May 21, 2024

Tips for farmland owners considering organics

Erik Wiegand

EAST PEORIA, Ill. — Experience, attitude, communication and organizational skills can provide a foundation for farmland owners and farmers when making the move to organic crop production.

Erik Wiegand, Earlybird Feed and Fertilizer’s organic production lead, covered the topic during the Farmland Owners Conference at Illinois Central College hosted by University of Illinois Extension’s Fulton-Mason-Peoria-Tazewell Unit.

“If a tenant came to me and says they wanted to take my farm organic, what questions would I ask them as a landowner?” Wiegand said.

“Who is the grower and, if you need to choose a grower, how do you do that? Have they been organic farming very long or farming in general very long?

“What kind of mindset do you need to have because it’s different? Why do you want to transition and what’s your goal? Is it to improve the soil? Is it to be more profitable? Do you want to diversify the cropping system?

“You, as a landowner, don’t have to have the answers to all of those, but I would be thinking about why you want to do it and what it’s going to look like.”

Correct Information

Gathering information from reliable sources is an important part of both conventional and organic crop production.

Wiegand and Earlybird Feed and Fertilizer hosts a local organic meeting each year for farmers and farmland owners. The Organic Grain Conference in Champaign each winter also provides a wealth of information about the topic.

“There’s also information online, but take that for what it’s worth and be very careful. There’s a lot of great information online and there’s a lot of information I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in,” Wiegand said.

“There are some organic influencers out there that will tell you a certain way is the way to do it, and I can tell you that is not going to work everywhere. Just because they say it’s the only way to do something, I seriously doubt it.”

Planning Ahead

Unlike conventional production, organic farming’s systems approach requires planning well in advance.

“The beauty, I guess you could say, of commercial fertilizers, chemistries and things like that is we can make decisions and switch gears on crop really quickly, change things really quickly, and still raise a good crop,” Wiegand said.

“In organics, it’s much more difficult to switch gears and to switch to something different because we don’t have access to all those things in the same way.

“It takes a lot of careful planning ahead to make sure that you’re feeding the crop what it needs. A lot of our fertilizer products like chicken litter are not readily available fertilizer to the crop for immediate uptake. So, we need time for that to work and we can’t just decide tomorrow we want to switch something.”

Crop Management

Organic production has also seen numerous improvements over the years in terms of crop management.

“The amount of information we can gather about a field today is astounding, but we have to do something with it. We can pull soil and send it away for a DNA test. They will test the soil DNA for corn rootworms, cyst nematodes, sudden death syndrome, diseases, and give you a number back,” Wiegand said.

“We can test water quality, tissue testing, we’ve got yield monitors, but if we don’t measure things, we don’t know things. If we don’t know things, we can’t fix them. It’s a huge advantage we have, but we have to leverage the information and make decisions with it.”

Product Development

Products have also been developed that are certified for the organic market and effective.

“Effective is the big one because there is so much out there. I’m sure many of you have heard of snake oil, a very popular product, all over the place. I would say I’ve gotten tired of it because there’s so much out there. I want to find what really works, what really has science behind it,” Wiegand said.

He noted that a salesman recently met with him touting a certain product for organics, who noted, “it’s almost like magic what it does for your crop.”

“Don’t tell me it does work — tell me why it works,” Wiegand said. “So, slowly I’ve been sifting through a lot of this, doing a lot of work, some experimenting on our own, and we’re starting to find some products that are so effective that we’ve incorporated them into a conventional type program.”

One example is Pacesetter, a bio-based fungicide, that fights disease and helps the plant fight disease naturally.

“It has worked so well for us that it’s on every conventional acre we spray twice a year because it’s so good,” Wiegand said.

“I like these products because I think the future is going to be that we slowly start to either supplement or replace the conventional products with organic. I’m not saying we’re going to go all organic on every acre. I’m saying we’re already doing it where we’re taking our normal chemicals and we’re supplementing with organic products to break resistance and to enhance those products.

“My dream would be that these products would slowly take over that market to some extent. I think it’s just environmentally friendly. I think it’s good for the plant. I think it’s going to avoid resistance.

“We have weed resistance. We have pest resistance. We have got to watch that so carefully, and I don’t think we do. We’re really good at watching it after it happened.”

Weed control can be challenging and finding a solution could be termed as the holy grail of organics.

The company that developed Pacesetter also is developing Neovo, an insecticide/nematicide, for selective weed control.

“They are making some progress on waterhemp species, pigweed, amaranth species, where they can biologically spray to kill only the weed. I’m excited about it,” Wiegand said.

“We haven’t figured it all out. It’s very complex, but we are finding some of this and it makes organic farming very exciting because we can now control some of these pests.

“The organic yields around us are just as good as their conventional neighbors, sometimes better. They’re giving nothing up and that’s exciting.”

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor