How can I decide whether producing organic small grains is right for me?
Answer: While the opportunity for producing organic grains is significant, organic production is not without its challenges. Weed management, soil fertility, soil moisture, tillage, rotation design, and marketing present a unique set of obstacles for organic grain farmers. There are several reasons to consider producing organic small grains, and several reasons why it might not be right for you.Reasons to consider organic grain production:1. A farmer must innovate and experiment on his own farm. This can be a rewarding challenge.2. Organic production means less pesticide exposure for the farmer and his family.3. Organic production requires increased crop diversity, which spreads out the income source and helps break pest cycles.4. With careful management, organic production can improve the health of the soil. With increased organic matter, there is increased nutrient availability, less soil crusting, and better water infiltration.5. Not purchasing synthetic fertilizer and herbicide means less expense per acre and less potential need for an annual operating loan. Per-acre returns can be the same or better than conventional farming.6. Cash crop yields can compare to 90 to 100% of conventional tillage system yields once the rotation is established.7. Demand for organic grains is strong. Prices paid to organic producers are historically greater than those paid to conventional producers.8. NRCS-EQIP funds may be available to help offset costs of conversion, such as seed costs for cover crops.9. Programs may be available through state departments of agriculture to offset the costs of organic certification.10. There is a strong support network in the organic community, offering advice, training, and resource materials. Linking with other farmers in the region is critical for success.Reasons to think twice about organic grain production:1. A farmer must innovate and experiment on his own farm. This can be a significant source of frustration.2. Nutrient management is not as prescriptive as in conventional grain production. While nitrogen can be gained through green manure legumes, the nitrogen produced from these crops varies widely with the weather and precipitation.3. Most large grain farms do not have easy access to large amounts of animal manure, which can be a key component to building soil fertility.4. The first three to five years of organic production are the most difficult, as the system adjusts to new management. In addition, no organic price premiums are available during the three-year transition phase.5. Without other organic farmers to talk to, it can be difficult to know what steps to take. Having other organic farmers in the area increases the chances of success.6. Tillage is generally the most significant method of weed control in an organic system.But tillage can defeat the purpose of building soil organic matter and can increase soil erosion.7. Currently, a system of continuous, no-till organic production has not been perfected for grains. A diverse no-till system can improve soil structure, increase organic matter, and decrease soil erosion better than the current tillage-dependent system of organic production.8. Organic recordkeeping adds to the paperwork required to run the farm business.9. A cash grain crop cannot be produced on each field every year.10. Finding a buyer may be difficult for farmers who live in areas where grain has not traditionally been produced.You can learn much more about organic grain productions in the following ATTRA publications:Organic Small Grain Production Overviewhttps://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=385Disease and Insect Management in Organic Small Grainshttps://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=363Nutrient Management in Organic Small Grainshttps://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=384Weed Management in Organic Small Grains https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=379