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Adding Organic to Large-Scale Farms

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The Wallendal family shares practical advice that's helped their family farm transition into organic.

Suppose your family wants to transition the farm to organic. Before beginning, you may want to sit down and estimate the cost to see if the farm can afford the time, money and effort needed to complete the process.

On October 24, 2017, it was my privilege to attend Wallendal Farms’ field day which provided a glimpse into the Wallendal's experiences with organic transition, on-farm research, innovative crop rotations, successful farm transfer to the next generation, and running a parallel (organic and conventional) operation. The farm tour highlighted on-farm grain storage, conservation tillage, and the machines and implements the Wallendals use for specific applications.

I have always believed that if you desire to succeed, it’s imperative to learn from individuals who have accomplished the outcome you seek and then follow their example.  So, if you are considering transitioning your farm to organic, please take what I have learned from the Wallendals and use it to build a solid plan of transition, ask more questions or even to guide you further on your path. 

Keep reading and watch a presentation from Wallendal Farms to learn more!  I hope you enjoy learning from the Wallendal Family as I have. 

Crop rotation – Try not to repeat the same crop after the same type of crop on the same ground.  They don’t put forage corn, seed corn, sweet corn or grass on the same type of ground; instead, they seek diversity in soil type.  Look not only at changing the type of crop you plant, but also avoid crops that have the same disease profile.

Fertility practices - If you have sandy soil with organic matter from 1% to 2%, it makes it challenging for a lot of crops and for fertility practices you must watch what you are doing.  Take care not to push nutrients out of the soil.  Protecting our environment is important and that means considering what is right for the soil and the crop rotation.

Biological and bacterial Matter- Try biological and bacterial in place of conventional methods.  Monitor your research at the end of the year. See what worked and what didn’t work, and consider what you could have done as you plan for the future. 

Conventional, transitional and organic – Lowest-producing or nutrient-stripped soils may take two years of cover crops during the transition.  How do you transition economically and in a healthy manner for the fields so as not to force a crop?  Alfalfa is a good way to transition.  Red Clover isn’t great for forage but has helped sandy soils handle water better along with suppressing weeds, increasing crop health, and producing nitrogen. 

Cover crop system - Focus on the first year after a cover crop system with a higher-value crop such as seed corn or any type of corn or kidney beans that would require more nitrogen.  Fertilize with chicken dap to be sure your nitrogen needs are covered.  A rotation might be a seed corn followed by a kidney bean or snap bean, then a soybean or small grain.  Try all no-till, if possible, or conventional tillage with the 3rd or 4th year going back into manure, then turn the soil back over again.  Have a source of manure for soil health and activity such as nearby dairies.  

Data Collection is key - Collect data on what you saw, review the results and plan what to apply for the next year.  Create a brief that you can go back to next year to remind yourself what you need to do.  Date collection not only includes the operational activity.  Collection of relevant detailed financials will provide a clear picture of the return on your efforts.  

Considering rental agreements - When renting, remember that you are transitioning someone else’s land (landlords’) and this requires their buy-in and participation in the transitional cost with a decreased rental rate and an understanding that once it is full organic they will have a higher rental rate.  When working with landlords who want to transition their land to organic, remember to protect your investment by having a long-term contract for you to recuperate your cost and for them to see the benefits in the long run.  The last thing you want is to put a ton of compost on and get the soils ready only to have it be someone else’s field next year.  Think differently because, with organic, you are not looking at the next year or two; you are looking at 10 years.  Have a plan for that field and how healthy you want that field to be with a planned rotation.  

There are a lot of parallel thoughts in conventional and organic production.  Just remember, when farming on diverse soils, don’t force it.  Grow the right crops on the right soils. Farm for the soil so it is easier to manage; provide and work with it so it will do what you need it to.  Managing soil health creates a better field for your long-term plans. 

Avoid unnecessary risk by being the tortoise.  Make a slow transition over to organic, a little at a time.  Decide if the market exists in your area.  Learn from those who are already succeeding with organic and see if you can repeat.  Collect detailed data on operations for areas of improvement and sophisticated financials to see if the investment is truly providing a return.  Personally, determine if organic farming is a good fit for your family and your farm.  

Together we can learn from our peers in the industry.  Then it is up to us to implement what we’ve learned. Doing that gives your family farm a competitive advantage over other farms in your area. 

We'll leave you today with a quote John Wallenhal loves to share: "I reject your reality and substitue it for my own." - Adam Savage, American industrial designer and TV personality

Don’t miss an amazing opportunity to learn more about what FamilyFarms Teams are doing differently from others in the industry by subscribing to our blog today. 

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Written By

Chris Whited

Chris Whited

North American New Business Consultant | | 618-372-4048

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