Legumes buffer organic farms from this year’s high N costs
Ethanol-fueled high corn prices create ripple effect that touches organic grain outlook.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute farm manager

Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research plots that have been used to test and compare the yield, soil health and environmental impact of organic and conventional systems for the last 22 years.

"It's been extremely rewarding to work at The Rodale Institute," says Jeff. "Working on projects and with people who are having a positive impact on family farm practices, economics, and environmental stewardship is very fulfilling. The positive changes I've seen on our own farm over the years—and farms around the world— convinces me that we're on the right road."

How to contact Jeff

Click here

611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530

Posted April 12, 2007: It may be the coldest April on record here in the Northeast, but no matter—corn-planting is on everyone’s mind here just like it is everywhere else in the US.

Whether you intend to plant certified-organic or conventional corn, the ethanol boom is having a huge impact. Some folks see it as a positive trend, others not so positive. Either way, there is an impact on both supply and price. Those of us in the grain production, handling or processing business can’t seem to keep up with all that is happening with corn as events and rumors combine to reshape conditions almost daily.

So here we are. We have a situation where, as a country, we expect to plant more acreage to corn than ever. Heck, it’s getting hard to even find decent-quality corn seed—everyone is sold out. At the same time many of the inputs used to grow that corn crop have also gone up, especially synthetic nitrogen. Across the board, chemical nitrogen prices have almost doubled over the past two years.

Why? That’s easy. Nitrogen fertilizer production is linked to its main ingredient, natural gas. It takes about 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas to produce 1 ton of nitrogen fertilizer. As the price of natural gas goes up—and we know it isn’t coming down—so does the price for nitrogen (N) fertilizer.

But the price of synthetic N isn’t a big deal to lots of farmers, because you don’t need chemically produced nitrogen fertilizer to grow corn. What do I mean? Folks say there isn’t enough animal manure to supply it all, and they’re right. But the very air we breathe is about 78 percent nitrogen. That’s nitrogen that legume plants can efficiently capture and store for subsequent corn crops. That’s right. Whether you’re an organic farmer or a conventional grower, legume cover crops could be out there working for you at this very moment, capturing nitrogen and putting it where you can use it—in your field.

If you’re interested in growing your nitrogen, building up your soil’s health and moving away from chemical dependence, then start by using cover crops. You’ll be amazed at the significant changes they can have on your soil. Improving the organic matter content of your soil even a fractional amount per year will improve its water-holding capacity, will improve the plants’ ability to forage within the root zone for macro- and micro nutrients, and, over time, will reduce soil loss from wind or water erosion. All this simply from planting legume cover crops.

To put this into dollar terms, consider this: In our Farming Systems Trial (where we compare organic and conventional systems side-by-side) we will spend about $80 to $85 per acre this year for 140 units of synthetic N on the conventional plots. On the neighboring organic plots, we figure our hairy vetch establishment costs at about $72 per acre. Even after providing sufficient N for an equal yield at that lower cost, the vetch provides additional benefits: nitrogen for at least the coming two years in diminishing amounts and about 800 pounds of carbon per acre through its biomass conversion into soil organic matter. At some point—perhaps sooner than you think—carbon- credit payments could sweeten the vetch option even more.

So, what is happening to organic corn?

Well, it’s a little hard to tell, other than that the price of organic corn is going through the roof. This is merely a fact of supply and demand. There are more and more organic livestock operations coming online every day looking to supply the growing demand consumers have for certified organic meat, poultry and dairy products. All these animals use corn for some portion of their diet.

Current prices here in the East run as high as $340 to $350 per ton. Now I’m not saying short-term economics should be the driving force that moves farmers into the organic sector, but these dollars and the demand for the products are such that they can’t be ignored. Yet to come is the effect corn prices might have on all the other feed grains, such as wheat, soybeans, oats, barley and others. All these organic grains show signs of being in short supply at inflated prices as the year progresses.

I know some farmers are actually reverting to conventional corn production to take advantage of the short-term bump in prices and the fact that they can plant their entire acreage to corn. Unless they have some sure-fire way to compensate for their loss of certification on these acres, this seems like short-sighted farming at its worst.

I can’t see how chasing this year’s hot corn market while forsaking years of transition work to build organic potential makes long-term sense.

Write to let me know how projected corn prices or current nitrogen costs affect your short-term farm plans. For me, I plan to farm just as I always have, using a solid crop rotation based on cover crops and a diversified crop portfolio. I plan to pay close attention to the biology of my soil and of course… I’ll be watching the organic corn market with great interest.

Because that’s how we all make a living.

From One Farm to Another