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Organic-grain field day offers ‘tremendous opportunity’ to farmers

June 14, 2019 By David Tenenbaum
A man and a woman stand in front of some farm equipment.

Casey Lynn and Kevin Wells, photographed before an advanced cultivator, both work for Lotfotl Farm near Delavan, which grows 40 acres of organic soybeans and 20 acres of organic vegetable. The discussion of how to get the best benefit from vigorous cover crops “was especially helpful,” Lynn said. Photo by David Tenenbaum

OCONOMOWOC – A field day and series of talks in a restored rural schoolhouse near Oconomowoc offered expert advice and encouragement for organic farmers and those who are thinking about going organic.

Two factors are paramount in organic grain, said Tom Gitto, who grows organic corn and hay on more than 250 acres near Watertown. “By far, weed control and soil fertility are the biggest issues. There’s not just a magic thing you can throw out to solve fertility; you can’t just look at a soil test and order the commercial fertilizer you need.”

Photo: A man holds a plant and gesticulates as he speaks to a crowd.

Gary Zimmer, who grows 1,200 acres of organic crops near Spring Green, Wisconsin, emphasized the triple interactions of biology, minerals and cultivation in sustaining and improving soil fertility. Zimmer holds a legume cover crop to emphasize how crop sugars and chemistry feed beneficial soil bacteria that improve nutrients and feed the crops. Photo by David Tenenbaum

Keynote presenter Gary Zimmer, a large grower of organic seed corn near Spring Green, emphasized ways to improve fertility. “He knows what works, and is proving what works,” said Gitto.

Zimmer’s fast-paced, highly confident presentation was based on a lifetime of organic farming, and it rated “10 of 10 for me,” said Kevin Wells, field manager at Lotfotl Farms in Delavan. “I came here for information on soil fertility, we experience quite a bit of lack of nutrients on our vegetable plot. We do cover crops and rotate, but any knowledge I could gain beyond that is a plus.”

“I have taken avid notes on things that pertain 100 percent to me,” Wells said.

Photo: A field of green plants, with a sign in it.

A test plot at Purple Cow Organics farms, which hosted the OGRAIN field day on June 12, contains a mix of a legume and a grain. Organic grain farmers use a wide range of crop combinations to promote fertility and out-compete weeds. Photo by David Tenenbaum

The event was sponsored by Organic Grain Resource and Information Network (OGRAIN)—a program of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, in partnership with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.

Erin Silva, a UW–Madison assistant professor of plant pathology and UW–Extension specialist in organic agriculture, leads the OGRAIN program. “Wisconsin still, has second-highest number of organic farms in the country,” Silva said, after California. The strength of the 1,500-odd organic operations is its diversity, she added. “We span a wide swath in organic ag: grain, dairy, beef and vegetables,” and the industry is growing in Wisconsin.

As conventional farmers struggle with low prices, “Organic grain prices remain strong, with organic corn averaging $9 per bushel, and organic soybean $18.50 per bushel,” says Silva. “Diversifying into organic production presents an enormous opportunity for Wisconsin’s grain farmers. And it is not an ‘all-or-none’ proposition – farmers are finding success transitioning a portion of their acres to organic while maintaining their conventional acres as well.”

In a wet spring that has kept farmers out of the fields, the turnout on a rainy Wednesday was encouraging, Silva said. “It was up in the air with the way the grow season was going, and farmers are taking every opportunity possible to get into the fields. Considering that there were only two certified organic farms in Waukesha County, we were happy to see 40 or 50 farmers interested in organic production practices.”

OGRAIN will hold four more field days this summer.