Nearly a decade ago, Tracy Doonan of Reynolds, Ill., was faced with a tough decision. Without a successor to take over the family farm, Doonan resolved not to buy more land to compete and risk incurring more debt. Instead, he began converting his conventional grain farm into an organic one in the hopes of higher returns.
"We were already doing a rotation program with oats, hay and then cow pasture that would qualify for organic, and I liked the concept of organic," Doonan says.
He did some research and got in touch with Midwest Organic Services Association Inc. (MOSA), an organic certifying agency. It took about three years without using any chemicals to certify his ground as organic. Doonan started enrolling his fields the following year, and by 2010 had turned his entire crop operation organic.
Once he had certified crops to sell, he had to find a market.
"It’s not like conventional crops," he says. "You just can’t throw it in the truck and take it to the local elevator. It creates a different cash flow situation."
Doonan says currently his returns per acre are about the same as with conventional farming. He’s getting a higher price for the commodities and not paying for any other inputs.
The cash flow challenge came from having to find markets to sell to on his own, but he has found several. He started selling straw to Amish farmers in Iowa, and later organic hay. Doonan then learned of a new neutral grain spirits distillery about 25 miles from his farm that wanted to buy local crops. His grain is now being used in the distillery’s vodka and its upcoming bourbon. Doonan is able to sell everything he produces within 120 miles of where he lives.
Expert Help. MOSA representatives helped Doonan make the switch to organic, but he also got advice from another organic producer with whom he could share ideas. "First you have to know what’s involved," says Bonnie Wideman, MOSA executive director.
Both Doonan and Wideman say the transitional period can be difficult because the crop is being raised as organic but sold as conventional.
"Organic production takes more management time, and there is a learning curve to do things right," says Harriet Behar, organic specialist with Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Behar says once practices are in place, an organic farmer can make $150 to $200 per acre whereas a conventional farmer would make $20. She attributes the higher payment to the time and products put in the field.
Doonan says his father dedicated his life to making the family farm more productive, and organic farming suits the legacy he left behind.
"It was slow building and slow management, but seeing how hard he worked, along with his two sons, to restore this land had quite an impact on me," Doonan says. "I think it had a lot to do with my decision to farm organically."