Organic farming is growing in Iowa almost as fast as the bane of chemical-free farmers — weeds.
While pigweed and lambsquarter can double in size in a few sunny days, the number of organic producers and processors in Iowa has increased 31 percent in the past five years.
“We are not even close to meeting market demand, and we don’t have to spend much time marketing,” said Andrew Dunham, who with his wife Melissa operates Grinnell Heritage Farm, one of the state’s largest producers of organic vegetables and fruit.
When Francis Thicke of rural Fairfield converted to organic in 1975, he said he did so “out of principle,” in the belief that it was the right and responsible thing to do. “We didn’t even have a market. Now our products sell themselves,” said Thicke, who with his wife Susan operates the 730-acre Radiance Dairy Farm.
Iowa ranks sixth among the 50 states in the number of organic producers and processors with 939 this year, up from 717 in 2012, said Kate Mendenhall, executive director of the Iowa Organic Association. (Scroll to the bottom of this story for a map of certified organic farms in Iowa from the Iowa Organic Association.)
Much of the growth, she said, has been in organic grain, fueled by rapid increases in the production of organic dairy, eggs and poultry. And Amish farmers, finding a profitable niche in labor-intensive organic production, have been leading the way.
Organic food growing in popularity
The price premium for organic food, while varying from one commodity to another, typically ranges from two to three times higher than prices for their conventionally produced counterparts, Mendenhall said.
Substantially lower chemical residues make organic food more healthful than food raised with commercial fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, she said.
Consumer recognition of health benefits — for them, their families and the environment — drives the growth of organic products, she said.
Organic sales in the United States totaled $47 billion in 2016, which accounts for more than 5 percent of U.S. food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. With sales up 8.4 percent from the previous year, it is the fastest-growing sector of the U.S. food industry, the trade group said.
But it’s more than health benefits contributing to organic products popularity. Consumers also believe that organic agriculture, which eschews chemical fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide and is generally conducted on a smaller, more personal scale, is friendlier to the environment, Thicke said.
Though Thicke makes no claims about the flavor of the milk, cheese and yogurt produced by his 80 Jersey cows, he acknowledges that some of his customers do.
The Dunhams, with the equivalent of 10 full-time employees during the growing season, raise 60 different kinds of organic vegetables and fruit on their 25 acres of raised beds.
Andrew Dunham said they truck more than half their produce to grocery stores. New Pioneer, with stores in Iowa City, Coralville and Cedar Rapids, is their biggest customer.
They also provide weekly boxes of produce to more than 300 families under the Community Supported Agriculture program, and farmers markets — the smallest outlet for their products — accounts for about 12 percent of sales, he said.
Keeping pests and weeds at bay
Dunham said the tilth and fertility of their soil have improved dramatically in the 11 years since they converted to organic practices. Composted manure from their grass-fed cattle, extensive cover crop plantings — a crop planted to manage soil erosion, fertility and quality as well as weeds and pests — and multiyear crop rotations get much of the credit, he said.
Weed control — their biggest challenge — is accomplished primarily with mulch, tillage and the long crop rotations, he said.
Dunham said extensive mulching controls blight in their 1,500 tomato plants. Noting that blight spreads through soil contact, Dunham said the only part of the plant that ever touches soil is the roots.
Perry Helmuth, the first Amish farmer in the Hazleton community to convert to organic agriculture, said he noticed increased demand for organic grain in the early 1990s.
“At that time I wasn’t spraying (chemicals) for weeds anyway. I figured ‘I’m close. I’d just as well try it,’ so I switched over and got my certification in 1995,” he said.
Most other Amish farmers have since followed, according to Helmuth, who estimates that 95 percent of the farmers in the Hazleton Amish community have converted to organic.
“It was a life saver for us out here,” he said. “We couldn’t compete with the big conventional farmers anymore. Land prices were too high. Returns were too low. Many young Amish men were working off the farm to make ends meet.”
Amish farmers, typically with small land holdings and large families, found a niche in organic farming, which relies more on labor and management than on capital. Higher prices for organic crops enabled many of them to return to their agricultural roots, Helmuth said.
“They still want to come back home and farm. The farm is the best place to raise a family,” he said.
His own experience with the popular herbicide atrazine influenced his conversion. “I got sick every time I used it,” he said.
Helmuth said it took him two years to get a handle on the organic farmer’s two biggest challenges — maintaining soil fertility and controlling weeds.
Livestock manure, coupled with incorporation of clover and alfalfa cover crops, keeps his soil fertile, he said, while multiple passes with horse-drawn tillage equipment curbs weeds.
‘Getting more out of your land’
Whereas conventional Iowa farmers typically start planting corn in mid-April, organic farmers wait another month so they can mechanically kill the first flush of spring weeds before planting, he said. Once their crops have emerged, organic farmers strive to cultivate them at least three times.
Unlike conventional farmers, most of whom annually alternate corn and soybeans in their fields, Helmuth employs a four-year rotation that includes corn, soybeans, oats and a combination of hay and pasture.
“A good crop rotation helps keep your soil in balance and your weeds in check,” he said.
Helmuth said his corn yields dipped during his first two years of organic farming but quickly rebounded. “If we don’t get 150 bushels per acre we are disappointed,” he said.
“We think organic food is healthier, and more and more people are thinking that way,” said Freeman Detweiler, an Amish organic farmer in the Hazleton community.
Detweiler said organic farming requires “a lot of labor, a lot of manure and good timing, but you will get more out of your land.”
“The market is there, but the big missing piece is the land,” said Suzan Erem, president and co-founder of the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, launched in 2015 to permanently protect land to grow healthy food.
Around the cities that constitute the largest market for organic food, “no one is reserving land for food production,” she said.
Under development pressure, land around cities can sell for as much as $30,000 per acre — well beyond the reach of start-up organic farmers, Erem said.
Through donations and easements, the trust is acquiring land that can be made available at lower costs to beginning farmers, she said.
Federal assistance is available to certified organic producers and to those transitioning to organic production through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Organic Initiative.
Since its introduction in the 2008 farm bill, the program has paid out more than $8 million to Iowa organic farmers, said Jason Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the program.
Johnson said organic producers receive a higher payment rate than their conventional counterparts for implementing conservation practices such as cover crops, crop rotations and nutrient and pest management.
The USDA’s Organic Certification Cost Share Program also reimburses eligible organic producers and handlers up to 75 percent of certification costs each year, to a $750 maximum.
Other than helping to administer the federal assistance, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship provides no incentives for the adoption of organic practices, department spokesman Dustin Vande Hoff said.
The Iowa Organic Association’s Mendenhall said Iowa should do more to encourage the transition from conventional to organic production.
This story appears in the fourth edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Order a free copy here.RED = Organic Fruit & Vegetable Farms, BLUE= Organic Grain & Field Crop Farms, GREEN= Organic Livestock Farms, YELLOW= Organic Food Processors