Often one of the first questions I am asked when I say I am a 4th generation farmer from Montana is: are you organic? The short answer is no. However, like most things in agriculture, the reasons and considerations behind our choice to raise our crops conventionally is far longer. We choose to raise our crops conventionally because it gives us access to a wider range of crop protection products as well as our ability to adopt some of the best soil health practices available to organic producers. We can adapt our management style to fit the best of both worlds.
Organic Tillage v No Till
One of the main reasons we are not an organic farm is because of our dedication to no-till. I have written about our soil health practices (linked here) before and it is one of the central reasons we have never pursued organic certification. There are isolated areas and cases where organic farmers have been able to utilize no-till successfully however most are still dependent on tillage. Quite honestly all of agriculture is still dependent on tillage, as only 35% of all agricultural lands in the U.S. are no-till. For us however, no-till has been a central part of our soil health system for several decades, we depend on no-till to ensure we reduce our wind and to a lesser extent water erosion. We also depend on no-till to store water during the winter and fallow years to ensure we have enough water for the following years crop. Montana is a large enough state that there are very diverse weather conditions, in some areas no-till is not as crucial as it is in our area that is wind prone. For us, no-till is not something I am willing to give up for the benefit of a premium for our crop.
Nutrient management in organic cropping systems is key to the success of your farm and for the success of your soil health management strategy. Montana State University has a good guide to organic cropping systems that includes some of the nutrient management issues. We already have alfalfa in our rotation for its deep roots and its nitrogen fixing abilities, unfortunately it is not a crop that is necessarily recommended for organic production. It is a crop that is difficult to terminate and most certainly requires deep tillage to do so. Green manure is the preferred method for adding nitrogen to your rotation for organic production. Green manure is attractive to us as an operation that has cattle, however we would have to add fences and water to most of our fields to make that feasible.
Access to nitrogen through manure would also be an issue in our area, because there are not many locations that deal with a large amount of manure it is expensive to have applied. The cost is roughly three times the cost of using synthetic options. We have the limited amount of manure we have spread on our fields, but even using our own manure is expensive.
Market access is always a consideration when we add new crops to the rotation and it would also be a consideration if we converted to organic. There are facilities that take organic crops scattered across the state of Montana and many do FOB on farm contracts however there are not great marketing opportunities for organic in our area. Regardless of expanding consumer demand for organic products, the market has to be in our area and not so far away that it is cost prohibitive to transport our goods there.
Best of Both Worlds
By maintaining a conventional operation we have the ability to adapt the best of organic agriculture as well as using the best genetics and crop protection products available to conventional producers. One of the best practices to rise to prominence from the organic industry is Integrated Pest Management. Integrated Pest Management forces producers to focus on several key management strategies including: monitoring, pest identification, evaluating the economic threshold for action, management strategies, prevention, and evaluation of your choices. We have been using IPM for almost a decade now and have been able to reduce the usage of insecticides and fungicides on many of our crops as well as a certain reduction in herbicides.
As a result of IPM, in part anyway, we have increased our diversified rotation to reduce the number of pests that have an economic impact on our crop. The specific pest we were targeting with a diversified rotation was the wheat stem sawfly that has wreaked havoc on producers across the state of Montana. We are also targeting the reduction of diseases in our crop by utilizing a diverse rotation.
Conversely this diversified rotation has allowed us to improve our soil health as we have added nitrogen fixing crops (alfalfa) as well as deep rooted crops (safflower, sunflower, and alfalfa) that have helped significantly improve soil health. We have seen drastic improvements in our nutrient management, soil health, water carrying capacity, and in turn improvements in yield.
I am certainly not the first person to write on this topic, in fact I did not even come up with an original title. You can find one of the inspirations for my post here from the Farmer’s Wifee. The most important thing to know about our farm and the food we produce is that it is safe and healthy. We take great pride in providing a high quality product for consumers across the globe. We are lucky to have a steady supply of food in the United States that gives consumers the choice between organic and conventional. Both supplies are exceedingly safe to consume and will provide your family with the nutrition they need. The choice between organic and conventional is not one we take lightly as producers and we are proud of our choices and their contributions to sustainably produced commodities.