Converting Your Farm to Organic for Profit and Pleasure—An Introduction

I first heard about organic agriculture when I was a graduate student at UC Davis in 1973, but it was not in the classroom. Byron Merrill was a good friend of mine and a law student and I was not swayed by his enthusiasm regarding organic farming. I thought, “What does a law student know about agriculture? Or science, for that matter?”

At that point, my scientific education consisted of a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany, a Master of Science degree in Plant Pathology from Montana State University, and I was a couple years into my doctorates study in Plant Biochemistry at UC Davis in California. I was convinced from my studies that a plant could not tell the difference between a molecule of nitrogen coming from a bag of urea or ammonium sulfate (both commonly used on our farm as commercial chemical fertilizers while I was growing up) and nitrogen coming from manure. Little did I know that within 13 years I would be conducting an organic versus chemical agricultural experiment on my own farm.

By this time, I had met a number of outstanding pioneers in organic agriculture from all over the U.S. and I was honestly intrigued with their stories of growing their own fertilizer and managing weeds and pests using crop rotations and biological products. Motivated by my new mentors, I turned my attention from just trying to feed the plant, to feeding the soil and allowing a healthy, vibrant soil feed the plants. This was an amazing new concept for me! I had never heard of this idea in any of my college lectures.

My first experiment consisted of 20 acres (about 1% of our crop land) of winter wheat planted on a plow down of alfalfa, which had been growing for about 3 years at one end of a field that had had a very bad wild oat infestation. With the wild oats under control, the 20 acres next to my test plot was fertilized with a chemical nitrogen fertilizer to equal the nitrogen found in soil tests from my alfalfa plow down. When the wheat was harvested in August of 1987, the yield and protein were statistically the same for both plots. I was amazed and my father was astounded.

With renewed excitement and joy in farming, the next year I quit using chemicals on a third of my farm. The next year, 1988, was a drought year and the yield on my chemical plot was zero while the yield on my organic test plot was about 4 bushels per acre. Now, 4 bushels is nothing to brag about, but what impressed me was the amount of money invested in terms of fertilizer and herbicides in the plot that produced zero was over 3 times the investment I had made in my organic plot. The higher price I received for the grain harvested from that field allowed me to recoup much of the cost of my organic plot while I took a huge loss from my chemical plot.

It was plain as day to see the economic advantage of organic agriculture that came from lowering input costs and increasing the value of the crop harvested. The icing on the cake was that it made farming fun for me again. That was the last year we used any chemicals on our farm. Even though most of the neighbors thought I was crazy at the time, after 30 years we have learned how to make an organic system work in a sustainable, renewable way. Many of those early skeptics are now starting to ask questions and try their own on-farm experiments.

The purpose of my series on “Converting Your Farm to Organic for Profit and Pleasure” is to help those, particularly in the Northern Great Plains, get a jump-start on their conversion. I hope to share, with the help of our in-house field specialist, Wes Gibbs, what has worked well and what has not worked so well for us over the past 30 years and thereby help fellow farmers avoid some of the mistakes we have made and more quickly and easily develop a system which works well for their farm.