By Richard Oswald
DTN Special Correspondent
LANGDON, Mo. (DTN) -- Charlie Johnson, 59, has been an organic grower for four decades, raising certified organic crops on his 2,500-acre farm near Madison in southeastern South Dakota.
It's a lot of work fighting the weeds and doing a lot of cultivating each year until the crop has canopy closure.
"It gets kind of old, but when you see $7.50 (per bushel) corn, it's not so bad," he said.
In 1981, Charlie and his younger brother Allan divided the operation they shared with an uncle. They assumed their father's 560-acre half interest when he suffered a debilitating stroke.
Since then, the farm has grown and they own 1,400 acres and rent 1,100. As with any business expansion, there are growing pains. "We've taken on more acres, so we've had to go through the (certification) process on those," Charlie told DTN.
It takes three years to transition conventionally farmed land to being fully certified organic.
"It's been a while since we had to transition new land, but typically we do a year of oats and two years of alfalfa. Oats the first year are not certified, so they go into a separate bin and are fed to livestock. Our cattle are not organic production, so that's OK."
Charlie has been an organic grower since 1976 when organic "was pretty much self-proclaimed." He and Allan persevered through the 1980s when certification officially began, and in the 1990s when USDA organic standards were established.
Charlie's long-time work in organics received recognition from the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. He received the 2013 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year award for his "stellar environmental conservation, simple yet powerful organic production practices, and years of community leadership," according to the organization.
In many ways, Charlie and Allan's farming operation resembles a typical South Dakota livestock and grain farm. They have 175 Black Angus/Gelbvieh cross cows, along with pasture, corn, soybeans, oats and alfalfa.
That's where the resemblance stops.
Typical commercial fertilizers or pesticides are not used. Manure from the cowherd, and poultry litter pellets applied through a tractor-drawn spinner spreader, are the only fertilizers they apply to crops.
How do they keep weeds under control? Crop rotation helps limit pests and improve fertility, and there's a secret weapon: "We cultivate like heck," Charlie said.
In order to stay ahead of emerging broadleaf and grassy weeds, it takes two or three passes with a rotary hoe. Charlie and Allan have four rotary hoes. "You've got to hoe early and often," Charlie said.
Then they do another two or three passes with a row-crop cultivator. The Johnsons have three of those. Corn fields are "dragged" with a springtooth harrow prior to emergence, about four days after planting. "That takes care of a lot of early grass," Charlie said.
This is not a minimum-till or no-till farm. Fields are prepped for planting with a DMI Tigermate field cultivator after a fall pass with a chisel plow equipped with points. The Johnsons have several tractors, both large and small, starting with a Case IH Steiger 350 four-wheel drive, and ending up with a Deere 6600.
"We're not partisan on our farm. We go between red and green (machinery brands)," Charlie said.
With so much intensive cultivation, does Charlie use state-of-the-art GPS-reliant equipment found on so many farms today? His technology is as "organic" as his crops: "My right eyeball and my left arm are my guidance systems," he said.
CONTROLLING THE WEEDS
There's more to weed control on this farm than cold hard steel. Every acre is rogued by hand for big weeds, such as sunflowers, prior to crop canopy. A crew of Hispanic workers do a lot of that work, passing through on their way to jobs where they detassel seed corn fields.
"We have footprints every 60 inches in every field," he said, meaning one man weeds by hand two rows at a time. "They come from Mexico on work visas, and are supplied by a broker who first advertises for local labor to fill those jobs," Charlie explained. He added it's important that the crew arrives before detasseling starts, because that's the primary reason they are in the U.S., to provide labor no one else will do.
Charlie contracts directly with the broker who supplies a crew, their transportation, food and lodging. "They come up in spring and have to be out of the country by September. We try to go over the corn starting in June and finishing up by the Fourth of July. Hispanics do about three-quarters of our corn and soybean acres," he said.
However, hand labor doesn't stop there. Charlie also hires and leads a crew of high school students for the same purpose. "By the end of the year, we've been over every acre," he said.
For conventional farmers experiencing disparities between high input costs and low commodity prices, improved yield becomes the guiding light.
Charlie is quick to point out that labor-based weed control has its own high cost. "Those kids walking the rows, cultivation, and a six-year oat, alfalfa, alfalfa, soybean, corn, soybean rotation are my pesticides."
But dryland yields of 150 bushels per acre for corn, 40 to 45 bpa for soybeans, and 85 to 90 for oats work, especially when organic price multiples are two to three times what conventionally produced grains fetch.
Still, prices aren't what they were a few years ago when Charlie sold corn for $13 compared to today's prices of $7.50 to $8.00.
"On our corn I try to budget 120 bushels at $8. On soybeans, it's 40 bushels at $20. Overall, I want to see $600 per acre gross income. Costs will run about $500," he said.
"Obviously for me corn is my highest value crop just like it is for conventional farmers. Corn and soybeans generate two-thirds of my income. I try to manage the lower value crops so that in the end I have that overall average income of $600 per acre."
MARKETS OUT OF STATE
Other than alfalfa and wheat straw sold to a small local organic dairy that markets directly to consumers in the Sioux Falls area, everything the Johnsons grow is sold out of state.
National Farmers Organization merchandises their grain -- generally about 70 to 80 trailer loads weighing 50,000 to 60,000 pounds each -- to producers in Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, and sometimes North Dakota.
"In the last 10 years, I have not had a semi unloaded in South Dakota. There are maybe a half dozen organic dairies in the entire state. Wisconsin has 700. They are smaller farms by nature in Wisconsin. There are organic dairies of 30 or 40 cows relying on farmers like myself to supply their feed.
"There is just more of that mentality there, whereas in our part of the country we say they go CAFO chasing. We call it the I-29 model. We keep losing cow numbers in South Dakota as numbers concentrate in fewer and bigger herds," Charlie told DTN.
He said it would be nice to get that kind of production from smaller organic dairies like those in Wisconsin going in his state. "Those smaller dairies are profitable. They're getting $35 to $40 per hundred (pounds) for their milk," he said. That compares to perhaps $20 per hundred for regular whole milk.
CATTLE ARE NATURAL FIT
Cattle are a natural fit for organic farmers like Charlie, because they utilize alfalfa hay production he needs to complete organic rotations, and provide fertilizer for his fields.
A few of the Johnsons' calves are sold direct to local consumers for beef. Most are sold as feeder cattle. Charlie holds back about 30 bred heifers every year.
Cows run on about 500 acres of permanent pasture, eating grass six to nine months out of the year. "With the harsh winter climate up here, we keep them close," Charlie explained.
Tree groves and outbuildings in nearby pastures help break winter winds and drifting snow. That's where manure is collected and formed into windrows, where natural heating kills weed seeds. Windrows are stirred, and eventually manure becomes a fluffy fertility builder, easily picked up and spread with a manure spreader at the rate of 15 to 20 tons per acre on designated fields.
Organic farming requires patience, attention to detail -- and work -- like no other. That is no less true when transitioning the farm across generations. One advantage organic farming offers family farmers is that technology and larger equipment still haven't displaced labor and man-hours.
But have today's lower commodity prices stifled the Johnson brothers' farm? It doesn't seem so, because Charlie and Allan's 37-year-old brother, Kevin, a Case IH mechanic by training who now works on red or green machinery, is coming back to the farm.
Between the two of them, Charlie and his wife Bette have five grown children. The youngest, Jordan, 26, works a part-time job in town and still helps out around the farm.
In the past, Kevin and Jordan have worked on the farm. Now they'll provide labor and investment for a share of the crop.
All it takes is time.
"I foresee that in five or six years we'll be equal partners each sharing 25%. In the meantime, they're going to need to keep their part-time jobs," Charlie said.
Richard Oswald can be reached at email@example.com
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