by David Vetter, Richard Little, and Charles Francis, July 2020
The nine-year diversified,
irrigated organic rotation at the Grain Place was established in 2002 with two
replications and average plot size of 12 acres. There are five years of organic
crops, and four years of hay and pasture. We analyzed corn and soybean yields
and net returns for two cycles and compared these with conventional corn and
corn-soybean rotations using average farm data from Hamilton County.
Organic yields were 30% lower for
corn and 60% lower for soybeans than conventional monocultures; no conventional
yield data are available for comparisons with our barley or popcorn. Organic
farmgate prices are conservatively based on feed grain prices, rather than
higher food grade prices. All organic grains were processed on farm by Grain
Place Foods. Organic corn price was 101% higher than conventional, and organic
soybean was 83% higher than conventional. Due to substantially lower input
costs and even using conservative organic prices, the returns from the
diversified organic system were impressive.
Net returns for the three years
of organic corn and soybeans in the nine-year rotation (one year of corn, two
years of soybeans) were positive for all but the first year. Organic net
returns were higher than or equivalent to continuous corn or corn-soybeans for
16 of 18 years. The figure below shows the net returns after fixed and
operating costs across two cycles of the rotation at GPF compared to county
averages for conventional crops. Average net returns in the organic system were
almost $300 acre, while returns for continuous corn were about $60/acre and for
corn-soybean were about $150/acre; the difference is primarily due to lower
production costs in the organic system plus price premiums.
These results have been used in classes at UNL in Spring Semester, 2020, and are posted on the GPF web site in July 2020. It is unclear why conventional farmers plant continuous corn in the county, when the county averages show a clear advantage to the two-year rotation. More important for us are the results showing that organic systems are consistently more profitable than conventional systems, and without the dangers for farmers of chemical exposure. They also reduce the pressure for even wider development of herbicide-resistant weeds, which would be an advantage for both conventional and organic farmers. Further analyses will evaluate the entire nine-year rotation to assess the value of diverse crop sequences to add resilience in yields and incomes to cropping and crop/animal systems in the Platte Valley of Central Nebraska.
Education in farming practices is most effective in the field, where hands-on activities provide new experiences for those without a farm background. One of the educational missions of the Foundation is to provide and opportunity for students to work side-by-side with experienced farmers on the long-term rotation and other projects under way at GPF. This summer we have two interns joining the farm team, and both are excited about this practical learning arena.
Jane Coghlan is an incoming junior at Arizona State University studying Sustainable Food Systems with a minor in Nutrition. She returns for a second year to join the GPF field team. Jane is from a small town in Texas called Argyle which is just north of Dallas. “I did not have any farming experience until my internship last summer at the Grain Place. I enjoyed it tremendously, so I came back again this summer to continue learning and building experience. I love farming because every day I learn something new and form a deeper connection to the land and animals. David Vetter’s way of farming with nature is a big inspiration to me. I hope to positively influence the world through organic farming like he is doing”. The resident farmers at GPF reported that Jane learned plenty in her time on the farm in 2019, and are delighted that she is returning for a second experience.
Jingyue Zeng is a senior Agronomy major at UNL and will graduate this summer. “I have devoted my passion to plants for all of my life, I have always liked to take care of plants and watch them grow when I was young. I have worked for a Chinese company in my hometown last summer, measuring, recording and reporting the growth of pineapple for 32-acre pineapple field, and helped to do weed management and prepare fertilizer mixtures. Organic farming has a special interest for me. I have also learned about the agricultural industry here by attending a meeting of the Nebraska Wheat Board”. Jinghue was a student in both the Agroecology and the Organic Farming classes at UNL this past spring, and is a volunteer intern at GPF this summer.
We look forward to welcoming additional interns to work with the farm staff at GPF, and can provide housing and a modest stipend when grant funds are found to support this important educational activity. In the near future, we’ll share interviews with these two interns here, in hopes that we can attract more students interested in learning about organic farming and livestock integration as well as value adding on the farm. If you have questions, please contact GPF board member Glenda Vetter for details on opportunities.