LANCASTER, Pa. — “We are constantly looking for new organic (soybean) growers,” said Boyd Station’s Spencer Miller. “We would like to buy more organic grain from Pennsylvania.”
He and several other panelists shared tips and challenges about farming organic grain in the state during a Feb. 7 session at the sustainable agriculture conference.
Panel moderator Kristy Borrelli, from Penn State Extension, emphasized the need for certified organic grain in the state’s organic poultry industry. In 2016, Pennsylvania ranked second after California for organic production. Much of that, Borrelli said, was the $325 million worth of organic broiler chickens and $120.4 million in organic eggs produced in Pennsylvania.
But “we still import a (majority) of organic grain — though it often has fraud and integrity issues,” she added.
Penn State Extension’s John Boney said he is working to help bring organic grain to Pennsylvania. He analyzes its nutritional aspects for the poultry industry as well as the current economics of growing local grain versus importing it.
Boyd Station LLC has witnessed the boom in demand. The company is a farm and commodity soybean processing and distribution center located in Danville, Northumberland County. It markets livestock feed for both conventional and certified organic poultry and dairy operations. In 2015, it opened a separate processing facility dedicated solely to certified organic grain.
Spencer Miller is the organic grain and oilseeds manager there, and said they have to import up to 75 percent of their organic soybeans and 50 percent of the organic corn from European and other countries. In addition, they truck and ship organic grain from farmers all over the U.S. — from New York to Alabama to Nebraska, he said.
Their supplying farms range from small to very large. One grower, an organic grain operation in the Midwest, farms on 2,300 acres, and he said that operation supports about a dozen families. But he also buys organic grain from 50-, 100- and 200- acre operations. The price paid for organic grain is much higher than for conventional.
Panelist and farmer Carl Schmidt, from Muncy, explained how he got into organic grain production decades ago. He started out with conventional corn. Then, he said, “you heard little bits and pieces about organic.” But it was when Organic Valley moved into his area that some farmers wanted organic grain. So Schmidt offered to grow organic grain for them.
“The organic egg market really took off,” Schmidt said. “Chickens go through a lot of corn. ... People started coming to me.”
He recalled attending herbicide spray workshops when he was still farming conventionally.
“I always felt like they told farmers ‘you can’t farm without us.’ Maybe I’m just belligerent, but I didn’t like that,” Schmidt said, because he remembered farming without spraying when he was young and working with his dad. He wanted to farm how he liked.
Panelist Dan Miller shared similar sentiments.
“We (traditional farmers) like to go find someone and follow their model,” he said. But he encourages farmers to “stop paying salesmen and agronomists and everyone else to ‘think for us.’”
“I’d rather pay a consultant if you want unbiased advice. A salesman is always going to tell you to buy their product,” he said.
A young farmer from Friedens, Dan Miller started out farming conventionally and then transitioned in 2012, achieving certified organic status in 2015.
He said it took him a lot of thought and reflection to make the jump. He had been cropping 3,000 acres in partnership with his dad. Sometimes he would find himself arguing with a brother-in-law who liked organic methods better. After a few years of disagreeing, Miller decided to read about organic farming. He realized that he liked what he read. He prayed about it, he said, and decided instead of just dreaming about it, he would bring his dream into the present.
At the conference session, Dan Miller said he’d brought a list of what he sees as some of the principles of organic farming. First, he said, organic farming uses a “systems” approach. A second principle is that “quality is better than quantity.” Third, he said, is understanding that biology trumps chemistry. Fourth, he said, “Smaller weeds are easier to kill than bigger weeds.” Fifth, he focuses on having balanced soil, which contributes to weed management. And, finally, he said that cover crops and crop rotation are hugely important in organic production.
Organic production has its challenges. Weeds, tillage and higher quality standards are a few.
“Most organic growers are new,” Spencer Miller said. “A big issue for us is cleanliness of the soybeans — stones, dirt and weeds. Farmers need better cleaners, storage, etc.,” he said. “Soybeans have to be right ... at the farm gate.”
Schmidt, who has decades of organic grain growing experience, said weeds can be a big challenge.
“Cover crops are a big deal,” he advised. “Suppress weeds any way you can.”
He has had to mow down soybean fields that got too weedy. He didn’t want the weed seeds to mature, so he lost the whole crop.
Dan Miller views the certified organic standards as encouraging a farmer to follow good standards for healthy soil. He emphasizes cover crops and crop rotations.
“In a conventional farm, you plant corn and beans year after year, and use chemicals to make it happen,” he said. “To me, no-till is a Band-Aid on conventional farming. I till three or four years out of seven. It’s all about the (soil) biology. I add residues. But, don’t just till — know exactly why you are tilling.”
Schmidt advised, “Only till when you have to. I till only for corn planting.”
Looking for solutions and no-till methods, research is being done on alternatives to tilling for weed management. PASA held another conference session on Feb. 8, on the topic “Reduced Tillage Toolbox for Organic Grain Production.” There, Wade Ebenshade, of Summit Valley Farm in New Holland, along with Penn State’s John Wallace, Ron Hoover and Mary Barbercheck, talked about innovative approaches to cover cropping that he and other farmers are using for weed management using cover crops instead of tillage.
Dan Miller believes that farming challenges bring opportunities. He and Spencer Miller want to see a way for farmers to grow cash crops during the three years of transition required to become certified organic. The higher sales price for organic production is not gained until after the three-year period, so Boyd Station tries to work with the growers during that time.
Spencer Miller said his relationship to the organic farmers has become more interactive, as they work together on issues like hauling and cleanliness.
“With conventional grain, it can go through five different handlers, middlemen,” he said. “But now, even big buyers are asking questions about who is growing their organic grain — they want more close connection to the farmer.”
And, said Dan Miller, “We need to re-educate the farmer to use his brain again. To think. ... Bring the farming back to farmers,” he said. “Learn the principles and think for yourself.”