimal time when they should be planted. Once you get out of this optimal planting window, plant vigor and yields will suffer. In New York, barley needs to get in by the first week of May, oats should be planted by May 15, and corn should be all in the ground by June 7. In the most recent years, these optimal planting dates have been difficult to achieve due to inclement weather. However, if the ground isn’t fit or if the particular crop is outside its optimal window of when it should be planted, sometimes we simply are better off not planting it.

When we reach the end of the optimal planting window for a particular crop, ideally we should move on to the next one, even if all the acres we had planned are not yet planted. If the spring planting season ends and all the acres are still not planted, it will soon be August and time to start planting the winter small grains. We have found that when we focused exclusively on getting corn planted, regardless of how late it had gotten, we didn’t manage to get the soybeans planted during their optimal planting window, which in turn prevented us from planting sweet corn at its optimal time, then from getting the soybeans cultivated, etc. We would have been far better off calling it quits on corn when it got to be too late, keeping all the other crops and the weeding/cultivation on schedule.

Equipment management

Before ‘going organic,’ it is important to take a serious inventory of your equipment to identify and fill the critical gaps. We don’t need the most expensive new paint on the block, nor do we necessarily need to own everything, but we do need reliable access to certain essential pieces in good repair and adjustment.

For organic grain farmers, Public Enemy Number One is weeds. You will need appropriate types of equipment to prepare the soil in a way that can be cultivated and then do a good and timely job on the early and midseason weeding. We feel that, at the least, you will need a good plow and disc with a tractor large enough to pull them, a corn planter and grain drill, a coil tine and/or finger weeder for early season ‘blind cultivation,’ an easily adjusted cultivator and small cultivation tractor, and reliable access to a combine and wagons/trucks.

Keep a list of needed repairs and use rainy days to work down the list. Project your equipment needs and timing, and have equipment ready to go when needed. Avoid wasting valuable harvest weather repairing a worn combine or a rare dry day in the spring getting the planter ready. Far too many farmers in the Northeast failed to get their crops harvested last fall because they were waiting for the grain to dry to storage moisture. By the time they were able to harvest the grain this spring, field losses were astronomical. If they had been ready with a combine just as the corn and soybeans hit physiological maturity last fall and were prepared to dry the crop, the extra yield could have easily offset the drying costs.

Many farmers hire some operations as custom work. This works fine as long as the custom operator is willing to do the work at the right time. Custom combining, especially for corn and soybeans, presents special problems. Because so much of the conventional American corn and soybean crop is genetically modified, the custom combine is very likely to have been combining GMO crops just before coming into your organic field. Unless the combine is cleaned very thoroughly, there is a very good chance that your crop will be contaminated. If you hire custom combining, you will need to familiarize yourself with combine cleaning procedures (and be sure you do it before any of your organic crop is harvested).

You also have to be sure that the combine operator, either a hired one or yourself, is doing a careful job to maintain quality. More than one load of food-grade soybeans have been downgraded to feed grade because they were harvested too wet or handled too roughly, resulting in stained or damaged beans.

It is equally important to document the cleaning of combines, trucks, bins, and grain- handling equipment that’s used for both non-organic and organic product. Cleanout logs are often the only evidence you can show that demonstrate your organic grain was kept from being contaminated with conventional (particularly Roudup Ready) grains.

You will still need to arrange for wagons, trucks, storage facilities and markets to be ready whenever the custom operator gets to you. Because you aren’t necessarily the person scheduling the harvest, sometimes it is difficult to provide the transport equipment and delivery as soon as the combine arrives. If you intend to deliver your crop to the buyer right out of the field, make sure they have given you the go-ahead to deliver before you start loading the wagons! This is especially important if they are doing the drying.

The most critical factors in successful crop production—timing and observation—are the most difficult to transplant. These come with experience and attention, and through familiarity with the soil conditions, the plant characteristics, and the equipments’ abilities and quirks. It is essential to know when to time operations optimally, how to set the cultivator to match soil and weather conditions, the species and habits of weeds you are battling, the signs of physiological grain maturity, and what to do when things go wrong. This takes time and, optimally, working with someone with experience who can show you the smell, the look, the feel—what it all means—and can guide you through the complex decision-making ‘if/then’ scenarios.

GMO management

NOP standards clearly prohibit the use of genetically modified organisms in organic farming, and some buyers will reject any organic product that tests positive for genetically modified DNA. While it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep all GMO traces out of our crops, organic farmers must do their very best to actively implement practices that limit the risk.

Genetically engineered products slip onto organic farm via four main pathways:

1. Purchasing seed already contaminated with genetically modified DNA
2. Pollen drift from neighboring GMO fields
3. Accidental mixing with contaminated equipment
4. Using other agricultural products (such as inoculants) derived from GMOs or manufactured using GMOs

It is important to evaluate the perimeter of your farm to assess the potential risk from neighboring conventional GMO crops. Cross-pollinating crops that are upwind and uphill from organic crops of the same type (e.g., corn) present the greatest hazard for pollen drift contamination. Using organic seed is our best (though, unfortunately, not perfect) defense against contaminated seed. Any equipment that is hired or shared with conventional farmers presents a serious risk and must be thoroughly cleaned first. For more information on strategies to minimize GMO contamination, see: www.acresusa.com/toolbox/reprints/minimizecontamination_mar01.pdf.

In Part II of this series we’ll talk about sales and administrative issues, certification strategies and other resources.

Leave a Reply