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Local Food Frontier

Follow the growing local movement in central Illinois from field to fork

More Illinois Farmers See Organic Production as a Way to Add Value


With more than $2 million in infrastructure development and investments, and in collaboration with researchers and professional corn breeders, the Grand Prairie Grain Guild is helping farmers in Illinois adopt more sustainable practices. A project of University of Illinois Extension, Local Food Systems Educator, Bill Davison, sees a variety of factors are coming together that will break through the long-standing barriers that have prevented a significant number of farmers switch to organic production.

Clarkson Grain in Beardstown, IL, and The Scully Land Trust, are playing key roles in this transformation. Clarkson Grain is helping the USDA formulate an organic transition label, a plan that will pay farmers an intermediate price for crops produced during the transition period. That improves the economics and the risk of making the transition. The farm managers and young tenant farmers with The Scully Land Trust see this as an opportunity for improved profitability.

A large and growing body of research has shown that our current industrial food system cannot be sustained over the long-term because the hidden and direct costs are too high. Some of those costs are being brought into sharp relief by the current economics of conventional high-input production. There is no apparent path to profitability in the current conventional commodity market and as a result, some farmers cannot get their operating loans renewed. This reveals that banks are finding the standard approach to commodity crop production to be too risky, driving more farmers' interest in a more viable alternative.

The Grand Prairie Grain Guild's diverse variety trials and increased capacity to breed crops for organic systems will improve the consistency and resilience of new varieties of small grains, corn, and beans that are ideally suited to low-input systems. Most of these varieties will be available for farmers to save seed, and will be sold by local seed companies for significantly lower prices than conventional seeds. This will allow farmers to lower their input costs while adding value to their crops. For farmers looking to break out of the commodity crop cycle, which more often than not produces a negative income based on crop sales according to USDA data, this is one way to do it.

The economics of organic, low-input production offers a path to profitability. Consider this scenario from a certified organic farmer in central Illinois: Improved varieties of open pollinated corn sell for $100 per 50-lb bag and are planted at a population of 24,000 – 28,000 per acre. That results in a per acre seed cost of $30. When these seeds are planted in healthy soil and are part of a diverse crop rotation that includes cover crops, the farmer's skills and knowledge are substituted for chemical inputs and further reduces costs. After taking into account standard operating costs and the cost of manure, cultivation, and cover crop seed, this low input scenario has the potential to generate hundreds of dollars of net income per acre. A relatively small amount of additional work for value-adding and direct marketing can generate thousands of dollars of net profit per acre.

Organic farmers find that when they go through transition, they enter into a positive feedback loop where the increases in soil health provide many benefits that allow further reductions in inputs. It typically takes 3-5 years to begin to restore the life and health of soil. After that period, the soil can have stable or increasing organic matter which results in better drainage and water holding capacity and in better nutrient retention and cycling. Recent advances in soil science have shown that a healthy soil microbiome is the foundation of a more resilient farm. Diverse populations of bacteria, fungi, and other forms of soil life make farming easier and result in healthy plants that are more resistant to insects and disease. When healthy soil is combined with a diverse crop rotation, including full season cover crops, the advantages increase even further.

Seed companies already offer a diverse selection of organic seed, open-pollinated corn that have recorded yields of 160-190 bushels per acre. The Grain Guild intends to further improve these varieties by working with researchers and breeders to develop varieties that are adapted to the soils and conditions experienced on Illinois farms. Stephen Gray with Gray Research in Ashkum is an experienced corn breeder who sees great potential in this approach. He currently breeds hybrid corn for major seed companies and Stephen says "they ask me to breed for three things: yield, yield, and yield." It is this narrow focus on yield at all cost that drives a high-input production model that has become too costly to maintain. Stephen's work for the Grain Guild will be driven by new standards that seek to put the farmer first: resilience and net profitability.

One promising new variety that will be grown across Illinois for the first time this season is called Rebellion. This is an "Organic Ready" variety bred by Frank Kutka that will be evaluated for its ability to reduce cross-pollination from genetically modified plants. If successful, this will increase the probability that organic farmers will receive a premium for their crops. This variety is also part of a new open-source movement in the seed industry, wherein farmers can save seed for re-planting.

The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) currently consists of twenty-three companies and hundreds of varieties on an ever-expanding list. OSSI works with plant breeders who commit to making one or more of their varieties available exclusively under the OSSI Pledge to preserve the unencumbered exchange of plant germplasm for breeding purposes and guarantees the rights of farmers and gardeners to save and replant seed.

New seed saving opportunities and the increased consumer awareness of food and farming issues have many farmers excited about the future. Many of them find that selling food direct to consumers is gratifying and the appreciation they receive from people makes the hard work worthwhile. Dave Bishop from Atlanta, IL has farmed for 35 years and he says "this new connection with consumers and mentoring new farmers makes farming more fun than it has ever been."

Contact: Bill Davison, Extension Educator, Local Foods and Small Farms, (309) 663-8306, wdavison@illinois.edu



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