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More Iowa farmers go organic

(Sunday, Nov. 2, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Anne Fitzgerald, Des Moines Register:

Odebolt, Ia. - Farm jacket buttoned to ward off wind, Roger Lansink climbed into the cab of his tractor, baler in tow, and began baling corn stalks for a fellow farmer.

With his own oats, barley, corn and soybeans - all organic crops - already stored in bins or hauled to market, he was free to help others bank bales of corn stover for livestock bedding or feed in the winter.

For Lansink, as for other Iowa farmers, finishing harvest early this year has been a mixed blessing. While nearly ideal weather has hastened the harvest, the soybean crop generally has been a bust. That is particularly painful for organic growers, because organic soybeans bring the biggest premiums - at times, $10 or more per bushel above cash market prices.

"Just like all crops, August hurt us," Lansink said. "The hot, dry weather dried up the beans, while corn yields were average or a little better than average."

Lansink and his wife, Amy, farm 480 acres in northwestern Iowa, with help from the oldest of their four home- schooled children, 15-year-old Derek.

By today's standards, that is not a lot of land, but the Lansinks run a diversified operation. To trim costs and to increase that diversity, they converted the farm to organic crop production eight years ago. They sell their soybeans and corn to specialty markets, sell much of their oats as organic seed, and feed the rest of the crops to cattle, sheep and chickens.

The Lansinks are part of a small but growing number of U.S. farmers who raise crops and livestock organically.

Between 1997 and 2001, Iowa farmers more than doubled their organic farmland to 80,357 certified acres, growing soybeans on about a third of it, corn on another third and hay on 17 percent. In 2001, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin alone accounted for 45 percent of U.S. organic soybean acreage and more than half of organic corn acreage.

Organic livestock production has grown rapidly, too. Between 1992 and 2001, U.S. organic dairy production increased 20-fold, while organic broiler production increased by 188 times.

At the same time, consumer demand for organic food products has risen sharply in the United States, and food manufacturers and retailers are offering more organic products. Governed by federal standards implemented a year ago, the farms use biological pest controls, cultivation to curtail weeds, and compost and manure to fertilize soils. Private and governmental agencies certify acreage for organic production only after it has been free of synthetic chemical use for three years.

Yields sometimes suffer because of soil infertility and weeds or pests, especially during the transition period, but organic crops also can yield better than conventional crops, said Kathleen Delate, an organic crops specialist and assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture at Iowa State University in Ames.

Returns vary farm to farm, depending on such factors as production practices and how crops are marketed. Growers save money by not having to buy farm chemicals; on the other hand, organic production requires more time-consuming practices and intensive management than conventional farming.

The new federal standards pose additional hurdles. Growers, for instance, are required to plant only organic seed. This year, Lansink planted 15 different corn hybrids in an effort to find those that will work best on his farm.

In addition to organic crop production, on-farm organic storage requires certification.

Audubon farmers Cindy and Vic Madsen raise chickens and hogs out of confinement, and they grow organic corn and soybeans, which they sell. "It's a lot of extra steps," she said.

The payoff, particularly for soybeans, can be significant. Premiums range from a few dollars per bushel above cash market prices for feed-grade soybeans to $10 or more per bushel for food-grade soybeans. Organic corn prices can range up to $4 per bushel, about double current cash market prices.

This year, with a short crop, soybean growers expect higher prices.

"We haven't had a run-up in conventional soybean prices in several years," said Dennis Abbas, a Hampton farmer who raises both organic and conventional crops. "This might be new territory."

Lansink learned about organic crop production from The New Farm, a magazine formerly published by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.

"I thought, if people in Pennsylvania can do this, why can't we?" he said.

Already, the Lansinks grew oats and alfalfa as part of their crop rotations - crops commonly used by organic producers.

They began converting to organic crop production in 1995 and completed the conversion in 1997. They raise organic rye, oats, barley, corn, soybeans and alfalfa on farmland in Sac, Ida and Crawford counties.

The Lansinks feed their barley and alfalfa to livestock. They clean oats on their farm, selling some as seed and planting some as a cover crop on soybean ground. The rye, planted in the fall, is a cover crop on corn acreage. The farmers sell their soybeans to SunRich Inc., a Hope, Minn., company that uses them to make soy milk. SunRich also buys the corn, which the Lansinks haul to Arthur, where it is loaded into rail cars and shipped to eastern states for use in organic livestock feed.

They run a 50-head cow herd and have about 50 ewes, selling the calves and lambs. Two years ago, they began raising chickens, selling them directly to consumers who responded to a newspaper advertisement.

This year, they raised 700 broilers, selling the last 400 without having to advertise. A Sac City caterer bought more than 100 of the chickens, but the rest went to individual buyers.

The Lansinks feed organic grain to the chickens, although the poultry is not certified organic. But buyers keep coming back for more, telling the farmers how good the chicken tastes.

"You're not going to make a lot of money on 700 chickens, but it's really rewarding when people comment on how good they taste, how clean they are," Roger Lansink said.

Weather hit conventional, organic crops

Last summer's hot, dry weather hit both conventional and organic crops. Here's some perspective from people around Iowa.

Paul Lang, general manager of Natural Products Inc. in Grinnell, which produces specialty soy flours for use in food products.

"It's really unnerving right now. Even for the non-GMO grain, it's tough, but for the organics, it's tougher. I've heard of yields from three bushels to the acre to fewer than 20 per acre - very weak yields."

Maury Wills, head of the organics program at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in Des Moines.

"The thing with organic is you can't change anything on a dime. Soil building takes time. Pest management takes time. It's harder to find those quick fixes. When you're farming organically, you're really looking two years, five years, down the road."

Kathleen Delate, an organic crops specialist with Iowa State University Extension in Ames.

"The crop is definitely short this year, so the demand is going to be even stronger, because of the short supply. Yields were down from 20 to 30 percent in our research plots for corn and soybeans. The oats did OK. I think there was enough rain early in the season."

Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and director of Iowa State's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

"The big problem here is that all farmers are operating on such tight margins. . . . All of their income gets eaten by their expenses. Whenever we have a glitch, then immediately farmers have difficulty paying the bills. Organic farmers are not exempt from that. . . . They simply have a little more latitude because they get the premium. But a glitch, and then they are in trouble like everybody else."

Dennis Abbas, a Hampton grower of both organic and conventional crops.

"It was about the same for organics as for conventional beans. They were down about the same percentage of potential yield, probably about half to two-thirds of what they should have yielded. The markets for the organics usually are very good vs. the conventional markets, which have been in the doldrums. It can be quite testing at times, though, trying to stay ahead of the weed problems and soil fertility."

Source: http://desmoinesregister.com/business/stories/c4789013/22603647.html