EL PASO, Ill. — Steve Leesman’s move into organic crop production began several years ago as an answer to consumer demand and he has continued this diverse farming operation in Logan County, Illinois.
Leesman, who farms near Hartsburg, is in his seventh year of organic farming and shared his story at the Beck’s Hybrids field day at its El Paso facility. Also participating in the program was Dave Ross, Beck’s Great Harvest Organics brand manager.
Leesman has been growing commercial pumpkins for Nestle Libby’s in Morton for over a dozen years when the company asked if he’d be interested in raising organic pumpkins to meet a growing consumer demand.
“I told them I’d check into it so I went to a couple of organic conferences to learn. I contacted a certification company to see what I had to do to get certified,” Leesman said.
Leesman’s regular rotation enabled him to smoothly meet the three-year requirement of transitioning the farmland to organic.
“We had cattle and our rotation was oats and then we usually had an alfalfa/orchard grass mixed in our seeder. So, I had oats, it was in hay my second year, so I was two-thirds of the way there as far as my three-year transition period my first year,” he explained.
As part of the transition process, the certification company requested an invoice of his last pesticide application on the land moving to organic. His last fungicide application was on corn in July 2013. He planted oats in 2014, alfalfa in 2015 and followed with pumpkins in 2016.
“I planted pumpkins in May of 2016 when that farm was not certified yet, but by the time we harvested in October 2016 it was 38 months” since the last fungicide application, he continued.
Pumpkins don’t require much nitrogen and when he plowed under the alfalfa to plant pumpkins in 2016 he determined the soil had 120 pounds of nitrogen credit.
Under his organic production contract with Nestle Libby’s, the company provides the pumpkin seed and also harvests the crop.
Seven years later, Leesman has an organic rotation of oats, corn, pumpkins and then back to corn. Organic popcorn and organic white corn are in the mix, as well. He also grows conventional soybeans and corn in other fields.
“Next year we may throw green beans into the rotation. I’ve never done organic soybeans. Weed control is very difficult in soybeans. With corn, once you get that cultivated and up and shaded, you have the weeds under control,” he said.
“Dave (Ross) was a big help when I started. I didn’t know anything about it. He helped with seed selection. He helped with marketing. He’d email me about somebody who was looking for organic soybeans, organic corn or whatever. There’s always somebody looking for organic crops and he helped me a lot with all of that.”
“If you don’t like to keep records, then probably don’t do organic,” Leesman recommended.
He had 50 acres certified the first year, 100 acres certified the second year, and by the third year 200 acres had transitioned to certified organic.
An annual certification inspection is conducted and in the third and final year of transition, an inspector spent about six hours on Leesman’s farm.
“He wanted paperwork. He wanted seed tags. He wanted invoices. He wanted to look at my equipment and bins. He wanted documentation of anything that I used to produce that organic crop. He wanted to know when I cleaned out the planter, how I cleaned out the planter and the date I cleaned the planter out,” Leesman explained.
He first used forms from an online site to document the required dates and information and by year three he recorded them on a calendar.
“When I switched over from white corn to popcorn, I just put the date on the calendar of when I did it. Now this year I took photos with my phone of every time we cleaned the planter out, every time we did anything with that organic field,” he said.
“I usually put 80 feet of buffer especially on an organic crop and I’ll take photos of that buffer and photos when I mow it. When you take a picture on your phone the date is on it and when the certifier comes out and I can show him the photos. I hope that works. I haven’t had my inspection yet this year, but it sure saves a lot of paperwork. They just want a tremendous amount of documentation.”
Leesman uses pelleted chicken litter from a large organic poultry company in Michigan as part of his fertility program.
“I like to use it because you can get a really good spread on it. I don’t think you get as good or as accurate spread pattern with wet chicken litter. I also have a cousin who raises a lot of hogs and I usually have 200 acres of oats. His pits are usually full by July and he needs to go somewhere with that and he’ll bring hog manure and inject it into my oats. They put about 4,000 gallons per acre on it. They send out an analysis and the chicken litter also has an analysis so you can look at your soil test and decide how many tons per acre you need to put on,” he said.
“The nitrogen from the manure that’s put on in July isn’t available until next spring or the next summer which works out great.”
His certification officer said the manure does not have to come from an organic hog operation, “but they have to sign an affidavit that they did not use any insecticide. Some use insecticide in manure pits for fly control. That’s another piece of paperwork that you have to fill out every year.”
The pelleted chicken manure costs $120 a ton and he applies two tons per acre.
“It costs $240 per acre, but that’s for total nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. I’m getting about 90 pounds of N per ton of chicken litter. So, two tons gives me 180 pounds of N from chicken litter and the local FS plant spreads if for me and they charge $6.50 per acre to spread it.
His corn yields have ranged from averaging 140 bushels to just over 200 bushels per acre.
As with all other aspects of organic production, there’s also a learning curve for weed control.
In 2018 Leesman planted corn in a 50-acre field and it rained that night. The foxtails and weeds all germinated the same day as the corn and within three weeks the field was green, the corn rows were barely visible and the field was still too wet to cultivate.
“I had a 50-acre field with 20 acres in a low spot. I finally got the 30 acres fairly well cleaned up, but it never could get through the 20 acres. Then by the time the corn was as high as a table, it was yellow and wasn’t going to make anything. So, I went out with a chisel plow and tore it up. That’s going to happen with organic,” Leesman said.
“I attended a conference that winter and the speaker said don’t plant any organic crops until May. Work your ground in April to get that first flush of weeds. Go back out about May 10 and hit it a second time to kill that second flush. Look at the weather and make sure you have five to seven days where it’s not going to rain. The ground is pretty warm by May and you can get that crop up and you can row it in a week if the temperature is right.
“Get that crop up before any weeds germinate and hit that with a rotary hoe. I’ll go out and hoe seven days after I plant. I don’t care if the corn is up or not because there’s weeds out there germinating under the crust. I’ll hoe it again 10 days later and maybe 10 days after that the corn might be up about 6 inches and then cultivates about 10 days later. If you can do that, you’re going to have very good weed control, but if it rains and you can’t you may end up with problems.”
“The secret to organic is you have to have storage. Nobody comes and gets this stuff out of the field. They want you to store and then it is buyer’s call. But when they come to get it you have to have a bill of lading, you have to have a clean truck affidavit that they’ve washed their truck out,” Leesman noted.
“They put cables on their hopper doors, on their tarp and there’s a tag at the end of the cable with a number on it. All of those tags have to match the number on your bill of lading or they will not dump it. They’re very particular about this.”
“I’m lucky where I’m located. I’m 25 miles from Nestle Libby’s pumpkins; I raise organic popcorn for Weaver Popcorn at Forest City which is only 40 miles from me. I raise organic white corn for Clarkson Grain at Cerro Gordon and they’re about 50 miles away,” Leesman said.
“I just had a call a few weeks ago from Del Monte wanting to know if I’d raise organic green beans for them and they raise a lot of them in Mason County which is the next county over. So, if you’re looking at specialty crops you need to see where you’re located and where your market is.
“I don’t think I’d raise an organic crop and not have anywhere to go with it. When I set something in the ground I usually have a contract signed.
“If you want to do organic, the first thing you have to do is be completely committed to it. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to do it right and if you’re not committed to it, you’re not going to stick with it.”