Organic corn, beans fill niche market

John Hart came back to the family farm with a different vision. Instead of joining his father and his brother exclusively in the production of row crops and swine, he decided to try to carve out a niche for himself.

He chose organic production, one of the fastest growing niches in production agriculture.

The Columbus County, N.C., farmer made the decision to pursue organic production during the final course of his study at North Carolina State University. Today, he grows 113 acres of certified organic crops, mainly corn and soybeans. He has plans to increase his organic acreage to about 153 in two years. He, his father and his brother grow 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat in addition to raising hogs under contract for Murphy Brown.

Like most new ventures, Hart is finding ways to adapt to a different way of growing crops.

He's finding ways to battle weeds and even looks toward unconventional methods. Because he must operate within a certified realm, fertility is a major concern.

Marketing is also another challenge. All the contacts and contracts, Hart must make for himself. So far, he's found encouragement in prices above the market level for conventional soybeans and corn.

Far from a dyed-in-the-wool organic producer with philosophy in tow, Hart sees both the economic as well as the ecological benefits. He helps his father Harry and brother Sonny continue to produce crops “conventionally” as well.

The final class Hart took in 1999 at North Carolina State turned his head toward organic production. The class involved an internship at an organic training session held in Goldsboro at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. Hart's degree, however, is unrelated to agronomy. He holds a Master's degree in animal science.

When he returned to the farm in 1999, he did so wanting to “invest less while increasing profit,” Hart says.

According to certification rules, the land has to be free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers for three years. Right off the bat, it means a commitment of time and land resources. Pastureland that hasn't had pesticides or synthetic fertilizers for three years may also qualify for organic production.

“On a large scale, you can't do it all organically,” Hart says. “It's still a niche market. It can be done on a larger scale, but not industry wide. Some Midwest and Western farmers grow well over 1,000 acres organically.”

Without the benefit of chemicals, Hart finds himself in the battle of the weeds. In short, he spends a lot more time in the field with organic production than he would under a conventional system.

“It's safest to start with a prepared seed bed and destroy the weeds prior to planting with a heavy disking or bottom plowing,” Hart says. He's also experimenting with no-till.

He makes four or five passes with a rotary hoe after planting in an effort to get rid of the weeds. Cultivation during the season generally takes a bite out of the weeds, but the weeds in the rows are still a problem to control.

During the season, Hart also does some hand-hoeing in an effort to clean up weed problems.

“I have a big problem with morningglories,” Hart says. He's looking at possibly using a weed flamer to take care of morningglories after the final cultivation of the season.

In the area of fertility, Hart uses swine manure from the family's 12 finishing houses. Manures are allowed in organic production, with some restrictions.

Organic production regulations also allow farmers to use dolomitic lime. He follows a soil test for lime and other nutrients.

“Most of the nutrients come from swine lagoon effluent,” Hart says.

“I plan on using cow manure and poultry litter this fall, but swine effluent has worked well,” he says. “The nearest poultry farm is 45 minutes away from me.”

The swine effluent contains about two pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 gallons, Hart says. He applies about 66,000 gallons of swine effluent per acre at a rate of about two and one-half inches over the land.

“Trying to maintain the fertility level is about the second most difficult thing you can do — after taking care of the weeds,” Hart says.

The organic yields are off by 10 percent to 20 percent when compared to conventional production. For beans, that would mean yields of about 35 bushels per acre; for corn, 142 bushels per acre.

While weeds are a headache, it doesn't get any better when the talk moves to marketing. The reason is the established marketing for organic crops isn't as extensive as conventionally grown, Hart says.

“You've got to make your own contracts and go search out the market,” Hart says.

Hart has done just that, seeking out at least two mills in North Carolina that buy organic corn. These mills produce livestock feed. One of them will broker the soybeans, Hart says.

Hart has found that corn and beans for food products fetch a better price than the commodities used for livestock feed.

“I expect that there will be a more-extensive market in the future for organically grown corn and soybeans for feed,” Hart says. “The prices for food would be greater, but the amount you could market would probably be less.”

In the three years he's been in organic production, the price he's received for his crops have varied.

One year he sold organic beans for $6.80 per bushel. The market that year was $5.40 per bushel.

The second year, the crop rotted in the field after a hurricane blew through southeastern North Carolina.

Last year, he sold beans for a market price of $9 a bushel. The beans were crushed at a plant in Ohio and used in livestock feed, Hart says.

“Brokers sometimes have a need for organically grown soybeans and corn,” Hart says. “They're often reluctant to buy soybeans or corn for grain. Organic brokers buy corn, soybeans and other products all the time. Because of an inconsistent supply, the price received varies and they may not want to store it themselves.

“They line up a buyer before quoting you a price,” Hart says.

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