DANVILLE, Pa. — One goal of the PA Farm Bill is to make Pennsylvania the nation’s leading organic state.
As one of the top three processors of organic soybeans in the country, Boyd Station is on board with that objective.
“Of all the organic feed-grade soybeans produced in the U.S., we buy half of that crop,” said Spencer Miller, Boyd Station’s organic grain manager. “We encourage farmers in Pennsylvania to add on more organic acres. We have the organic grain processor here, the chicken producer here, and the farmer should be in Pennsylvania, too.”
Boyd Station hosted its first organic farmer field day and appreciation event on Aug. 8, attracting organic farmers from 12 states — from Iowa to Georgia to New York. They discussed everything from weed control to soil conservation, and listened to a farmer panel share the challenges and benefits of transitioning from conventional to organic farming.
“You have to change your way of thinking,” said Dan Miller of J & L Hay Farms in Friedens. “It’s challenging, but organics has been very fulfilling.”
The state Agriculture Department has pledged to do its part to make organic farming fulfilling for more Pennsylvania producers in the future.
Citing language in the PA Farm Bill, Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said that $1.6 million will be dedicated to an organic initiative that includes technical assistance, support for transitioning farmers, and research.
Eventually, Redding said, it’s hoped that the PA Preferred brand will include an organic standard that exceeds the national organic protocols.
“Pennsylvania was the second largest in organic sales last year to California. We know we have an opportunity here,” Redding said. “It will take some time to get there, but the key is to leverage the identity of PA Preferred with organic production.”
Beating California will take some doing. The state has four times the organic sales as Pennsylvania, according to USDA. But the biggest challenge may be the place of no-till farming in organic production.
During the roundtable discussion, several of the panelists said they till as a way to control weeds in an organic setting. Cover crops are also a valuable weed-control tool, and Redding is confident that no-till has a place in organic farming.
Balancing the push for increased organic production with the growth of no-till practices is crucial, he said.
“Being able to adopt no-till practices for organic production is the biggest challenge. I think it’s possible,” Redding said. “I think we’re there when it comes to vegetables. Now how do we move that into organic field crops?
“It’s a hurdle, but it’s one that can be overcome.”
For now, weed control is a major issue facing organic farmers as excessive rainfall over the last two years created difficult conditions.
“I’ve seen pictures of guys in 30-inch soybeans pushing lawnmowers to get rid of the weeds,” Dan Miller said.
While many agreed that limited tillage aids in weed control, cover crops may be the biggest ally to an organic farmer.
Wade Esbenshade of Summit Valley Farm in Ephrata said cover crops not only smother weeds, they also enhance soil. Since he began organic farming in 2003, the organic matter on his farm has increased from 2% to 4%.
“I’m using a lot more cover crops and I don’t harvest the corn fodder, and having a healthier, resilient soil increases the ability to withstand the trials of nature,” Esbenshade said.
The panelists also agreed that it would be nice to see organic acreage increase, but there are plenty of factors in the way.
Weather is the biggest obstacle, according to Dan Miller, who cut his organic acreage from 3,000 to 2,300.
Instead of trying to increase organic acres at the risk of extreme weather events, he’s focusing on quality over quantity.
“Quality pays you back,” he said.
Esbenshade added that there are a lot of small, organic dairy farms in Lancaster County, so a market is present. But land availability and high rent are obstacles when it comes to expanding organic acres, he said.
But as the state remains intent on increasing organic production in Pennsylvania, Spencer Miller said a demand will always be present.
“Organic farming is small and it makes up just 2% of the farmland in the U.S.,” he said, adding the market for organic soybean meal for use in chicken feed is growing.
“We’re one of the top three soybean crushers in the country, processing 1.3 million bushels. I’m never worried about too much organic production because the organic farmland in the U.S. hasn’t kept up with the demand.”