North Carolina grower downsizes with organics

Replacing a few thousand acres of grain crops with 165 acres of organic crops hasn’t been an easy road to travel, but a good one so far for Whiteville, N.C., grower Richard Ward.

A decade ago Ward was growing 2,000 to 3,000 acres of tobacco, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat and soybeans. In the late 1990s, he says, the profit was getting less and less in conventional farming.

He had about 75 head of cows in a cow/calf operation in 2000, in addition to 150 acres of tobacco, plus sweet potatoes, plus over 2,000 acres of grain crops.

“I ran into our Extension agent by chance one day in 2000 and asked him if he knew of any crops I could grow that would be more profitable. He mentioned organics. I started looking into growing organic crops and have been going that way every year since.”

Having cattle proved to be the springboard to his organic operation, because pastureland gave Ward the needed three years out of crops to become organic certified. He has gradually built up his certified organic land to 165 acres this year.

He grew some conventional crops, primarily tobacco, plus his organic crops until 2005, when he went totally organic.

The 2009 crop is his ninth year of growing organics. At the top of his organic crops is organic tobacco. Organic sweet potatoes also look good for 2009, and he grew a good crop of butternut squash. Kale and broccoli also performed well, he says.

Tobacco has become his staple crop, and he continues to experiment with rotation crops. Strawberries looked promising, but disease problems took out most of his crop. Unlike in conventional crops, Ward doesn’t have the luxury of using fungicides once a disease problem occurs.

Getting certified organic seed and transplants is a problem, he says, noting that the strawberry plants he used this year were guaranteed disease resistant. Without any regulatory enforcement, there was nothing he could do to get any legal relief from the diseased strawberry plants.

Prior to going to organic strawberry plants, he had never had any disease problem with strawberries. This year, he says root rot and angular leaf spot took out most of his strawberries. Supposedly propagated plant material eliminates disease, but it didn’t work on his strawberries, Ward says.

“The last year I grew grain crops, we were devastated by hurricanes and a number of other weather and production-related factors, most of which were beyond our control, and we lost money on those crops. I knew I had to do something different, take some of the risk out of farming, to stay in business and organics has allowed me to do that,” Ward says.

Three years ago tobacco prices, and demand for organic tobacco started to increase. Along with that demand, Ward began increasing his organic tobacco production.

Growing organic tobacco, or any organic crop, he says, requires more labor per acre and more detailed record keeping than conventional crops. Annual certification of his land can take from two to three hours to two to three days.

“I can grow tobacco just as well organically as I can conventionally. In fact, the last year I grew both conventional and organic tobacco, the organic was higher quality,” Ward says.

All his organic tobacco is hand-harvested, whereas all his conventional tobacco was mechanically harvested. His organic tobacco is hand-packed in curing barns and transported to Oxford, N.C., to Santa Fe Tobacco Company. Last year, he says, it took seven trips at roughly four hours per trip to get his crop to market.

Going to all H2A labor, which he contracts through the North Carolina Growers Association, has been a life saver in his organic operation, the North Carolina grower says.

“We tried using local labor for a while, and it just didn’t work. I contracted myself with Mexican labor. Those three Mexicans did more work than all the local labor I had combined. The cost got so high I tried to go back to local labor and that was a big mistake.

“Now, I contract all my labor through the North Carolina Growers Association, which allows me to send labor to other sites, which I couldn’t do, if I lined up my own labor. It has been an ideal labor situation for me,” Ward says.

Over a period of years, he says, he has been able to get the same laborers. He doesn’t have to retrain the workers from year to year and the work ethic is so much better than the part-time workers we could hire locally, he explains.

This year he has seven H2A workers. The workers came in April 1 and they stay through harvest of sweet potatoes in November. “They know what I want done and how I want it done. And, I don’t spend much time managing them — they work as well when I’m there as when I’m gone,” he adds.

A good labor force makes production of his crops much smoother, Ward stresses. Growing organic versus conventional crops is not so much different as many people think.

He uses more nitrogen in his organic crops than he used to use in conventional farming. For sweet potatoes, for example, he uses the same number of transplants per acre, uses similar sources of nitrogen and other fertilizers.

Weed control has to involve weekly cultivation and lots of hand labor, he says. “My organic crops look as clean as conventional crops in most cases,” he says.

He can use Dipel, Intrust, and Pygonics for insect control. All work well, but are more expensive than conventional insect control.

All in all, Ward says, the transition from conventional crops to organic crops has been a good investment. The profit potential is much greater and the risk is much smaller than for conventional crops.

Ward markets his organic crops through East Carolina Organics, a cooperative of organic growers that he helped establish several years ago.

“It’s not for everybody, but for farmers trying to downsize an operation and increase the per acre value of their land it is a good move,” the North Carolina farmer says.

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