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
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.
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
Because that’s how we all make a living.
From One Farm to Another