PrairiErth Farm Field Day examines farming practices improving quality of food and quality of life – Part 2

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[September 17, 2016]    On Tuesday, September 6th, PrairiErth Farms held its annual Farm Field Day with a variety of guest speakers, there to address organic and sustainable farming practices, along with some of the challenges that come with the practices, and the rewards.

Among the speakers were a team from the University of Illinois. The U of I has a test plot on the farm in rural Atlanta and are studying the impact of various cover crops on soil retention, nutrient retention, and other benefits to the environment.

University of Illinois: Dr. Tony Yannarell, Elizabeth Miernicki, and Cassandra Wilcoxen

University of Illinois, Associate Professor of Microbial Ecology, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, Dr. Tony Yannarell; and graduate students Elizabeth Miernicki and Cassandra Wilcoxen, each gave brief talks on the work that is being done at the test plot.

This is the third year of the test plot at the farm and has been led by three different people. Therefore, Dr. Yannarell said he had inherited the program well under way and was continuing the work of those who came before him.

The test plot is divided into 50-square-foot sections and included a section with no cover crop at all that is used as the control. Six crops are being grown, one species per small plot, and also combined in varieties of two and three species per plot.

Elizabeth Miernicki said that her work was with wildlife and pollinators. She said her studies were to examine what cover crops are best attractors for birds and pollinator insects, particularly birds. She said that speaking generally, there are more species of birds, and higher populations of birds in soils with cover crops as opposed to those soils without.

In the pollinator studies, she is examining the populations of butterflies. She said at this point, the populations are not present, which is representative of other work and reports indicating that through pesticides, a large number of butterfly species, particularly the monarchs are becoming extinct in our country.

Cassandra Wilcoxen is studying urban food production. She said her work was to determine the long-term effects of urban soil systems. She’s been working with raised beds, and mixing soil types for high production. Her study has included a test of six soil treatments that include compost only, compost-top soil combinations, and direct soil alone, as well as mixed with compost and topsoil. She said the bed with the higher content of compost is performing at the highest level, and the bed that is direct soil only is performing poorly.

Dr. Yannarell said what his program is looking at is the impact of the cover crop on soil quality. The goal is to work with cover crops that will draw in the nutrients from the soil, and can be returned to the soil with tillage.

Other goals studying the use of cover crops include erosion control of the top soils, as well as prevention of nutrient leaching into waterways. Another study that is ongoing is weed suppression using cover crops. Dr. Yannarell explained that the cover crops could suffocate out the weed population, which can be beneficial to the organic farmer in particular.

Richard Ritter, Gridley Branch of Flanagan State Bank

With the plot tour over, guests returned to tent area to hear from Richard Ritter of Flanagan State Bank. Ritter’s Bank is one of a few banks that are aggressively working with organic producers.

Ritter said that three years ago he was asked to speak at a Land Connection meeting. Though he had a farming background, he felt he needed to research more about sustainable farming. He was disturbed to find that there are not many resources out there that will give good detailed information. He then decided it was his “calling” to take up this subject and provide better information.

Ritter said 2016 had been an interesting year, with half of the producers hoping for drought, and half looking for record yields. The reason being, many farms are taking financial hit. A crop loss and higher prices or a record crop in spite of lower prices, could pull them out of the fire.

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Looking at conventional farm yields last year, he said some might have thought that it was a good year because yields were higher than they have had for the past five, ten, and even 20 years. But..., prices were down, and input costs were up. Consequently, Ritter said 2015 was at very best an average year and in the opinion of many, a less than average year.

Ritter offered a handout that offered some income comparisons between conventional crops versus organic crops. In his first comparison, he produced numbers for production costs versus income, and showed the group where that high soybean yields of 60 to 80 bushels of conventional soybeans showed a clear or net income of only about half of the net income from an organic field with yields at 36 to 80 bushels per acre. The reason for the difference is based on the increased selling price, not decreased costs.

Ritter said that it is a common misconception that organic farming means no costs involved in weed control or fertilizer. He said that was not true, especially with fertilizer, where that an organic farmer will pay a premium price for organic fertilizers.

Ritter said another good thing to point out, is that for so long, it appeared that organic crop yields were much lower than the yields of conventional crops. He said this is no longer the case. Yields off of organic fields are coming in within 75 percent of the comparable conventional crop.

Ritter said that the future of organic farming is strong. He said there are a number of reasons for this, but perhaps the best reason is the consumer. He said that consumers are looking for organic and are willing to pay the premium for it.

He noted that eggs, for example, are selling for about $4.00 in the organic market, compared to less than a dollar or $1.50 in the conventional market, yet there continues to be a high demand for organic eggs.

This trend is continuing throughout the food market, with people looking for healthy and safe choices where they have no worries about the use of chemicals or genetically modified (GMO) products. He added that there are statistics that show that 73 percent of all Americans are consuming some organically grown products.

Ritter said the other good news for organic farming is that landowners are looking for producers who will go organic on their land. So, the demand for the organic producer is growing among the landlord community. He said the reason for this was not just organic farming practices, but also profitability. He said landlords see that there are greater returns in organic production than in conventional farming.

Ritter said another benefit to transitioning away from conventional farming, was the income potential that will allow multiple generations to live off the family farm. It is a problem that the lack of stable income in conventional farming is causing young people to leave the farm for their careers. But, with the potential in food farming to yield as much as $15,000 per acre, even a small farm can support a family.

So what is the downside to organic farming? Ritter asked the questioned and answered it saying, it is hard work. He noted some young folks just aren’t going to work as hard as they need to make organic farming profitable.

Ritter said that in general, to survive, the farming community is going to have to keep an open mind, and be adaptable to the changes that need to be made. He predicted that at the end of this season, there would be 10 percent fewer farmers. He said land cost is also going to be dropping. To stay afloat, farmers need to look at alternatives such as organic farming, which is more work, but also a greater net return.

The next speaker on the list was Barbara Barcal of All Star Trading, who spoke about the income potential for organic and non-GMO crops, as well as the competition from overseas.

The last four speakers of the day included Barcal, John Bianucci of Iroquois Valley Farms, and Bill Davison, University of Illinois' Grand Prairie Grain Guild; and Joe Bybee of the University of Illinois – The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

LDN will offer coverage from all of these speakers in the final segment of this series.

[Nila Smith]


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