Markets are begging for more organic corn and soybeans. In 2017, the U.S. imported 16 million bushels of each crop. There’s room for growth, too—organic only accounts for 0.2% of corn and 0.1% of soybean production, according to Rabobank and USDA.
That opportunity has prompted some farmers to make the transition, and in turn, the seed supply chain is ramping up organic production.
Near Cerro Gordo, Ill., Allen Williams grows 600 acres of organic corn, soybeans, wheat, pumpkins and other cereal grains in addition to conventional corn and soybeans.
Before selecting seed, he first determines what crop to grow. “I decide what to raise based on contracts and their profitability. Then I find the seed that meets that need,” says Williams, a customer of Great Harvest Organics.
Certified organic production requires seed not be treated with any synthetic fungicide or insecticide. Because of that, seed vigor and even emergence are more critical.
“We typically plant more defensive corn hybrids, and because of the lack of seed treatments, we look for ear flex in case of emergence problems,” says J.P. Rhea, who farms in Nebraska. “We want a hybrid that canopies early to try to beat weed pressure.”
Seed companies that offer organic products have additional seed quality considerations because production fields are ripe for insects and weeds.
Organic seed production doesn’t allow for multiple insecticide treatments, says Dennis Bracht, president of Seitec Genetics in Fremont, Neb., a company in its first year of commercial organic seed sales. Insects can take little bites out of the kernel, which leads to damage and discoloration.
“We use the latest technology so if damaged seed isn’t sorted out in the gravity machine, we’ll catch it with the advanced color sorter,” he says.
As the organic seed industry continues to develop, farmers and seed companies are eager for the next advancement. “Particularly in soybeans, there’s been a trade-off between protein level and yields,” Rhea says.
Williams is also looking for a breakthrough with soybeans but is pleased with the strides in organic corn and wheat.
“In 2017, my certified organic corn outyielded my conventional corn,” Williams says.
Partnership Aims to Elevate Organic Opportunities
Farmers Business Network (FBN) is partnering with and investing in AgriSecure, a company that helps farmers transition to organic production.
“Organic poultry grew 19% last year, and most of that feed is imported. Here in the U.S. we are missing the opportunity to grow $9 corn for organic poultry,” says J.P. Rhea, founder and CEO of AgriSecure.
Rhea’s family farm in Nebraska started to transition to organic production 10 years ago, first with alfalfa and then corn and soybeans five years ago. This spawned the idea for AgriSecure, which provides assistance in record keeping, certification, agronomics, marketing and finances.
AgriSecure’s current footprint is in Iowa and Nebraska, but they are expanding to South Dakota, North Dakota and Illinois in the near term.