By Andrew Campbell
When it comes to farming, most people think there are either organic farms or non-organic farms. But for Darryl and his family, farming both organic and conventional grains in Ontario is about making two opportunities work together. Darryl grows over 3000 acres of grain. About 10% of that is organic grains and something he’d like to continue to expand. After all, he says the returns can be better and it is a unique challenge for him to work at. So come along for a ride and we hear about how organic grain is grown while we actually harvest a field of corn!
Harvesting Organic Corn
Today we are talking with Darryl in his grain buggy on his grain farm here in Ontario. Darryl, right now you are harvesting and your job is to drive the grain buggy to collect the harvested grains from your Dad who is driving the combine. He’ll probably be honking the horn here pretty soon and he can unload into the grain buggy.
But while we wait, tell us about your farm? What do you farm?
We grain farm about 3000 acres conventionally and then about another 300 acres organically. We grow corn, soybeans, wheat, and sometimes dry edible beans.
Let’s talk about the organic side of your grain farm. This is actually an organic field of corn. Tell us how do you grow and look after a field of organic corn?
The process starts generally in the fall before, after the previous crop is harvested. I’ll quite often work the field and plant a cover crop such as, winter peas, some vetch, oats. These will start to grow and then die off over the winter. Then in the spring I’ll work that into the soil using a cultivator. I will cultivate the field a couple of times to remove weeds and get it ready for planting. Then, when the conditions are favorable and it’s nice and warm out, generally near the end of May, I’ll plant my crop.
Once the crop starts to grow, what else do you have to do to keep it healthy?
Generally within six or seven days of planting, just as the corn is coming out of the ground, I will very aggressively chain-harrow the field. A chain harrow has chains that work up the soil. This gives the corn a headstart on the weeds because the chain harrow will kill any new small emerging weeds but does not kill the corn. It does destroy some of the corn but 90% of it will come back and you can barely tell.
So, weeds are not good for corn then. Is that really what you’re trying to get rid of when you’re working the ground. Why are weeds such a big problem then?
Yes. That’s our biggest hurdle because we don’t have any chemical (pesticide) control. With competition, the corn isn’t as strong as weeds. The weeds will overtake and we’d harvest very little corn.
What happens next?
Then when the corn is at about the five or six leaf stage, I will actually burn it with a propane burner. It burns right over the corn row.
You’ve got tough corn here! Is this for weed control?
Yes, that’s just strictly for weeds and it works really well.
So then after that, the corn has a good enough start?
No, I still come back and I row cultivate one or two times. Just to pick out those weeds in between the rows this time. We get that cleaned up, so we’ve made quite a few passes over the land at this point.
Then you’ve got a field of organic corn. What do you do with the corn after that? Where’s it going?
This is actually going to Beachwood elevators in Parkhill. They are predominantly an organic buyer of grains in Ontario.
Any ideas what it’s being used for?
This field will go into feed for organic beef or dairy. Some will go to Masterfeeds to be made into organic feed for chickens or pigs or dairy as part of the requirement to make organic meat or milk.
You actually started as a conventional farmer and on the conventional side you’re farming more acres. Why did you decide to put some acres into organic?
A few reasons. One of them being there is the opportunity for higher returns from organic. It’s also challenging. It challenges your ability to manage, to learn and another great thing about the organic business is that everybody is willing to learn from each other. We share ideas back and forth, even sharing equipment.
We are unloading the combine now into the grain buggy. Your Dad keeps combining and dumps it straight into the grain buggy. Why does he dump it in the buggy instead of right in the grain trailer? Why do this extra step?
In order to have increased efficiency, this prevents the combine from having to stop.
How do you see your farm looking in the future?
I would like to get to 500 acres organic at some point. I would never try to get the whole farm converted to organic. I think 500 acres is a manageable amount of acres.
Some people think that as a farmer you’re either an organic farmer or a conventional farmer. People don’t necessarily think of a farmer as being able to do both. Why do both? Why not just pick one?
I think the conventional business is very competitive. The organic side offers us different opportunities and avenues. It offers higher returns, if you do well. It’s something that I find is worthwhile for me and it just seems to work for the business.
Very cool. Well, thanks for having us out today.
Watch Fresh Air Farmer Andrew Campbell’s full video here