On Friday, a few of us had the opportunity to attend a field day at Janie’s Farm Organics, hosted by the Harold and Sandy Wilken family of Danforth, Illinois. Together, with a few employees, they run a large-scale organic operation that includes corn, soybeans, wheat with cover crops, pumpkins, black dry beans, alfalfa hay, popcorn, and seed corn. They also happen to be on the cutting edge of the latest technology, including RTK guidance, yield mapping, and grain bin monitoring.
On a personal note, I was so excited to put my video skills to good use and wouldn’t ya know it, it rained the entire day!! Needless to say we couldn’t take any of the equipment out so we had to settle with a few pics instead.
The Wilkens have 1,940 certified organic acres, 380 in second-year transition, 80 in first-year transition, and 80 acres to transition in 2016. Both Harold and Ross said peer pressure was one of the biggest deterring factors when looking to transition, but after much thought they are so happy they did. They aren’t the only ones who have considered going 100% organic. They had nearly double the people at their field day than expected!
So if you’re thinking about transitioning, here are a few basic rules that the Wilken family has learned along the way (as told by Harold & Ross):
Learning: Go online or find a certifier and get a copy of the National Organic Program, read the rules. Have a copy on your night stand or in the bathroom. Find an existing farmer and sign up for a mentoring program. Go to conferences. Look to the people that sponsored this meeting (Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service, Illinois Organic Growers Association, The Land Connection, University of Illinois Extension, Central Illinois Sustainable Farming Network). There is a lot of help out there.
Transition: Transition period is 36 months from the last application of herbicide or commercial fertilizer. Use organic seed during transition. If none is available, use non-GMO. Naturally mined inputs can be used – lime, gypsum from mine, not a by-product of industry. All inputs must be pre-approved by your certifier. Manure is recommended – raw, composted, or pelletized. At some point you have to feed the soil. There are also naturally derived fertilizers available. Pick a certifier and communicate with them. They will help you make sure a product is approved. Do not take the word of a good old boy. He will not help you re-transition.
Rotation: Start with a 3- or 4-year rotation. Four-year is the best if finances allow it. Remember you are trying to build soil. Our standard when starting transition is to start with soybeans in year one. In year two, seed with wheat or oats oversown with red clover or alfalfa. You can mix it up with another clover; white or crimson. We are too far north (Danforth, Illinois) for hairy vetch. We have tried seeding cover crops after wheat, but have had sporadic results. In an ideal world, we would add orchard grass or timothy but if you don’t leave it a year, it is probably not worth the cost. Under NOOO circumstance do you use Annual Ryegrass. Cereal Rye, yes.
If you have livestock or a hay market, this is a no brainer. Seed down first year with small grain, alfalfa/grass mix. Make horses happy for 2 years. Caution, do not seed all your acres to hay. I suggest in this case 1/3 of your acreage per year.
DO NOT FOLLOW CONVENTIONAL SOYBEANS WITH TRANSITIONAL CORN. Root worms will not throw you a dinner party at the end of the year for feeding them.
Machinery: Use what you have. Add only what you need in transition. Custom-hire at first. CLEAN, CLEAN, CLEAN. Wash out planter boxes, vacuum out the combine, and purge it. Wash anything you are going to use for organic production. At least make sure you have no GMO contamination. If you are going to sell organic hay, plan on large square bales. Round bales do not work well on a semi.
Storage: You will need it! Plan on grain bins or nail the cracks shut on the overhead bins in the crib. Good News: Hot rods do not want to fill bins. Rent them. Have a building for hay.
Marketing: Find a buyer. MOFC, Clarkson Grain, Schoular Grain, Sun Opta, All Star Trading. Most of these people will help you market your transition as well as organic grain in Iroquois County.
Our big takeaway from the day was that organics is continuously growing and we are so excited to help guide you through the transitioning process with all your fertility needs!