ABERDEEN, S.D. — The Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society held their 2024 conference at the Ramkota Inn in Aberdeen Jan. 25-27. The conference had around 250 people registered to attend with upwards of 40 vendors. While the Northern Plains Sustainable Ag Society is a member organization, many non-members attend to learn about organic, regenerative and sustainable practices which can be of interest to any farmer.
The conference included speakers and workshops focused on sharing new and innovative ways to solve issues in organic farming such as weed problems, soil health, crop rotations and finding markets. The Organic Academy Roadshow also held one of 10 workshops being held around Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska for new and beginning organic farmers.
“With these workshops, we’re looking at trying to hook both markets as well as experienced organic farmers up with new transitioning farmers so that there can be a lot of peer to peer mentoring, so that the well experienced farmers are going to be able to provide that local context based advice for folks coming into the market to know the pitfalls before you just jump in,” Nate Powell-Palm, owner of Cold Springs Organics in Bozeman, Montana, said.
Powell-Palm attended the conference as a keynote speaker and to help teach the Organic Academy Roadshow workshop. Powell-Palm is a first generation farmer that became certified organic in 2008 raising wheat, yellow peas and flax and has grown his operation from about 10 acres to what is now a little over 1,000 acres.
Powell-Palm says that organic farming has provided many benefits for the ecological diversity of his land while also requiring lower input costs.
“In 2021 and 2022, when fertilizer prices were going really high, organic farmers didn’t really feel that pinch, because they’d set up a rotation that’s going to mostly grow on their own fertility as part of the rotation. So that’s one of the benefits of having a more resilient farm,” Powell-Palm said.
For conventional farmers like BJ McNeil, the transition to organic farming was seen as a good opportunity for better markets. McNeil is the owner of his family farm, Rocking Z Acres, in Wessington, South Dakota.
“We started transitioning our ground in 2019. At that time in 2018, commodity prices, kind of like right now, had sunk. It didn’t look like a rosy picture going forward, and we were actually ready to do something different, kind of getting tired with the whole conventional marketplace,” McNeil said. “So we decided to dive into organics and started growing our first certified crops in 2021 and 2022.”
McNeil’s family grows around nine crops in total including the standard corn, beans and wheat. They also grow hemp for both grain and fiber as well as white sorghum, buckwheat, sunflowers, pinto beans and alfalfa, which is grown organically and then sold for conventional use to dairies.
While they had been farming 100% organic on all of their acres, their operation ended up having weed issues due to mistakes made during the transition.
“We took half the acres out now to get our weeds back under control and then as we get everything managed better, we’ll start rolling those back into the organics,” McNeil said.
Transition issues like these are what make it difficult to get started organic farming and often turn people away. Gaining knowledge from more experienced producers can help make transitioning easier.
“Find a mentor. That was our biggest mistake — we thought we were smart enough to be able to do it. We weren’t; we did it completely wrong,” McNeil said. “Really look into the market too, because, yeah, it’s better than conventional right now, but it’s not like you’re gonna jump into organics and hit a home run. So just look at your markets and make sure you understand the cost and the time it takes to transition. There’s a way to get through it financially, but you can’t just jump in and think you’re just going to grow corn and beans and make it work.”
Finding a mentor is so beneficial to get started organic farming that the government is now paying farmers to do it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a $100 million program over the next five years, the
, which allows new and transitioning farmers to team up with mentors in organic farming. The program also provides technical assistance and other resources.
“The biggest thing I think that folks are going to realize is that it’s much easier than you think, that after a few years of learning, it becomes something that basically runs itself. There’s a lot of inherent advantage to this crop rotation based growing and there’s a huge market out there so that as the market grows, and the demand is consistent. You don’t experience the same peaks and troughs that you do in conventional. It’s a much more consistent market,” said Powell-Palm.
In terms of what the market looks like for 2024, McNeil says that imports are hurting the organic side, but with new standards coming out in March, there will hopefully be a decrease in imports and commodity prices will start increasing. While margins are tight for both conventional and organic farming, the demand for organic commodities helps soften the blow of lower prices.
“We were at, let’s say about $12 corn a year ago and now we’re at like eight to seven, so we’ve dropped just as much,” McNeil said. “However, even at that $7, when I run it through the analysis on the organic side, my profit is double on my organic acres versus my conventional acres. So there’s just way more opportunity in that space than in the conventional.”
Kennedy is a reporter for Agweek based out of South Dakota. She grew up on an organic crop farm where her family also raises cattle in eastern South Dakota. She graduated from South Dakota State University in 2023 with a major in agricultural communication and minor in agricultural business. She enjoys connecting with producers and agribusinesses across the region while reporting on all things agriculture.
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