FREDERICKSBURG, Ohio — At a time when corn and soybeans seem to be king — or at least make up most of today’s planted acres — there’s an equally important crop growing at the farm of David and Emily Hershberger.
The 300 or so people who attended the fall version of Organic Educational Day got a good look at that crop, as they parked their cars, buggies or bicycles in a freshly grazed pasture.
The event drew farmers from across Ohio, with a focus on organic production and profitability.
No one spoke against corn and soybeans; in fact many of the farmers at the conference grow those crops, but they also grow hay and forage crops, and rotate what they plant.
“Hay is a healer” of soil and soil problems, said Ernest Martin, a Richland County organic dairy farmer.
Covering the ground
Martin is a proponent of good crop rotation, and keeping the ground covered year-round. He lets old hay fields begin to grow in the spring, before plowing the new growth into the ground, in time for spring planting.
This year, his better fields averaged close to 200 bushels of corn per acre, and 27-28 tons of corn silage per acre.
Half of the water from his farm drains north, into Lake Erie, and the rest drains south, toward the Ohio River. He said the organic matter helps keep his soil in place during heavy rains, as well as the use of cover crops.
“Our goal is to not have any soil leave our farm at all,” he said. “Any time you have soil exposed to the elements, you’re going to be losing soil organic matter. You’re going to burn up organic matter in your soils.”
He avoids spreading manure on frozen ground, a practice that has been banned in the western Lake Erie watershed. Instead, he tries to apply most of his farm’s manure in the fall, also avoiding spring application, when the manure could stimulate the growth of weeds.
He said organic farming allows him to grow high-yielding crops without as many inputs, which leads to more profit.
Cost of production
The conference was held at a time when all farmers are seeing tight profit margins, and some are struggling to make a profit.
Keynote speaker Alan Guebert, a book author who also writes a weekly column in Farm and Dairy, said conventional farmers are paying unsustainable costs for land, equipment and seed, and are now faced with cheap corn, of about $3.40 a bushel.
He lives in Illinois, where it’s common to see land selling for $12,000 or more an acre, combines that cost $300,000, tractors that cost $250,000, and seed corn of about $400 a bag.
“I don’t know what they (are) doing, and I’m not making light of it,” he said. “I don’t know what they are doing.”
Guebert said industrialized agriculture has “raced, literally, into the unknown.”
He said many farmers are finding that they miss the culture of farming, the simple experiences and the ability to make money — beyond paying for the inputs.
Organic agriculture continues to grow, he said, with U.S. organic sales last year topping $40 billion.
“You’ve got a great future by doing things the way of the past,” he said.
In a session on small-scale poultry production, Mike Lilburn, Ohio State University poultry researcher, talked about the ways organic farmers can add poultry into their existing operations.
Although birds probably won’t be the main profit stream for most farms, they can still add additional income, with feed and other inputs that are readily available on most farms.
Lilburn said today’s chickens have been genetically developed to the point that they mature much faster. A 4-pound chicken in 1982 took about 49 days to produce, he said, compared to 36 days today.
The higher growth rate is driven by a stronger appetite to eat, he said, calling today’s chickens “eating machines.”
On an organic farm, especially a free-range farm, the chickens are often eating a lower protein diet, and take longer to produce, but are produced at a lower cost.
His goal is to research ways producers can raise healthy birds at a moderate rate of growth, for the least amount of cost.
The organic day was the second of its kind held this year, and is a new initiative of some local farmers and sponsors who have an interest in organic food production. Other sessions included dairy nutrition economics, trying new things, foliar experiences, fly control and gardening.