Every couple years, I attend the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society’s winter meeting to see what’s going on in organic business. North Dakota and South Dakota are among the leading organic grain producing states in the U.S.
This year’s meeting in Aberdeen, S.D., was well attended -- a record 500 people registered. NPSAS offers something for everybody in the organic business. There were sessions for grain growers, livestock producers, gardeners and even consumers.
The market for organic grain has apparently come back strong since the recession. The trade show was filled with grain buyers. “Come back” might not be the right phrase to describe what’s happened. Organic grain prices were never down, but they got so high -- $35 per bushel for wheat, for example -- that there were very few buyers. Now, prices have come down $25 for wheat, $13-$14 for corn and $25 for soybean and demand is back.
“I could have sold some of last year’s corn five or six times over,” says Charles Johnson, NPSAS president, Madison, S.D.
The growth in organic livestock industry is apparently helping Dakota organic grain farmers. Organic dairies near larger cities are producing organic forages on their own land and buying organic corn and soybeans -- which require a large land base -- on the open market.
Yields for experienced organic farmers are rising, too. Johnson averaged 80 bushels per corn last year in the drought and 100 bushels per acre in 2011. He sold corn for $11-$17 per bushel.
Growing organic grains is still a lot of work. Aaron Johnson, one of Charles’ cousins who has joined the 2,800-acre operation, says he put in 90 hours a week in the field for many weeks in June last year. Besides cultivating and rotary hoeing corn and soybeans, they walk fields and remove weed escapes by hand. At the same time, they are busy baling hay for their cow herd.
“There’s no time for golf,” Charles says.
I stuck my nose into a couple of other interesting conversations going on in the hallways during the NPSAS meeting.
Two young farmers -- one from the Red River Valley in North Dakota and another from western South Dakota -- were comparing what they were paying for composted chicken litter. The western South Dakota farm was shipping it in from Colorado and he had the better deal -- so good, he thought, he could get his friend in the Valley a better price..
Rick Mittleider, Tappen, N.D., introduced one of his sons who is getting involved in their expanding farm. They now rent three new combines every year from Machinery Link instead of owning their own. They harvest as many as seven different crops and find it more economical and efficient to rent rather than buy combines. It’s saves a lot of time cleaning out combines and eliminates the risk of combining grains that processors can’t separate mechanically.
Steve Zwinger, a North Dakota State University agronomist and co- coordinator of the NPSAS Farm Breeding Club, told me about the growing interest in ancient grains emmer and einkorn. Demand is growing from East and West Coast millers and bakers.
Don Jarrettt, a Britton, S.D., farmer with an on-farm corn breeding project, is working on the cross pollination problem organic grain growers have with genetically modified corn. Jarrett has incorporated the gene from popcorn in the field corn hybrid he has developed. The gene prevents cross pollination.
The Podolls -- David and Ginger and Dan and Theresa -- from Fullerton, N.D., are sharing their success at breeding better vegetables. They’ve started Prairie Road Organic Seed and are selling more than 20 varieties of vegetable including Dakota Tears onion, Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert squash, Sweet Dakota Rose watermelon and Dakota Sport tomato. They are marketing the seed online at www.prairieroadorganic.co and have seed racks in several retail outlets.
“There is just a lot happening in the organic industry,” Johnson says. “I think it is going to continue to grow.”