Iowa Public Television


Split Farming Offers Benefit of Organic and Conventional Crops

posted on March 21, 2014

The Agriculture Department announced this week that the organic industry continues to grow domestically and globally.

More than 18,000 of the world’s 25,000 certified organic operations are in the United States, and the domestic industry has grown by nearly 250 percent since 2002.

Nevertheless some organic producers aren’t quite ready to abandon conventional crop production.  Paul Yeager explains. 

Split Farming Offers Benefit of Organic and Conventional Crops

According to the Agriculture Department, 40 percent of U.S. organic producers also sold non-organic goods in 2012, suggesting that many of America’s organic operations hedge their bets with conventional -- and even genetically modified -- crops.

Gregory Jaffe, Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Farmers aren’t necessarily distinct groups. There are farmers out there who are both organic farmers and conventional farmers or both organic farmers and biotech farmers at the same time."

Some organic purists are critical of the so-called split farming operations, fearing that the cross-pollination or intermingling of genetically engineered crops with their products could hamper organic sales. But farmers who embrace organic production and methods relying on biotechnology say they’re able to make informed decisions each year based on both economic and environmental concerns.

Jim Petersen, Petersen Family Farms: “I think there’s a benefit because it helps with our risk. Because we had a few years that were so wet, we couldn’t get out there and do proper weed control in our organics, but we had other crops that we could spray and maintain them and so they were still good even though the organics weren’t so good, and I that has helped to have the more diversity. We are very diverse.”

Jim Petersen, his wife, Julie, and their four children farm near Knoxville, Iowa. The Petersens grow about 450 acres of soybeans: a quarter being organic. Roughly one third of their 350 acres of corn also is organic, as are most of the farm’s hay, oats and rye crops. To further diversify, the family also owns 300 head of cattle and 800 ewes, but the Petersens say they have not yet found the transition to certified organic livestock to be practical.

Jim Petersen, Petersen Family Farms: “When we started it, everybody kind of wanted organic soybeans, but the organic corn didn’t have as much of a premium so we thought, well, we could feed it to the calves. Well, that year we started with the calves, there was a demand for the organic corn and so there was a good premium so we just decided to just go ahead and cash in instead of feeding it to our own.”

Since certifying organic land is a lengthy process, Petersen evaluates soil quality and terrain to determine which land is optimal to transition to organic.

Jim Petersen, Petersen Family Farms: “I’ve seen in our area that, with some of the hillier ground and the thinner that I’m not going to do organic on it or very rarely would I do organic on it because it needs to be treated differently. It needs the fertilizer fed to it at a higher rate than I can do with my organic, and the tillage I don’t like to do it out on those hills as much either because of the soil loss possibility.”

Jim Gaffney, DuPont Pioneer: “It is quite possible to do both on the same farm. The split operation is very reasonable.  And there's nothing to say that it can't work well on the same farm.” 

The Petersens own 550 acres and rent another 2,000 for pasture and crops. They try to respect the preferences of landlords when making decisions related to planting, and that can be challenging. 

Some landlords refuse to allow genetically modified crops on their acres, while others are adverse to increased weeds that often accompany organic production. And for Petersen, switching rented land from conventional to organic is risky.

Jim Petersen, Petersen Family Farms: “A lot of the land we farm is rented, and we only have one-year contracts with the landlords and so it takes 36 months to get the transition to have it being organic, so we don’t want to take the time to being doing that and then lose the farm in the process.”

Petersen acknowledges that organic production is labor intensive. He spends extra time cleaning equipment to remove residue from prior crops, and he also cultivates two or three times each growing season to minimize weed pressure. But he says the premium he receives for organic products justifies increased investments of time, labor and money.

Still, he’s unwilling -- so far – to give up genetically engineered crops that require less work and enable him to spread his financial risk over multiple methods of production.

Jim Petersen, Petersen Family Farms: “There are some certifying agencies that say if you are doing organic, you can’t do the GMO crops .... My feeling has been that if you can plant a crop that will take less chemicals to control weeds, then that’s a good thing because I think the chemicals will do more harm than the GMO crop, myself.”

Jim Gaffney, DuPont Pioneer: 00;44;23;28 It takes different management skills to have both on the same farm. You really have to think hard about how you're going to operate your farm. So the management is probably a higher level. But it's a management decision.  It's not a cultural or a social or religious decision, let's put it that way.

For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.

Tags: cattle corn Dupont Pioneer GMO Iowa organic soybeans split farming