PrairiErth Farm Field Day examines farming practices improving quality of food and quality of life – Part 3

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[December 29, 2016]  September 6th was a very warm and sunny day at PrairiErth Farm for the annual Farm Field Day, but guests didn’t appear to mind the heat too much because the speakers farm owner David Bishop had lined up for the day were addressing topics that held a great deal of interest.

Barbara Barcal - All Star Trading

Among the many speakers for the morning-long event was Barbara Barcal of All Star Trading. Barcal’s firm works with organic producers to market their products and spoke about imports and exports of organic and non-GMO grains, and pricing for organically grown products.

Barcal said that the import of organic products was of concern for her. She noted that demand is growing for organic products, and the majority of those products are being imported from foreign countries because there are not enough U. S. producers to meet the demand.

Barcal said the demand for organic chicken and eggs is on a very steady rise. To produce these products, these birds need to be fed organic products. She said corn, to her understanding was a major component of poultry feeds.

She noted that in 2012, she paid $16.25 per bushel for organic corn. (as a point of reference; cash corn on October 9th, 2012 was selling at $7.29-$7.39
/2012/Oct/10/News/ IGPCE101012_GP.shtml ) Barcal said she noted to many producers that year, that the extremely high price for corn could not continue because livestock producers could not afford to pay that kind of price.

She was right about this prediction. Currently, organic corn is at $8.00 per bushel, according to Barcal, which is still a premium compared to the cash price for conventionally grown corn at $3.00 - $3.09/bushel ( /2016/Sep/16/NEWS/IGPCEMEGA_091616.shtml   ). Barcal said even though this is less than 50 percent of the 2012 price, producers are pleased with this price, and they are making money.

So, what are the concerns? Imports.

Barcal said in 2012 there were no imports of organic corn.

In 2013, the U.S. imported 918 bushels Romanian corn at $15.25/bu.

In 2014, 29,000 metric tons at $10.21/bu.

In 2015, Romanian imports totaled 14,800 metric tons at $8.69/bu.

From January to June of 2016, Romanian corn imports total more than 55,928 metric tons, an increase of more than 200 percent over the past year.

She added that other foreign countries such as Argentina and Turkey are also getting on the organic bandwagon, along with the Netherlands that is just getting into the market.

Barcal said there is not enough corn being grown organically, though it has great market potential.

Additionally, there is a U.S. demand for grain products that are not genetically modified, and everything coming in from Europe is non-GMO, which is to our disadvantage. She noted she had a buyer contact her looking for Illinois-grown, non-GMO corn, and she assured him, there was none to be found. She ended saying this is a concern and one that needs to be addressed locally in conversations farmer-to-farmer, to encourage greater production of non-GMO products.

John Steven Bianucci - Iroquois Valley Farms

Next on the agenda was John Steven Bianucci of Iroquois Valley Farms. Bianucci explained the farm started as a single family farm, but has grown through its mission to more than 30 farms in eight states.

Bianucci said the goal is to assist farmers during the transition years from conventional to organic production. The firm also works with young farmers and prospective farmers in assisting them to gain access to farm ground. They also work with at risk farms to help them regain their financial stability, to become self-sufficient and profitable through a buy and sell back program.

In this program, Bianucci said Iroquois Valley would purchase a farm, and lease it back to the farmer for seven years. At the end of that time, the producer has the option to buy back the farm land, or they can continue with the lease program. The farm in question will be transitioned to an organic and environmentally aware farm, and will work within the vision of Iroquois Valley, to use farming practices that protect the environment and offer safe, healthy alternatives to conventional food production.

Bianucci said that the firm works with grain crops, alternative crops, dairy and other livestock, as well as vegetable farms.

When Bianucci finished, Bishop suggested everyone fill their plates with food provided by Bean Sprouts, a soon to be opened café/restaurant in Lincoln where the goal will be to offer as many “farm-to-table” dishes as possible.

When everyone had their meal, the day continued with Bill Davison speaking during the ‘working lunch.'

Bill Davison – University of Illinois – The Grand Prairie Grain Guild

Davison founded the Grand Prairie Grain Guild, which is now in its second year. He said the mission of the Guild was to build regional grain markets with value-added grains. He said that the goal is to use the crops that are already being produced in scale, and being transported to markets in Chicago and other market locations, as the infrastructure for transporting other products.

As that system is established, the Grain Guild will add fruits and vegetables to that transportation system, making it easier and more affordable to ship Illinois-grown products to the locations where the demand exists.

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He also spoke about a workshop that would be held at the University of Illinois, where the topic will be on building the regional system. He said the issues would be working with regional crop production, toward a harvest with lower input. He said organic or not, if a farmer is going to produce in a low input system, different crops need to exist than what we have today, including corn, soybeans, other legumes, and other grains such as buckwheat.

Some of the research being done includes working with crops not typically found in Illinois. Such products include a variety of wheat including buckwheat, and also grains such as open-pollinated corn. He said that he had been told that working with crops such as this cannot work in Illinois, but he said he’s working with farmers who are already doing it, so apparently they didn’t know it couldn’t be done.

Davison mentioned, in particular, a farm in Iroquois County that is growing a six crop rotation, including winter wheat. He said this farm of 2,500 acres produced 55,000 bushels of organic grain.

Davison said with wheat this farm is growing, edible wheat flour is being produced and sold to markets in Chicago.

He also talked about the stone mills that are being established. He said the goal was to move consumers toward a whole wheat milled flour, but right now, the consumer is accustomed to, and desires white flour, so mills are being established with sifters that will refine the flour to the specifications that the commercial bakers want.

He said that the flour formulation would adjust annually, and bakers will be educated on the newer, better whole grain product, and will adjust their recipes accordingly until eventually, they are working with a pure whole grain product.

He concluded that what is needed now, is a demand for the organic flour and other products at institutional levels such as schools and hospitals. He said when those markets are established, there will be supply available.

Before introducing the final speaker, Bishop noted that transporting small farm products can be a very costly challenge for producers. He said Amtrak is now working with a pilot program generating from the Champaign area, transporting small quantities to Chicago. He explained that cheeses are being shipped via Amtrak in special coolers. The producers take the coolers to the Amtrak; they are delivered to buyers in Chicago, emptied, and returned to the shipper to use again.

Joe Bybee – Illinois Department of Agriculture – The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy

Joe Bybee with the Illinois Department of Agriculture made some quick opening observations. He said what is needed in Illinois is a “Best Practices” in preserving Illinois soils and protecting Illinois waterways. He said organic farmers have a head start on this best practice because they are already mindful of the soil and waters in their style of farming.

He also noted that there are 23 million acres of tillable soils in Illinois that are producing two plants. The Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy includes expanding those crop varieties to include growing plants that are good for the soil and will preserve the soil.

He said that the work of the INLRS is recorded on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency website. He said the meetings minutes of the INLRS are regularly posted and permit the reader to understand the direction in which the “big ship” is going.

The long-term goal of the INLRS is to reduce nitrate and phosphate loss by 45 percent. Bybee explained that the top two-thirds of the state are utilizing tile drainage on the majority of their acres. He said that the INLRS knows that is the location that is producing the most loss of nitrates from the soils and into the waterways.

Additional challenges come in keeping the soil in place. This is going to mean better erosion control on sloping lands as well as lands where there is no tile drainage, and soil is moving with water on the surface.

He said that one of the bigger answers to the nutrient loss issues is going to be found in cover crops. He said that everyone is talking about cover crops and how useful they are, but driving from northern Illinois to Central Illinois, one sees very few cover crops.

The bottom line he said is that conservationists are “all in” but producers are not yet there. The work of the INLRS will include bringing the producers online with these conservation practices, including cover crops.

He walked through the various state projects that are ongoing through the Soil and Water Conservation programs that will bring greater knowledge to producers of the methods and means to make a significant impact on reducing nutrient losses into our waterways.

As Bybee finished up, Bishop asked what in his opinion the best ways to reduce nutrient loss. Bybee said to utilize living plants in cover crops, no-till farming, crop rotation, and enroll in the CRP set-aside program through the USDA. He also noted that side-dressing nitrogen in the spring when crops are up instead of pre-plant and winter applications would be a “best practice.”

As the day came to a close, Bishop also added a few comments on the drainage issues. Bishop explained that the acreage where the field day was being held was tiled for drainage. He has installed shut off valves so he can better control the water that is released. He said looking at a tile system that costs $40,000 to $50,000, the valves can be installed for about $1,000, a small cost compared to the whole system and a very small cost to protect the environment.

Bybee added one final comment. In opposition to the federal level Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) plans that looking to establish regulations that force producers to comply; the Illinois program is being developed as a voluntary program.

With the day running long, Bishop called the meeting to an end, but invited guests to stay and interact as long as they wanted.

[Nila Smith]

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