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UK trying to coax corn growers to look into organic options, to diversify farms
Kentucky Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Last year the price of corn topped an all-time high of more than $8 per bushel. But what if it reached the $14 level?

It sounds impossible, but organic corn was indeed trading for that last December. With that in mind, the University of Kentucky (UK) Cooperative Extension Service, in cooperation with Kentucky Corn Growers Assoc. and Organic Valley Cooperative, was scheduled to conduct a day-long workshop today (Jan. 16) in Bowling Green to provide more information about the crop to interested producers.
“Many farmers are not aware of the significant price premium for organically produced corn,” said Lee Meyer, an agricultural economist at the UK College of Agriculture. “Prices typically are 1.5 to two times the price of conventionally produced corn.

“Farmers who do know about the premium often are not knowledgeable about organic corn markets, production systems and certification rules.”

Meyer said many farmers think “organic” means raising crops like their grandparents did, and that is wrong. “Organic is a different style of production with a different set of rules,” he said. “Organic farmers have pesticides they use, they spray, they put on fertilizer – but it’s a different set of materials that they can use.”
Meyer said there are other factors to consider when raising both an organic and non-organic crop, especially doing all that is necessary to avoid cross-contamination. If there is a similarity between today’s organic farming with that of one’s grandfather, it is being a good manager and watching the land more carefully, he added.
“You can’t grow corn organically as much with a formula like you can conventional corn. Organic isn’t as well determined and so, farmers have to pay more attention to how a crop is doing and make some adjustments,” he said.

Other challenges that come with growing organic include crop rotations, nutrient management, weed control and the certification process. There is also a three-year transition period of land that has been used in other types of production.

For those with land that has not been sprayed or about to come out of the Conservation Reserve Program, those acres can go straight into organic production.

“Organic cropping systems typically use five- to seven-year rotations instead of the two- to three-year rotations more common in regular cropping,” Meyer said. “Weed control can be a concern, since organic rules do not allow the herbicides common in conventional systems. The rotations help reduce weed pressure and cultivation is the alternative to spraying.”

But this is a learning process, and he noted the workshop was to give those in the industry and those wanting to get in a chance to share ideas and learn from each other.

“We are all learning in this together,” he said. “Part of the idea with this workshop is to share best information and best practices.”
While the growing logistics is certainly an important factor in raising an organic crop, producers will also undoubtedly want to know if there is a market for it. Meyer says “yes.” In addition to the organic goods found at specialty markets, many larger big-box stores are becoming more organic-friendly with sections dedicated specifically to those products.

“There’s a really solid market out there because organic producers (such as dairy and chicken) are scrambling to buy organic corn,” he said. “They can’t produce organically if they don’t have organic feedstuffs. So they are going out of the state right now to buy organic corn. The market’s there.”

Kentucky will be playing catch-up to an extent when it comes to growing organic grains. States such as Iowa, Pennsylvania and North Carolina are ahead in research. But much can be learned from that – such as, after a transitional period, organic and conventional corn yields are similar and often the organic crop does better under drought conditions.

Meyer added workshop attendees were to have a chance to learn who some of the buyers are when it comes to selling the crop. “It’s not like you can take it to any grain elevator,” he said. “But there are a few destinations in Kentucky and there is a network of organic growers that we’ll talk to, as well.”

He emphasized the idea is not to get farmers to grow 2,000 acres of organic corn but to learn about growing organically together and how to take maybe 10, 20 or 30 acres in organic corn to see how it goes. Not everyone will warm up to the idea. But, Meyer said, for conventional growers it might be different if prices were around $4 a bushel and those producers were losing money.

“What I’m trying to do, if a farmer raises 1,000 acres of corn, get them to take 20 or 30 acres out and experiment with this so that if the market goes down, they’ll be ahead of the game,” he said.
“They’ll know how to grow corn organically and take advantage of that market and jump in, while other farmers will have a two- or three-year learning curve.”

Meyer also pointed out that often, organic operations take smaller areas of land. He said this could prove to be the case in growing organic corn or soybeans, or even alfalfa, and be an attractive venture for a new generation of farmers.

In addition to the workshop, he said instructors will be working with a few producers – with the help of a small grant – who are growing demonstration plots this year. Other farmers will be able to visit those farms in the fall to see how their organic crop fared.
To learn more about organic corn in Kentucky, contact your local extension office.