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Challenges & Opportunities for Large Scale Organic Farming

Konzelmann Farms near Wyoming Ontario

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Better Farming magazine.

For Dan Konzelmann, who farms 1,800 acres near Wyoming, Ont., the transition to organic was motivated by a troublesome soybean field.

“We sprayed Roundup (glyphosate) before planting but (the field) still had weeds.  To save the soybean crop, we used an in-row cultivator.  At the same time, we were also talking to different guys about organics.  From there we thought, why not try cultivating more, and not spray as much,” Konzelmann explains.

“The money was a big issue in the beginning, but then you start to see all of the other benefits.  You can have your kids with you, chemical storage is no longer an issue.  Pretty much anything I apply to the field I can taste.”

“We became convinced it was the right way to farm.”

Many of the organic farmers Konelmann meets have 200 to 300 acres.  Especially over the last few years, however,  farmers with larger acreages are showing more interest in organics,” he says.

For those organic producers working over 1,000 acres, Konzelmann emphasizes that there are some important factors to consider.

“If you are farming more than 1,000 acres, you need more people and more equipment.  You need to be quick and react – prevent issues rather than let them happen. You don’t have the chemical bill, but those dollars go to equipment and labour.”

In row cultivating, equipment becomes important.

“If you are starting small, you can purchase an old scuffler and then, after a year or two, invest in specialized equipment suited to your farm,” he suggests.

You also need good equipment operators.

“For your hired help, be selective and find someone good… They need to know how to operate and adjust equipment – have a feeling for it,” Konzelmann advises.

And Konzelmann also has recommendations about the transition from conventional to organic production.

First, he notes that soil testing is important.  “If your fertility is low, you want to address that before transition begins.  Go into transition with balanced soil.”

Crop selection is also a key consideration, he says.

“Avoid demanding crops like corn in your transition years.  (Grow) soybeans or grains that can build up the soil.  Then, in the first year of organic, (cultivate) corn or soybeans to have a good payoff.”

“Not being able to use commercial nitrogen fertilizer has an immediate impact for farmers, and it can be one of the largest challenges during transition,” adds Jake Munroe, Soil Fertility Specialist for Field Crops with OMAFRA.

“Legume cover crops, planting corn after alfalfa, using manure effectively, and looking at allowable organic fertilizers are all options farmers will need to explore.  You need to provide enough nitrogen to achieve reasonable yields,” Munroe says.

Konzelmann currently does a five-year crop rotation, with parcels of about 350 acres per crop.

Year one is corn, followed by two years of soybeans.  In years four and five, he grows cereal grains, such as spelt or wheat, with cover crops.

“Red clover helps to build nitrogen for the corn,” notes Konzelmann.  He also uses an oats and peas combination, usually planting the crop the first week of October.

“They freeze out over the winter, the worms eat all of the residue and then you have a clean field in the spring,” he explains.

In terms of crop inputs, Konzelmann’s favourite is compost.

“All of the straw from our fields goes to the neighbour’s into bedding for pigs or mixed with chicken manure.  If I leave the straw in the field, it takes nitrogen from the soil to compost.  By taking (the straw) off the fields to compost I avoid draining nitrogen, then reapply it as compost which delivers nitrogen.”

Munroe emphasizes that, “there are few quick fixes within an organic production system, so it is critical to set a solid foundation with a good crop rotation. The well-planned use of cover crops is essential.”

It’s best to be open minded and want to learn, Konzelmann says.  “Transition 100-200 acres at a time.  Learn as you go.  It’s a lot easier to make mistakes.  You need to be able to say ‘if these acres are a disaster then I can still take the risk.’”

He recalls the farmer who tried transitioning his 1,000 acres in two 500 acre blocks, only to run into problems.  Stressed and frustrated, the farmer pulled his sprayer back out.

In Konzelmann’s case, he did not face challenges with weeds early on in the transition but notes this can always be a possibility.

“On our farm there was not a lot of weed pressure in the first couple of years.  You need to be prepared for that though, and for weeds like burdock and thistle,” he says.

Dan also notes it is important to have a contract before planting – particularly for more speciality crops.  “Beans and corn always sell well.  But you just can’t go to the elevator and dump your spelt,” he cautions.

Even for farmers not interested in transitioning to organic, Munroe notes there are lessons for all.

“Many farmers recognize that principles key to successful organic production, such as sound crop rotation, are beneficial on all farms, organic or not.”

At the Guelph Organic Conference, a number of workshops are presented each year focused on organic crop production.  As well, a 2 day free-entry trade show including exhibitors for small equipment, input providers, certifiers and grain traders also takes place.