By LAURIE KIEFABER
FRANKTON, Ind. — Organic farming takes patience and a willingness to experiment, but those who try it often end up with better soil health and save money, according to presenters at the Shuter Sunset Farms Field Day in Frankton.
Approximately 80 people attended the Sept. 6 event organized by Mike Shuter and representatives of Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative of Princeton, Ind. Other sponsors for the day were Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and Soil Health Partnership.
Shuter, whose grandfather, Leslie, bought the 200-acre farm in 1950, decided to try organic farming for the potential savings. "It's a way of creating diversity in our operation and once we get there, it will be a more profitable enterprise than what corn and soybeans are at the moment," he said.
"And you can still maintain the soil health." It takes three years to transition land to organic farming.
Another presenter, Klaas Martens, who farms in the Finger Lakes area of New York, said there are yield data to back that up. He said a longtime Cornell University researcher, Bill Cox, compared side-by-side conventional and organic farming as part of a grant program study. Cox saw a yield of 175 bushels of corn per acre with conventional farming "and gave it everything but the kitchen sink."
At the end of the growing season, the crop had water stress. With organic farming, Cox got 206 bushels per acre because the soil was healthier and had better water storage.
Martens, who farmed conventionally for 20 years, also switched to organic farming to be more cost-effective. "In the 1980s, corn prices were pretty rotten," he explained, noting organic input costs are usually lower than those in conventional farming.
In his 25 years of organic farming, he has been an advisor on many Cornell research projects, and serves on the Yates County Soil and Water Conservation District board of directors, the board of the Soil Health Institute in Raleigh, N.C., and the board of the Farm Foundation.
One reason behind the profitability of organic farming is that typical corn/soybean crop rotation stalls productivity over time, according to several presenters and Michael O'Donnell, Delaware County extension educator. "Cover crops and hay/pasture incorporated into longer rotations will help with weed management, soil building, nitrogen fixation and disruption of pest life cycles," he said.
Longtime no-till Indiana farmers Dan DeSutter of Attica and Rick Clark of Williamsport seemed to agree, and presented several principles essential for organic soil health.
These include planting cover crops as "armor for the soil ... (Soil and plants are) designed to run on the mycorrhizal system, which is like the internet of the soil," DeSutter explained. Plants often give off sugar in the soil, which feeds the microbes; the microbes in turn help plants take in key nutrients like nitrogen.
Cover crops also keep soil temperatures down, which is essential for microbes to live, he said. Clark measured the soil temperature under rye that had been rolled down at 71 degrees Fahrenheit. Under bare dirt, the temperature was more than 90 degrees.
Martens said helpful cover crops can include yellow mustard and buckwheat (to reduce root rot), and radishes (which work on nematodes). "One sweet alyssum per 100 square feet of romaine lettuce almost eliminates aphids," he added.
Networking with other organic farmers is "the biggest key to making (organic farming) work," Shuter said.
Martens said forming a small network and regularly meeting is necessary to solve problems quickly, and there's still plenty of market share for everyone. About 75-80 percent of organic soybean and 40-50 percent of organic corn was imported in 2016-17, according to the USDA.
To help grow 78 acres of certified organic corn and 182 acres in transition, Shuter is modifying current equipment as part of his business, Shuter Soil Health Solutions. The longtime farmer has built a "hot water weeder," which shoots 220- to 230-degree Fahrenheit water and causes the weeds to blister, dehydrate and die.
The no-till equipment can be used in organic or conventional farming and can save on the chemical cost of burndown or later-season chemistry. With a patent pending, this model has seven hoods that spray water to cover six rows of corn or beans. Shuter is still making modifications, and the finished product will have 13 hoods to cover 12 rows.
To make seeding cover crops easier, he also has developed two seeder options for high-clearance sprayers. One option replaces the spray tank with a seeder box, and replaces the boom with a seeder boom.
The other option is a "hook-and-go" model with seeder boxes already mounted, complete with aluminum booms and plumbing. For more information, visit www.shutersunsetfarms.com