Organic research sees the numbers

Grain Millers, Inc., in Eugene, Ore., can’t get enough organic grain and is currently offering about $9 per bushel for what it can find, including barley. That’s about double the prices paid for conventionally grown grain.

Cargill’s Ferndale Growers, which formulates organic feed for the state’s organic and dairy meat industries, is paying $100 to $200 a ton for organically grown grains delivered to the plant. That’s also about double the going price.
Much of the demand for organic grain, including wheat, is being fueled by growth of organic dairies in the Northwest, according to Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, coordinator for Washington State University’s BIOAg program which promotes sustainable farming practices, including organic production.
There were 13,000 dairy animals in Washington that were either certified organic, transitioning to organic or waiting for review by the Washington State Department of Agriculture as of mid-December, according to David Granatstein, sustainable agriculture specialist and area extension educator with WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.  Granatstein has been keeping statistics on organic agriculture in Washington since 2000. 
“There are new farms signing up all the time,” Granatstein said.
You would think that news would be music to the ears of eastern Washington wheat growers, but so far that hasn’t been the case.
In the entire state, only 18 farmers grow certified organic wheat, according to Granatstein. Only 12 in the dryland wheat region in Eastern Washington produce organic wheat. The other six, located in the Columbia Basin, grow organic wheat under irrigation.
The 3,819 acres of certified organic wheat produced in the state in 2005, is just a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million acres of wheat harvested the same year in Washington. Only 2,004 acres of organic wheat have been certified for production in 2006.
So, why are so few eastern Washington wheat growers going organic?
Sixty-nine percent of the Washington wheat growers who responded to a mail survey in 2006 conducted by Julie Dawson, a WSU graduate student, cited inadequate weed control methods; 59 percent said they couldn’t get equivalent yields; and 59 percent said organic pest and disease control methods are inadequate.
Inadequate transportation and access to organic buyers was cited by 36 percent. The same percentage said it was too difficult to get enough nitrogen, and 33 percent said they needed more information on organic methods.
Only 13.9 percent had considered transitioning some of their acreage to organic between 2001 and 2005. Twenty-four percent of the growers responding to Dawson’s survey said the process of certification itself was too much trouble.
WSU is working on research and extension programs to meet the needs of skeptical farmers. Transition is the focus of research at the Boyd Farm, a private farm near the Pullman airport where the scientists have leased several acres. 
Before conventionally farmed cropland can be certified as organic, farmers must refrain from using prohibited inputs for three years. They also must increase the fertility of their land with crops that fix nitrogen while learning how to deal with weeds, insect pests and plant diseases without resorting to synthetic pesticides.
At the Boyd Farm, WSU researchers have been experimenting with different crop rotations and different methods of weed control for the past four years.
Whereas most organic farmers can rely on heavy tillage to keep weeds in check, that’s not an option in the highly erodible Palouse. To minimize soil disturbance, researchers have been experimenting with a rotary hoe to rip out small weed seedlings after crops get established. The hoe penetrates the soil only barely.
“The rotary hoe is just aggressive enough to take up small seedlings,” Carpenter-Boggs said. “Anything that’s established just stays there. It’s something you have to do early and often.”
Researchers also have been examining the effects of competition between plants. Crops and weeds compete for nutrients, light and space. Crops that explode with early growth can get a head start on weeds. Over time, deposits in the weed seed bank may become depleted. Scientists also are looking at the allelopathic effect. Toxin released in the soil by one plant can suppress growth of other plants of different species.

Steve Jones, a WSU winter wheat breeder, is trying to breed wheat varieties that thrive in organic and low-input systems. “If you are growing wheat in a low fertility environment that isn’t as protected as our traditional wheat is, there are genes and traits these plants need to compete better against weeds, and they need to be more efficient in mining the soil for nutrients.”

For the past six years, Jones has been crossing modern wheat varieties with 163 varieties grown from the 1840s to the 1950s, a period of time preceding the common use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and other off-farm inputs. He hopes to develop varieties that will have good end-use qualities, compete successfully with weeds, efficiently use nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil and yield very well under no- and low-input and organic systems.

Jones said that preliminary results show that certified organic fields can yield as much as conventional fields. Graduate student Kevin Murphy has reported yields of more than 100 bushels per acre in organic fields in the Palouse.
From an economic standpoint, only one transition rotation has made sense, according to Kate Painter, a sustainable systems analyst with the CSANR.
“They’ve tried nine different trials that varied from intensive grain, which they were pretty much sure would be a disaster, to a 100 percent three-year green manure,” Painter said. “The only way it penciled out was to have a perennial forage crop,” Painter said.  “You need to minimize your costs, and you want to build up your soil.”
So does organic grain production have a future in the Palouse?
Carpenter-Boggs thinks the jury is still out.  “It may require rethinking of what we do for organic production. When farmers ask her advice, she suggests they start small.
“Both the field research and the economics suggest that a perennial forage is worth considering,” Granatstein said. “There is a shortage of organic alfalfa hay in the region, so that might be a way to enter organic production and still get some economic return while growers adjust to organic methods.”