Renewable Farming

Farmers’ enthusiasm and confidence continues strong at ACRES USA conference

Here’s a major compelling reason that about 1,500 farmers attend the annual ACRES USA conference each year, and carry home ideas to use: They’re encouraged by the upbeat attitudes among other farmers, seminar presenters and the product providers they meet.

Dec. 6, 2016  By Jerry Carlson — Most of the growers visiting in the hallways of the Omaha Hilton are either organic, non-GMO or transitioning toward that end of the agronomic spectrum. At the Hilton Omaha (a four-star hotel), farmers chatting in the hallways and forum rooms were uniformly cheerful and eager to learn. Few expressed anxiety about organic corn prices, which have eased to $8 per bushel (down from the 5-year average of $12). Nobody whined about $18 organic beans (down from the 5-year average near $24).  There’s still plenty of profit margin in those prices, especially when the most precious “input” is management skill and organic experience. USDA tracks major organic grain prices every two weeks, posting the summary as a downloadable PDF  at this link.

At the conference I quizzed some longtime friends — those who began organic farming on a commercial scale at least 10 years ago: “How much is your net return per acre to your land and management, across the whole farm, for your organic crops?”  The range of answers:  $1,000 to $1,700 per acre.  That’s just crops. Adding livestock returns, such as organic milk, is another tier of earnings. 

Start with gross income: 180-bu. organic corn times the “depressed” price of $8. A $1,440 gross return per acre (minus $400 for seed, labor, equipment, biologicals and organic fertility) gives a $1,000 return for land and management.  Fifty-bu. soybeans at $18 per bushel drags down the average farm-wide return, grossing only $900 an acre and netting roughly half of that. Usually, the rotations on organic farms include some specialty, high-value crops like blue corn, popcorn, or pinto beans which are part of rotations. 

the non-GMO growers were upbeat at Omaha, too. Hallway chats were like fresh air, compared to the usual vacant stares and hopeless sighs at typical farm shows the last 24 months. Since our first Pro Farmer seminar in Peoria in 1972, I’ve attended literally hundreds of seminars and farm equipment shows. The atmosphere in the past couple of years at ordinary farmer gatherings is very muted. Producers see no immediate answers. Illinois Farm Business Farm Management records show the average net farm income of the group’s 1,300 farms in 2012 was $262,917. In 2015, the latest available report, average net farm income of 1,377 farming cooperators was $5,188. When 2016 summaries are tallied, that net will probably turn negative. And the attitude out there will be like the old Russian lament:  “Well, this year was terrible, but it’s better than next year.”

Years of high income farming with traited crops, easy weed control with Roundup and Liberty and the others, propelled farmers into bidding for more acres as the fastest way to expand total income. That gradually built a crop budget framework best described as “brittle.” Not many places to cut. Examples for corn, from Iowa State numbers: Gotta have $110 an acre for seed. $100 for NPK and lime. $40 for herbicides, and then probably $30 for fungicides to try to keep the corn alive through September.  $80 an acre to cover depreciation and maintenance on all that big equipment. Then there’s $250 or so rent, which landowners stubbornly won’t back away from easily because they know someone more desperate will pay it. It all adds up to about $700 an acre in costs including depreciation. Even with a 180-bu. yield, the realistic net sinks to a negative $125 per acre.

Crop budgets for long-established organic growers are more fieldwork and intensive management.

(Nothing like the Roundup Routine:  1. Plant. 2. Call co-op to spray. 3. Combine.)

For example, David Vetter’s organic farm near Marquette, NE moved into organic management in 1953 when David’s father, Don, anticipated the “chemicalization” trend. Currently, David has a nine-year rotation of organic crops at his farm. David is arranging for the 280-acre farming operation to “graduate” into a foundation in the future, preserving its heritage and mission. The farm is home to a grain cleaning and merchandising enterprise, Grain Place Foods, Inc.  Just visiting with David, or even reading their website’s invitation to hire a “Resident Farmer,” is an enlivening experience.

Here are some signals that reveal why the tide of organic/sustainable/non-GMO/quality food production is definitely on the rise, lifting those farmers who’ve set their sails into the winds of change.

1. Consumer demand is rattling the food chain of retailers, processors and purveyors to satisfy needs for fresh, wholesome foods. Almost every month, some new food-related website emerges. Right here in backwater northeast Iowa, we’ll have a new Natural Grocers food store for organic and non-GMO foods, opening December 21. Our local Natural Grocers market will join dozens of others in this chain of good-food outlets, which covers most of the U.S. — with the exception of the East and West Coasts.

There’s also a “food revolution” among activist groups opposing GMOs and toxins in our food. Notable here is the Moms Across America uprising, which documents the health impacts on American children. Here’s an example of this crusade.

2. Academic and government bureaucracies are paying attention to soil microbiology. When I joined Farm Journal in the mid-1960s, Agronomy Editor Ralph Wennblom advised me, a cub writer from Iowa, that “the only reason we need soil is to hold up the crop. Everything we need to grow the crop, we can apply to the ground or spray on the leaves.”

USDA has a new focus on Soil Health; trying to develop a fresh measure of what it means biologically. Successful Farming carried a report on that earlier in 2016, with special mention of Cornell.   Several land-grant universities are featuring conferences labeled “soil health” this winter.  Check out Iowa State University Extension’s detailed program for Feb. 16-17 at this link.  A web search of “soil health” will give you links to many other such conferences. It isn’t just NPK anymore.

If you attended the University of Missouri’s ag college several years ago, it was a bit touchy to bring organic ideas and presentations into the Monsanto Auditorium. Even so, courageous researchers like Dr. Robert Kremer, based at USDA/ARS offices on campus, gave two presentations at the ACRES conference. Both revealed that soil fertility research is broadening into the “biological” realms, meaning the soil food web rather than genetic engineering and chemistry. We’ll have a summary or two of what he said at ACRES.

For decades, agronomic science defined productive soil in chemical terms; a soil analysis was NPK and traces, with a nod to the Haney test or carbon dioxide respiration to get a clue if anything’s alive down there.  Now, says Dr. Kremer, there’s intense interest in exploring the full spectrum of soil life and finding a more productive “definition” of real fertility. It’s deja vu back to AgriEnergy Resources founder Dave Larson, who told ACRES conferees 30 years ago that the “most fertile soil is the one with the broadest spectrum of balanced soil life.” In that soil web he included bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, earthworms and the entire array of larger creatures that create tilth, structure and crop productivity. 

Dr. Kremer and a few other researchers are also extending their research into the formerly taboo topics such as the impact of glyphosate on soil organisms. (About 30 years ago at a Washington, DC ag reception, I asked an EPA official if his agency required chemical firms to analyze the effect of their weedkillers on soil microbes. She looked puzzled. “No, just on lab animals like rats and rabbits.”)  

An example of how Extension services are emphasizing and re-defining soil health is at this link — an article by Andi Nichols, University of Nebraska Extension, on how cover crops affect soil’s biological properties.

3. Organic and natural farming education channels are widening far outside the confines of what we call our university system. For example, on Feb. 23-25 near us at La Crosse, WI, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service will again host “the largest event in the U.S. about organic and sustainable farming, offering 65 workshops over 6 sessions, inspiring keynotes, engaging Roundtables, and a resource-packed Exhibit Hall with over 170 vendors.” 

Acronymed the MOSES conference, it’s one more powerful signal that producers and commercial ag suppliers are finding their own way out of a chemical/GMO wilderness. 

4. A wider range of eco-friendly ag suppliers are researching and marketing an astonishing array of crop production products. When we first started experimenting with WakeUP in 2008, there was a scattering of such firms. Now there are hundreds, and these firms will sprout the new wunderkinds of the biological farming future — pioneers like Dr. Dan Skow and Dave Larson and Gary Zimmer (just look at the 24 ACRES U.S.A. “Achievement Award” honorees since 1994).  Note that there will be over 170 such suppliers at the MOSES conference. There were over 70 at the ACRES conference in Omaha; would have been more but hotel space ran out.

Gabe and Paul Brown (photo from their website)

5. The passion of eco-farming participants is contagious. The ACRES audience gave Dr. Don Huber a standing ovation following a morning-long presentation at ACRES pointing out the full spectrum of facts challenging GMO and glyphosate technology.

I thanked Gabe Brown, who with his family has integrated natural rotations, cover crops and livestock on their North Dakota ranch, for making such a huge personal effort in presenting his ranch’s production story to thousands of competing farmers around the world.

Gabe replied to me, “We do it because we’re passionate about it.” 

And that passion among producers, more than any other market or technical force, is energizing what we label Renewable Farming.

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