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