When Elizabeth City, N.C., farmer Richard Parker says he is carrying on an old family tradition — he’s not using the line from the old Hank Williams Jr. song lightly.
Parker’s family helped settle the state back in the 1700s and he and his wife Laura are members of the First Families of North Carolina. He and his wife and son continue to farm on the same land his ancestors settled on hundreds of years ago.
In a way Parker has gone way back to his roots, taking up organic farming a few years back and technically raising grain much the way his earliest ancestors did back in the 1700s and 1800s.
Parker says he got involved in organic farming because he wanted his son to farm and keep the family tradition going. He says he saw his father work many days applying pesticides to produce crops, never using a mask or any safety devices. His father died of cancer at an early age and Parker believes exposure to pesticides played a role.
“I didn’t want my son to get into farming and be exposed to that kind of risk. Organic crops was a good option and has worked out well for us,” Parker says.
Parker started out with four acres of organic vegetables in 1990. He has added 20-30 acres per year and now grows more than 400 acres of organic corn, soybeans, and grain sorghum.
He also grows about 2,500 acres of conventional grain crops. The conventional operation he and his son operate is separate from his organic operation, both from a business and practical standpoint. There are a number of things you have to do to prevent cross-contamination of organic and conventional crops to maintain your organic certification, he explains.
“With organics you have to think outside the box. For example, we have to plant our grain sorghum in late June to miss migratory birds. Otherwise, the crop will fly away — in conventional sorghum, you don’t have that problem because seed are treated to prevent bird damage,” Parker says.
An obvious and ongoing problem with any organic crop is weed control. If you get a heavy rain and can’t get into your fields with a rotary hoe or to cultivate, you can get in trouble real quick with no easy way to recover. In a typical year, he says he will cultivate an organic grain crop five or six times.
Working without chemicals, working with cover crops and using different types of crop rotations presents a challenge for organic growers. “I try something new each year, and I really enjoy figuring out how to do things a different way,” Parkers says.
He began growing organic grain in 2003. Now, he plants wheat as a cover crop and follows it with corn, soybeans and grain sorghum. Much of the organic grain is grown in fields in which he previously grew vegetable crops. The residual weeds have been an ongoing problem for the North Carolina grower.
In fields with heavy infestations of pigweed, he found grain sorghum to be much more competitive with these fast growing weeds than soybeans and corn. Grain sorghum, planted late in the summer takes drought better and grows faster than weeds at that time of year. The downside is sorghum is lower demand, so marketing becomes an issue, he adds.
Parker attributes much of his success in the marketing of his organic grain crops to a program started at North Carolina State University by Molly Hamilton. She is an Extension assistant and project coordinator for organic crops.
Hamilton says demand for organic grain has grown over 20 percent per year for the past decade or so. There are five large buyers of organic grain in the state, using over $9 million worth of organic grain. Most of that grain is imported to the state, she says.
“Organic grain is playing a large and growing part in this industry, and North Carolina is poised to be a player in the organic grain market. The demand for organic grain in North Carolina is growing each year. Organic mills and livestock and dairy producers in the state need organic grain and forage crops,” she adds.
Parker says the overall slowing down of the economy has created a price drop in organic grain. “Livestock numbers are down across the country and that carries over into organic livestock and dairying — the demand for our grain is still good, but the prices are down,” Parker adds.
The North Carolina grower says production costs are typically 10 percent-20 percent higher for organic versus conventional grain. The primary additional cost, he says, is time. “We have to keep an extra person employed during some parts of the growing season, because the organic grain is so labor intensive,” Parker points out.
“In the time it takes me to manage 400 acres of organic grain, I could probably farm 1,500 acres or so of conventional grain,” he adds.
Premium prices attained for some organic crops are considerably higher than conventional grain, but for some crops the price is about the same. Last year Parker grew conventional soybeans, organic soybeans and edible tofu soybeans and received comparable prices for all three.
Parker has enough on-farm storage for most of his organic grain. Typically, he sells his organic crop before he grows it, but having storage capacity, he says, is a big advantage in marketing excess bushels of organic grain.
The big difference in growing conventional and organic grain, Parker contends, is managing weeds and insects. Without seed treatments, he is forced to plant corn and soybeans later, which he feels gives his grain crops a better chance to compete with weeds and to sustain insect damage without putting the crop under too much stress.
“In our conventional grain operation, 90 percent of our land is no-tilled. So, there is a big difference in time and cost of planting with conventional crops,” Parker says.
“Every year we lose a few acres to weeds. In severe cases, the most cost-effective strategy is to plow it up and start over. This past year we lost a few acres of corn and re-planted those fields with grain sorghum.”
Planting organic grain no-till is possible, but the key is to have a really good cover crop. Parker has grown rye as a cover crop, followed by corn. He has tried vetch, red clover and a number of other cover crops with varying success. We try a few acres every year, trying to find a no-till system that will work.
Another key to growing organic grain is to develop a good rotation system. Most people who fail at growing organic grain try to do it with a simple corn and soybean rotation and that won’t work too well, Parker contends.
“To get the full potential of organic corn and soybeans you have to use cover crops and/or put a crop like grain sorghum in the rotation. Otherwise grass and weeds will get ahead of you too many times, and you will make a yield, but not nearly what the crop has the potential to make.”
For growers thinking about going organic, Parker says start small, develop your market and add to it as you acquire equipment and knowledge about growing organic grain.
Last year Parker says his organic corn averaged about 80 bushels per acre, comparable to his conventional corn. In the same year, he couldn’t even plant soybeans because of extremely dry weather. Weather is a constant factor in organic grain farming — much more so than in conventional grain crops.
The colorful North Carolina grower says, “If you’re going organic you better be close to the good Lord.”