By DOUG GRAVES
WEST ALEXANDRIA, Ohio — Synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are three words that Dale Filbrun and his son, Kenton, of West Alexandria disdain – so much that in 1992, they turned their 500-acre conventional farmland to entirely organic.
“I’ve grown some acreage conventional, so I can compare and see the advantages, but with conventional farming I didn’t see advantages and I didn’t make any money from it,” Kenton said from his Preble County farm.
Last month the Filbruns’ properties (Sonlight Acres and Morning Sun Farm) were two of 25 stops featuring organic and ecological farms and businesses in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan, providing unique opportunities for farmers, educators and conscientious eaters to learn about sustainable agriculture and local foods on the farm.
Dale Filbrun, of Morning Sun Farm, is an early organic pioneer in southwestern Ohio and first became OEFFA-certified in 1995. His farm focuses on organic eggs and produces its own feed grain. He also led visitors through his organic layer houses.
Kenton, of the adjacent Sonlight Acres Farm, led a discussion about transitioning land into organic management. There he talked about mechanical cultivation equipment used on the farm and led visitors to his Great Harvest Seed grain trial plots.
“Seventy percent of organic beans are imported into this country, so there’s plenty of room for growth,” said Kenton, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and hay on the two farms. “Besides, growing organic beans are much more profitable.”
USDA statistics show the United States imports nearly 70 percent of organic soybeans and 40 percent of organic corn, suggesting there is a need that can be filled domestically.
“When taking the organic route, each crop has its own challenges,” he told the gathering. “With each crop you have to be careful with the nitrogen and manage it closely.”
Since weeds are a major obstacle for any organic grower, Kenton illustrated the benefits of his tined weeder. “We began with our weeder when the corn spikes were just emerging and we had more weeds in our corn yield than we have ever seen. The mistake I made was not making a second pass with it.
“Also, if you put a clod of dirt on one corn leaf when the plant is very small, you’ll slow that corn plant down and you’re likely to have a small ear. And this is whether you use a tine weeder or using a rotary hoe.
“On the other hand, you can never be too aggressive when it comes to soybeans. We went 1 inch down with the weeder using our hydraulic adjustable links and we were nearly weed-free in our soybean fields. We took out a few soybean plants but not many,” he said.
“The good thing about a tine weeder is it takes out giant ragweed, and that’s our problem weed on this farm. Giant ragweed can germinate up to 3 inches deep. We didn’t have any problem dealing with grass or broadleaf weeds.”
Kenton said using a mix of weeder and rotary hoe on bean fields may not take out all the weeds but it should slow them down so the crop will get ahead of the weeds.
As with any other crop, organic growing begins with the seeds. Dave Ross, sales and operations manager of Great Harvest Organics, was on hand to discuss with visitors organic seeds and the outlook when planting them.
“Over the past five years we’ve seen a surge in use of organic seeds,” he explained. “There are what we call ‘plow horses’ for the organic market, and those are tough hybrids that take lower fertility and produce a good yield, delivering up to 400 bushels to the acre. With organic growing, weeds and fertility are still our two big problems. We are using manure as a source of that fertility.”
Ross said organic farming is on the rise as Millennials make organic foods part of their lifestyle choices. “When it comes to growing organic, growers should not let the promise of big profits suck you in or the fear of losses drive you away.
“On the organic side, they’re paying you three times as much because it’s three times as risky,” he told growers. “No one’s paying you that unless you’re willing to take some significant risks. You roll the dice every year.”
The market for organics is growing steadily. Prices for grain used as feed as well as food are enticing – recent prices for organic feed-grade corn were $10 per bushel, compared to $3.66 for conventional. Prices for organic soybean and wheat are equally impressive.
“All day long, you can make money at $6 corn,” Ross said. “At $10, I’m certain you can make more money on the organic side, even with lower yield.”
Each stop is part of the 2018 Sustainable Farm Tour and Workshop Series that began June 7 with the Cultivation and Weed Control in Organic Systems Field Day in Lexington, Ky., and will conclude Sept. 16 at the Diversified Vegetable Farm and Commercial Kitchen Tour in Milan, Mich. The tour is backed by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Assoc.