Rodale Institute helps Pa. farmers go organic

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man petting cow
Mike Little pets one of his cows Sept. 11, at his farm, Chaganra Farm, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Little is in the Rodale Institute's farm consulting program that helps farmers transition their land to organic. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

LATROBE, Pa. — Going organic isn’t going to change Mike Little’s life. At least, not at first.

Little, the owner of Chaganra Farm, outside of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, already raises all of his livestock on pasture and markets them as such. He doesn’t spray anything on his fields. Getting the land on his 140-acre farm certified as organic won’t be too hard. Just a matter of paperwork, really.

“Our regular customers, we’ve got them hooked on quality first,” he said. He expects he may gain a few more customers who appreciate what the organic certification means. The real benefit is the doors it will open for Little.

“I think eventually it will be to our benefit to have this in the future,” he said. “It gives us options.”

Little is one of 56 farmers in Pennsylvania making the switch to organic with help from the Rodale Insitute’s farm consulting program. Those farmers have committed to turn 4,000 acres organic.

The why

Rodale Institute is a longtime organic farming research and education nonprofit, headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. The farm consulting program was funded through the Pennsylvania Farm Bill. It’s available to Pennsylvania farmers for free.

Rodale has received more than 100 inquiries since the program launched in March 2019, and 68 farmers formally joined, said Emily Newman, an organic crop consultant with Rodale. The consulting program is also available to farmers in the Midwest, through Rodale’s satellite location in Iowa.

Some farmers are trying it out with 10 or 20 acres. Others are going all in with hundreds of acres at once.

“We like to meet farmers where they are,” Newman said.

Rodale’s Farming Systems Trial, which has been comparing conventional and organic grain cropping systems since 1981, shows an initial dip in yield during the transition, Newman said.

Yields may drop somewhere between 10-20% in the first two transition years, she said. It all depends on what the farmer’s practices were like beforehand.

Rodale’s research, however, shows that yields from organic crops are competitive again five years after a five-year transition period. Recent analysis of FINBIN farm financial benchmark data, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found similar results.

“Consistent with previous work, the organic enterprises had lower crop yields, higher crop prices and gross returns and higher net returns,” according to Michael Langemeier and Michael O’Donnell, in a Sept. 4 article for the University of Illinois’s FarmDoc Daily.

Feed grade organic corn fetched an average of $7 per bushel, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Midwest Regional Organic Grain and Feedstuffs Report. That same report has organic soybeans selling for around $19 per bushel.

Compare that with conventional corn selling for between $3-4 per bushel and conventional soybeans bringing in between $8-9.

Newman said about half the farmers in the program are driven to switch to organic because of the profits. But it’s not just about the money.

“We also hear this human health aspect,” Newman said. “Farmers not wanting to spray chemicals anymore.”

piglets under a trailer
Piglets roam around a pasture at Mike Little’s Chaganra Farm, Sept. 11, outside of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

The dos and don’ts

There is a list of what farmers can and cannot use when going organic. It’s called the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

The goal is to use other preventative practices first, but as farmers know, things don’t always go as planned, Newman said. There are still some pesticides they can use.

Another tenet of organic farming is crop rotation. For row crops, that means a rotation of corn, soybeans and then alfalfa for two to five years, Newman said. That’s a four to seven year rotation in total. Some of the farms are ready to be certified almost immediately. It’s just a matter of getting the paperwork in order and going through the inspection process.

That’s where Little is at with his Latrobe farm. He plans to get his land fully certified organic next year, with help from Newman. He raises cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys and runs a meat CSA.

He feeds non-GMO feed. His pigs also get spent brewers grain from Brew Gentlemen, in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and leftover produce from the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank.

He plans to get organic feed for his broilers and start with a batch of organic chicken next year. Otherwise, he plans to market the rest of his meat as raised on organic land. There’s the option to go organic with the meat later on, or to raise organic vegetables on the land. The heaviest lift is certifying the land, he said.

“I know [the organic certification] will matter to some people,” Little said. “We can’t feed the world, but if we can feed 80 families in our area, we’re going to be successful.”

monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Mike Little holds a milkweed plant in his cow pasture to reveal the monarch butterfly caterpillar on one of the leaves. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

The challenges

Other farmers have a longer road ahead of them. At minimum, it takes three years from the last time a prohibited substance was used on the ground to be eligible for organic certification.

Those in the program are primarily row crop farmers, but there are also dairy, beef, vegetable and specialty crop farmers.

One of the biggest and, perhaps, unexpected challenges, came from no-till farmers looking to make the switch.

Weed control is one of the biggest concerns for farmers. Newman said when some people think organic, they think tillage. Farmers using no-till practices were reluctant to go back to that.

“There is an opportunity for no-till farmers to transition to organic and start experimenting with no-till organic by using a roller crimper to terminate cover crop,” Newman said.

What the transition looks like depends a lot on what the farmer is comfortable with. Some farmers want to stop cold turkey. Others want to ease into using organic practices.

Not all farmers can afford the yield drop that typically comes with the full organic transition.

“If they’re getting yield declines but they’re getting conventional prices still because they’re not getting the organic premiums yet, that right there is very scary for farmers,” Newman said.

Sometimes farmers can market their crops as non-GMO and get a slightly better price than conventionally-raised crops. Newman said non-GMO corn gets about a 50-cent premium and non-GMO soybeans get about a $1 premium.

“It’s up to what the farmer wants to do and how much risk they’re able to assume,” she said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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