By Grant Gerlock
Burkey Farms in southeast Nebraska looked into the future a couple of years ago and didn’t like what it saw — a continuation of depressed prices for conventional corn and soybeans. So, the families who run the farm together started discussing how the operation would make money if they couldn’t earn more from their crops.
Their conversation took a turn toward organics, a $40 billion industry and growing, especially in Iowa and Colorado.
Eric Thalken, whose wife is a member of the extended Burkey family, led the charge after an alfalfa field caught his eye. It was full of weeds, he says, “and so it gave me the idea that this could be certified organic right away.”
Eric Thalken learned organic farming techniques by working for eight years on an organic dairy farm in Wisconsin.
Thalken persuaded Burkey Farms to switch that weedy field to organic. And now, all 2,400 acres are making the transition.
It takes three years to be certified as an organic farm. During that time, farmers cannot use genetically modified seed, synthetic pesticides or synthetic fertilizer. But there’s a significant payoff.
Thalken pulls back the husks on a few ears like he’s unwrapping Christmas presents.
“Some of (this corn) is sold at $8.80, some of it’s sold at $9,” Thalken said. That’s almost triple the current price for conventional corn.
Prices for conventional corn and soybeans have been hovering around the break-even mark. Farmers have been spending down their savings and borrowing more money to get by.
There were 5 million acres of organic fields and pastures in the U.S. in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 37 percent increase over the last five years. It’s still a small percentage of farmland overall, but several states have seen a jump in the amount of land devoted to organic crops: soybeans in Iowa, corn in Minnesota and wheat in Colorado and Texas.
“Those type of numbers perk the interest of farmers. Money talks,” according to Greg Lickteig, who oversees purchasing of organic grain for Scoular, a grain marketing company based in Omaha.
Demand from organic dairy and poultry farms is supporting the hefty premium prices for organic corn and soybeans that are used in animal feed, Lickteig says. Production of those crops jumped 30 percent in the U.S. from 2015 to 2016.
Yet, half of the organic corn and three-quarters of the organic soybeans used across the country are imported.
“So there’s a shortage, in that this country is importing to meet the demand,” Lickteig said.
In some cases, those imported crops aren’t actually organic at all. The Washington Post reported in May that millions of pounds of conventional soybeans shipped from Ukraine were passed off as organic in California.Click here to see more...