North Carolina and Virginia are among the top states in organic crop production in the South, especially in areas in which tobacco production has declined.

For those growers the deadline is coming March 12 to sign up for the NRCS Organic Initiative, which is administered via the agency’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The Initiative was included in the 2008 farm bill to provide incentives for organic growers. It can provide up to $20,000 per year and $80,000 over six years to help farmers transitioning to organic production.

A number of "core" organic conservation practices may be funded through the Organic Initiative, including cover crops, conservation crop rotation, prescribed grazing, pest management, nutrient management, and forage harvest management. All conservation practices offered under "general" EQIP are also available through the Organic Initiative, including, but not limited, to fence and watering facilities for rotational grazing, erosion control practices, field borders, etc.

EQIP was reauthorized in the 2008 farm bill. Although applications for EQIP funding can be made throughout the year, to be considered for 2010, these applications must be submitted to the grower’s local National Resource Conservation Service office by March 12.

Molly Hamilton, who heads North Carolina State University’s organic farming program says, “Applicants who are currently certified organic will need to include their organic system plan (OSP) — one which has been reviewed accredited USDA organic certifier — when applying for financial assistance in the Organic Initiative under EQIP.”

“For growers transitioning land to be certified organic, they will need to submit a self-certification form to the NRCS, agreeing to develop and implement conservation practices necessary for organic certification. Self-certification forms can be obtained at the time the grower applies at any NRCS Service Center,” Hamilton adds.

Organic grain crops and peanut production in the Southeast will likely get a big shot in the arm in the coming years from a joint project among several universities to develop new varieties for organic production.

This new project, Breeding for Organic Production Systems, will release new varieties of corn, soybeans, wheat, and peanuts by 2012, and seek to develop a dialogue between plant breeders and farmers and their advisors. Breeders will expand their field trial programs to include multiple organic sites on working organic farms. Breeders and farmers can make a realistic assessment of how new breeding lines will perform under actual organic conditions.

Lack of tobacco and peanut contracts as late as early February may spur more farmers to look at organics as an option to diversify their farm production. The advice of organic farmers and university researchers alike is to take it slow.

Elizabeth City, North Carolina organic grower Richard Parker grows both organic and conventional grain. “My son handles most of the conventional crops and I handle most of the organics. There has to be some way to separate the two crops because production is so different,” Parker says.

The North Carolina grower says production costs are typically 10-20 percent higher for organic versus conventional grain. The primary additional cost, he says, is time. “We have to keep an extra person employed at some times during 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.

Organic grain production in North Carolina has grown at more than 20 percent per year since 2004. Projections are for continued growth at better than 20 percent through 2014, which would make organic grain production a competitive partner for acreage in the state.

Hamilton says, “Switching to organic agricultural production from conventional requires a 36 month transition period. Experienced grain farmers can use their skills, knowledge and experience with growing conventional grains as a base to build new production proficiency with crop rotation, cover crops, mechanical weed control, recordkeeping for certification and marketing of organic crops.

“Most North Carolina farmers have a diverse rotation that includes corn, wheat and soybeans. Since there are markets for these crops grown organically, little capital investment is needed to go organic on these farms. However, mechanical weed equipment and/or separate storage facilities may be needed,” she says

Though it takes 36 months to transition land to organic certification, there may be some markets available to sell grain from land during the transition process. Some grain buyers in the Midwest are looking for non-transgenic (non-GMO) corn and soybeans, which would be used in transitional production. Some livestock producers in North Carolina and South Carolina are also looking for non-transgenic grains for feed and are willing to pay a small premium for them.

“These markets may be harder to identify than traditional organic markets, but they can provide economic incentives for the transition years to go organic,” Hamilton says. Growers interested in more information on marketing organic crops can find a list of buyers at the North Carolina State organics Web site: www.cropsci.ncsu.edu/organicgrains/marketing/buyers.htm.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com