Hippies and anti-GMO zealots grow organic crops. Right? Wrong.
Timothy Gertson kicks up dirt off Texas’ Gulf Coast, southwest of Houston in Wharton County. He’s a young 31, but Gertson is an old-school farmer with no time for ideology and no wish to curb his options. Field decisions across his 2,000 acres at G5 Farms are dictated by dollars, and in 2016, he’s found a profit window in organic corn.
Making the Big Switch to Organic
As grain prices tank, necessity is the mother of organic acreage for many producers. USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey showed $3.3 billion in total value of crops sold, a big jump from 2008’s $2 billion. Corn for grain had the fourth highest 2014 sales of any organic crop ($155 million), following lettuce, apples and grapes. Gertson is tapping an organic vein that shows scant signs of wilting.
In 2014, several of Gertson’s neighboring producers planted organic rice, and he watched a hungry market gobble the harvest. But rice drinks copious amounts of water as a necessary means of weed control, and Gertson’s organic interest was trumped by moisture concerns. Flood the rice and hold the flood, when water is already stretched thin? By July 2015, anemic commodity prices pushed Gertson to action and he looked first toward organic grain sorghum. Grain sorghum is a constant in his crop roster and his preferred row crop due to low inputs. (G5 Farms typically has 200 to 1,000 acres of grain sorghum.) But a drab $7.50 per organic bushel was the best price around and not shiny enough to entice a jump.
Next stop: organic corn. Sounding out an offer of $10.50 per bushel, Gertson was all in. Coyote Creek Mill in Elgin, Texas, offered to park trailers on the turnrow and all Gertson had to do was fill them. On March 4-5, 2016, Gertson broke open bags of untreated, plain yellow corn. He planted Blue River Hybrids 70A50 across 220 acres of a 2,000-acre rented block of pastureland. The acreage is not only his initial foray into organics, it’s also the first corn of any type he’s ever grown. Prior to planting, he visited with several growers who had experience with BRH 70A50 to get a feel for yield expectation. “The potential is there for 80 bu. per acre and 100 bu. per acre with perfect conditions. Right now, I can make money at 30 bu. per acre and that’s my starting goal,” Gertson says. “That’s low, but I’m not shooting for the sky. I just want to learn this year.”
Anemic commodity prices pushed Timothy Gertson, Wharton County, Texas, toward organic corn in 2016. © G5 Farms
More Worried About Wild Pigs Than GMO Drift
Gertson is concerned about drift from his other crops, but his corn is well buffered on three sides by pasture, and is fronted by a 100’ canal. The other side of the water rubs against a 30’ turnrow with conventional rice paddies along its edge. Another concern already causing major problems is Texas’ wild pig plague. Fresh corn is a drug for wild pigs, a constant worry at G5 Farms. The day after Gertson planted, pigs came out of the bottoms and hit the field like surgeons, picking out seed and moving methodically down the rows. It was a bitter lesson and forced an 80-acre replant. Gertson traps, shoots at night with thermal equipment, and periodically hires a helicopter crew to hunt pigs – but they always come back in numbers.
His organic corn is dryland and won’t fight at the water trough with 1,450 acres of conventional rice. By far, rice carries the least risk on Gertson’s operation. It’s the most expensive crop to grow, but returns are far more secure. “Many rice farmers I know are already growing organic grain. Row crop farmers can’t understand organics at first, but they understand money,” Gertson explains. “I made this decision purely based on profit and it makes sense for my farm.”
The majority of Gertson’s acreage is blackland clay, a heavy and hard to work soil that sticks to boots and makes a farmer taller. It can be too soft and give way or toughen to a concrete pan, but the payoff can produce big yields. Gertson’s organic corn acreage sits on sandier blackland, a soil recipe he hopes will be ideal.
Seed and fertilizer should be top expenses, according to Gertson. Seed cost $45 per acre, and he applied 3 tons of chicken manure at $75 per acre. “If it’s a good crop, I’ll spray organically derived Bt at $7 to $8 per acre and I’ll have to spray several times. Again, this is a learning experience for me.” Ideally, Gertson would like to rotate organic corn with a cover crop or winter wheat combination. (Mowed down as mulch in the spring and no-tilled into the mat to fight off weeds.)
G5 Farms has gained full organic certification, but Gertson says the application process was lengthy and he was consistently frustrated with open-ended questions. He turned in 80 pages of paperwork to the Texas Department of Agriculture including forms, maps, and FSA records. “No question; it was a headache. I had to fill it out by hand and it sure seems like an antiquated system. You can certify through private entities, but I want to know every detail I’m signing up for. I don’t want to be on the hook for something I didn’t read.”
Organic as a Market-Driven Decision
Betsy Rakola, USDA organic policy advisor, says the health of the organic crop industry bodes well for producers. “Certifiers continue to receive more applications and we’ve heard that interest is doubling in organic farm tours. The market for organic products is strong and can be two to three, or even four times higher than conventional wholesale prices.”
The future of the overall organic industry is a million-dollar question, but organic livestock feed, Rakola emphasizes, shows particularly strong projections for continued growth. “Companies are searching for organic feed to meet their demand, so imports are very robust. Livestock feed is a big and growing market. Folks are thinking anywhere from a 12% to 15% jump over the next three years in retail sales.”
Fifty miles to the southeast of Gertson in Matagorda County, Richard Beyer, 38, has been growing organic crops for four years. On a 3,000 acre operation, he has 900 acres of organic corn, rice and soybeans. In 2012, Beyer broke organic ground with corn and chased the premium. “I had land available and I was watching the demand for organics going up. My decision was totally market driven. Stay profitable and diversify.”
Beyer aims for 40 bu. per acre yields on corn, and 20 bu. per acre yields on soybeans. Echoing Gertson’s operation, seed and fertilizer are Beyer’s biggest organic expenses. He plants Blue River Hybrids and fertilizes with mushroom compost a few weeks prior to planting. “Four years back, some farmers were skeptical about what I was doing. Since then, skepticism has turned to curiosity. They see grain is relatively easy to market because there are a bunch of buyers out there.”
As for Gertson, he plans on increasing organic production to take advantage of a market he doesn’t want to ignore. “Many of my farming friends thought I was crazy to plant organic corn, but when they heard the price, the understanding was immediate. This was a 100% business decision. Row crop farmers may not understand organics at first, but they understand money.”