What is in this article?:
• Billy Carter, who grows more than a thousand acres of conventional and organic crops, says he first became interested in organic production in the mid-1990s.
• In addition to growing organic tobacco, Carter also produces organic tobacco transplants, which, he admits, can be challenging from time to time.
• In his conventional operation he grows soybeans, tobacco, small grains, sweet corn, strawberries, watermelons, and tomatoes.
ORGANIC TOBACCO is high risk and high reward for North Carolina grower Billy Carter.
Conventional crops fit also
Despite being in the organic business for 13 years, he says fitting his conventional crops into his organic mix remains an ongoing challenge. “We can’t just say ‘we’re organic growers’ because of the marketing challenges.
“I don’t plan to ever be 100 percent organic — I like both methods of farming, and I don’t think one will work to the exclusion of the other the way our farm is set up,” he says.
Wheat has proven to be the proverbial low hanging fruit when it comes to parallel production of conventional and organic crops.
“The major difference for us is fitting organic wheat in a rotation with organic tobacco.”
Most of his tobacco goes to European markets, so he has to have European organic certification, which doesn’t allow for the use of poultry litter. That takes away the primary source of nitrogen for wheat, he says.
The other issue is timing of planting wheat. You have to plant organic wheat late enough to avoid Hessian fly on the front side and still have enough tillers set before freezing weather hits to make a full crop going into the spring.
“Then, there is some serious cleaning of wheat harvest equipment, because we don’t have dedicated organic and conventional wheat combines. Plus, the increased record keeping involved with growing parallel crops is a problem,” the North Carolina grower says.
Wheat also fits well into his organic rotation. He plants wheat as soon as he gets tobacco out in late summer. Then, he puts a soil-building summer-winter-summer cover crop consisting of sudangrass in the summer, followed by rye and vetch in the winter and sudangrass prior to tobacco, followed by another wheat crop. This three-year rotation provides an extra premium price for his organic tobacco.
A part of the extra value for organic tobacco, he notes, comes from the extra risk associated with leaving land without a crop for two years.
He can grow one wheat crop and build up his soil with his winter/summer/winter cover crops. “You are doing something real good for your soil, but you don’t get any direct income from that land,” he says.
“Though leaving the land without a crop is technically a fallow crop, we think we are getting a true advantage in terms of extra nitrogen and more importantly from the pest control benefits of having land out of crop production for about a year and a half,” Carter says.
“We have really grown fond of sudangrass in the rotation over the years, because it offers a lot of really quick growth and it competes very well with most weeds. We control our weeds by not letting it go to seed,” the North Carolina grower adds.
The extra cost of producing organic tobacco differs from year to year, he says, but generally is 20 percent or more higher than conventional production costs. There is more labor and most of the inputs are more expensive — none are less expensive, he says.
For anyone interested in getting into organic farming, Carter urges them to think about long-range plans for setting up a cropping system.
How organic crops interact with one another is highly critical in an organic system, because of the limitations you have on pest control and building soil fertility, he says.