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Tapestry of strips is farmer’s path to organic transition

Dennis Wacker of Plainview has been viewing organic farming from the sidelines. This past season, the 50-year farming veteran began his three-year transition toward organic certification, utilizing a strip-cropping system that conserves soil, gains yield and looks like a tapestry from the air.

“I’ve always been sympathetic toward organic production,” Wacker says. “Now I decided to devote the rest of my farming years to seeing how well I can make this system work.”

Farmers who transition toward organic certification cannot use commercial pesticides, fertilizers or genetically modified or treated seed for three years before marketing grain as organic. They must market through commercial channels during that period, without garnering premiums associated with certification.

At a glance

Plainview farmer uses strip cropping as he transitions to organic certification.

Strips provide an “edge advantage” to growing crops.

Organic Farming Statewide provides networking, mentoring for farmers.


Wacker converted 450 acres of his formerly ridge-tilled fields to alternating 18-foot-wide strips of corn, soybeans and oats, interseeded with red clover. Most new organic farmers begin by seeding row-crop fields to alfalfa, which is easier to grow organically. Wacker knows that implementing a strip system is more challenging.

“At this point in my career, it was all or nothing, now or never,” Wacker says. “I couldn’t see going to a strip system without converting to organic, and I wouldn’t convert to organic without using the strips. I sacrifice some weed control, traditional fertilizers and advanced seed type.”

So Wacker was looking for some advantage. “I read about the stripping system 20 years ago,” he says. Planting crops in narrow, alternating strips provides the “edge advantage.”

Edge advantage

“The theory behind this form of planting is that crops growing on the edge of a field are stimulated for a variety of reasons,” says Wacker. “Some plants like the added sunlight and open space, while others benefit from the shelter of taller plants next to them. If this is true, then the more edges one has in his field, the more stimulation that can take place.”

Because of his previous ridge-till system, he disked heavy cornstalk residue and followed ridges to develop new cropping strips.

Last summer, Wacker noticed healthier oats growing in his strips. “My oats did better than 100 bushels per acre on the former soybean ground,” he says.

Although his fields were planted under irrigation, he didn’t water because of wet conditions. It will be a challenge for him, scheduling his watering for three crops planted together in the same field. Wacker saw visible soil conservation benefits of oats strips in sandy fields, because they slowed and dispersed rainwater. In the winter, strips of cornstalks trap snow and conserve moisture.

“Dennis demonstrates that he’s very willing to step out of the box,” says Martin Kleinschmit, who coordinates the Organic Farming Statewide Project. “Organic people are kind of that way, stepping out of their comfortable spot.”

Organic Farming Statewide is funded as an information and mentoring program through the Nebraska Environmental Trust, and administered through the Northeast Nebraska Resource, Conservation and Development (RC&D) Council.

“Our program provides farmers and agencies with information about organic certification,” Kleinschmit says. “It’s a place farmers can go to talk with each other.”

Wacker, who hosted an open house for the program last summer, hopes to learn through the project. “I need to do a better job of weed control and experiment with different cultivators,” he says. He is tweaking his planting and cultivating machinery next year to improve germination and to increase coverage of the entire field area.

“I want to build up the soil and get better microbial activity by finding soil amendments that are permissible,” Wacker says. “So far, strips have impressed me as very useful and beneficial, and I am looking forward to continuing their use in the future.”

Organic Farming Statewide Project

Martin Kleinschmit knows what it takes to be an organic farmer, because he and his wife, Linda, are veterans. Kleinschmit coordinates the Organic Farming Statewide Project, funded through Nebraska Environmental Trust, which provides organic certification support to farmers and ranchers. The program, administered by the Northeast Nebraska Resource, Conservation and Development Council at Plainview, is sponsored by nine RC&Ds in Nebraska, serving around 125 farmers, Kleinschmit says.

“We discuss with farmers the rules and regulations for becoming organic,” he says.

In addition to providing opportunities for beginning organic farmers to network with veterans, the program offers information on the USDA Organic Incentive program, administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service staff through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

In 2010, NRCS obligated nearly $1 million to farmers in Nebraska through the program, offering financial and technical assistance to help producers implement organic conservation practices. For the current sign-up period which ended March 4, $1.5 million was available to farmers. The program can pay between $45 and $90 per acre for cropland and lesser payments for hay and grazing land. This is open to beginning organic farmers and veteran farmers who are certifying new ground, says Kleinschmit. “We want to take it a step further. In the future, we hope to form organic farming groups in each RC&D. It will be a place where farmers can go to talk with each other and learn from each other.”

“The project is valuable to beginning organic farmers because it is a non-threatening group where farmers can learn,” says Jan Jorgensen, Northeast Nebraska RC&D director.

For more information, contact program coordinator Kleinschmit at 402-254-3310 or organic technicians around the state such as Dave Welch, Seward, at 402-826-5361; Tom Schwarz, Bertrand, at 308-472-5309; or Ron Miller, Scottsbluff, at 308-631-7593.

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SKY VIEW: Aerial photo shows the strip-cropping system employed by Dennis Wacker of Plainview. Photo was taken by Warren and Dorothy Renter of Plainview.

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CONVERTING TO STRIPS: Wacker began moving toward organic production last season and implemented a unique strip-farming system at the same time as a way to gain the “edge advantage.”

This article published in the March, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.