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.”
“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.”