An organic way of farming
By KRISS NELSON
POLK CITY – In many ways, there are a lot of changes from how Aaron Lehman farms compared to his family when they began farming 149 years ago.
But in some ways, it’s the same.
One hundred forty-nine years ago, the Lehmans weren’t able to use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Fast forward to 2018 and the Lehmans are raising crops in much of the same way.
Lehman, a fifth-generation farmer, came back to his family farm 20 years ago. After some time, he decided to start exploring the idea of incorporating some organic production into their farming system in order to provide some diversity to their operation.
“We started organic farming about 12 years ago,” he said. “Some (acres) have been in about that long and I have just added on from there. I have a field in transition right now.”
Lehman said out of his 600 acres, about half of that is in organic production and they continue to slowly transition a field at a time.
Making the transition
Lehman said in order to become organically certified, there are very strict guidelines that have been set up by the federal government.
“There are individual private certifiers you sign up and they are responsible to make sure you are following those rules,” he said. “The major thing to remember that it takes three years and the ground you are transitioning to organic can’t have any synthetic prohibited substances applied to it. There is a long transition period.”
The biggest synthetic prohibited substance Lehman needed to replace for his operation was anhydrous ammonia. To find a replacement for a nitrogen source for his organic corn, he uses manure or plants corn after alfalfa or clover.
Record keeping is also a large part of an organic farming operation.
“I have to show record that I have bought organic seed and that I have bought fertilizer that is organic compliant,” he said.
Next to record keeping, Lehman said another challenge is the cleaning out process during harvest.
“The toughest thing for me and a lot of organic crop farmers – if they have a clean out to do – is the combine and augers,” he said. “The planter and other equipment, they clean out OK. But I always joke that my conversion day in the fall is kind of the most miserable day.”
Lehman said he has to manage his inputs a little differently on his organic acres versus his conventional acres.
“I grow organically-certified seed, and that seed doesn’t have the typical seeds treatments, so I have to plant that a little later,” he said. “I can’t afford to have that seed sitting in cold, wet soil. It needs to pop up and start competing with weeds right away. I have to adjust the relative maturity of my organic fields versus my conventional fields because of that.”
Lehman purchases his organically-certified seeds from Blue River Seeds, of Ames, and the majority of his fertilizer comes from neighbor’s manure.
As far as weed control, Lehman said he uses a lot of methods versus having one big hammer, like herbicides he uses on his conventional acres.
“There’s a lot of little hammers. Rotation is where you start,” he said. “You have a longer-term rotation and that breaks up the weed cycle. That’s the first thing. Our typical rotation for us has been a three-year rotation using oats and clover; the clover comes back up the next spring, we plow it under with a chisel plow, plant that to corn and the following year after corn we plant soybeans.”
Other tools Lehman uses for weed control, in addition to rotation, is trying for a clean seed bed in the spring with tillage before planting. Then he will come back with one or two rotary hoe passes or a harrow pass and then two to three passes with a cultivator and in soybeans he has a bean-walking crew.
He pointed out that having a diversified farm is a lot like his family farm was ran 149 years ago, but with a modern twist on old methods.
“The engineering has improved on these old techniques,” he said. “The cultivators are better, the harrows are better, everything’s a little bit better. We’re learning more about using rotations the right way.”
Although he may make more passes over his acres compared to conventional farmers, Lehman claims it still pays.
“We have to use some of those techniques, but you’re not paying for the chemical and for us, those have been our profitable acres these past years and there hasn’t been a ton of profit in the industry,” he said.
Cover crops are also being used on the Lehman farm as a mode of weed control.
“My cleanest soybean field this year is an experiment I tried,” he said. “I flew on cover crop seeds into the corn, the rye came up in the fall, came up really good in the spring, and after I planted into the tall rye, then I rolled it and that’s my cleanest field.”
Lehman added he has been utilizing cover crops on his conventional acres as well.
A market for organic crops
Lehman raises organic oats, corn and soybeans and hay. However, his organic hay typically isn’t marketed as such due to a lack of market nearby and the logistics of transporting hay.
His organic corn and soybeans are largely ground up for organic feed for organic livestock.
“The crops are stored and usually I use a service to find buyers,” he said. “Sometimes I go direct to the user, but typically, I get a little help to market the product.”
Lehman said there is a cost advantage to growing organically-certified crops.
“With crop prices where they have been the past five years, my organic prices have dropped a little, but the premium has still remained,” he said. “I was telling a group recently that when we send a semi full of our conventional corn, we will have right at or less than $3,000 coming back to us for that semi load full of conventional corn. But when organic corn leaves in a semi, it’s going to be about $9,000 so there is a big premium in corn. There is a good premium in soybeans and oats, but like a lot of organic crop farmers, oats is not as strong as other crops in the system.”
Benefits of organic
In addition to better profits and margins per acre there is more to why the Lehmans are choosing to farm organic.
“We do appreciate the principles of organic production,” he said. “We agree with those. You use natural products. You’re taking advantage of resources on your farm, so there are some sustainable agriculture things that are incorporated into those organic rules. I am dual operation. I have some experience of both sides of it. Applying chemicals and fertilizers is a dangerous thing. It’s not my favorite thing to do. Primarily, we like the organic system and we are glad we could incorporate it into our farm and we do think there is some potential there for it to be long term economically-sustainable.”
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