WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Going Organic: More Time, More Money

Aug 11, 2015

WIU’s Allison Organic Research and Demonstration Farm’s annual Field Day will be held August 13, 2015 at 9am. Andy Ambriole will give the keynote presentation at 11am at The Dakin Family Farm at 130 20th St., Roseville, IL 61473*. The Allison farm is located 0.7 miles north of the Dakin Farm. Signs will be posted.

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Andy Ambriole, a 27-year-old farmer, turns into a little kid when he talks about worms in his soil.

“The earthworms are crazy,” he said. “You walk out there in the spring, pick any spot in the field, take a shovelful of soil and there will be 10 to 12 to 20 earthworms in it. Just in a shovelful! It’s kind of amazing.”

Ambriole’s soil hasn’t always teemed with the gooey creatures that help aerate and drain soil and bury organic matter. They’re one of the beneficial consequences he’s noticed from transitioning nearly half of his family's 2,000-acre grain farm in Roanoke, Ind., into an organic operation.

Once thought to be the kooky farmers, going organic is now considered a solid business move with a bright future. Certified organic fields still only account for a fraction of a percent of total U.S. farmland, but the USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that organic food markets have had a remarkable growth rate of 20-24 percent annually in recent years.

And America’s appetite for organic food isn’t likely to be satiated anytime soon, with market research showing that recent struggles over GMO labeling laws are pushing the growth of certified organic products.

Ambriole raises organic corn, soybeans, and a variety of small grains on about 800 acres of his family’s farm. He sells some of his soybeans for tofu, but the majority of his crops go to organic livestock operations, feeding chickens and dairy cows.

“Organic” can mean a lot of things. But in Ambriole’s case, it means that instead of spraying chemicals to kill pests and weeds and applying synthetic fertilizers to add nutrients to the soil, he employs a variety of alternative methods. Those include using manure and cover crops to add nutrients and using tractor-pulled cultivators as his primary weed control.

Ambriole said his organic methods take more time and more thought. Instead of only working long hours planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall - with a few odd jobs mixed in between - Ambriole is out in his fields planting, weeding, tilling, and harvesting pretty much all year long. In addition to raising cash crops, Ambriole said he grows anywhere from two to 10 cover crop species.  

“It’s a lot more diversity, a lot more management,” he said. “A conventional farm is growing only corn or maybe a corn and soybean rotation.”

But the extra work brings with it extra income, which is why Ambriole started to grow organic grain in the first place.

“Historically, organic [grain] has averaged about twice what the conventional market is,” he said. “Today, we’re sitting at about three times as much.”

And, Ambriole said, while the price for conventional corn and soybeans has been falling after reaching record highs a few years ago, the price for organic grain is steady.

“The big thing driving the organic market right now is demand exceeding supply,” he said.

In other words, America’s appetite for organic crackers and organic meat has grown faster than U.S. farmers can grow the organic grain to produce it. That’s in part because producing a certified “organic” crop is a regulatory process that mandates that conventional farmers not spray their fields with synthetic fertilizer for three years before they can qualify for the organic label.

As a result, the U.S. has been importing a lot of organic corn and soybeans from Romania, Turkey, and the Netherlands, where many farm fields have been fallow and, as a result, can be immediately certified.

Ambriole said the large profit margin potential in the organic market has changed some farmers attitudes about organic agriculture. Ambriole said some of the farmers in his community still look at organic growers as being “crazy,” but he’s noticed more farmers expressing interest, rather than judgement, in his operation.

“As the conventional market is headed lower, there's guys looking for options,” he said. “And it doesn't really matter what they think. if it's profitable, guys are going to want to do it. And they’ll figure out how to do it.”

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Andy Ambriole will give the keynote address at Western Illinois University’s 2015 Allison Organic Research and Demonstration Farm Field Day. The Field Day will include additional presentations by Doug Kremer, CEO and founder of the fertilizer company TerraMax, who will discuss the present and future of biological seed treatments, and Ken Musselman, Certified Crop Advisor for Agri Energy, who will discuss biological nutrient management. Additionally, Dr. Joel Gruver, professor of agriculture at WIU and head researcher at the Allison Farm, will share recent research results and lead discussions about the presentations. The Field Day will include a complimentary lunch at noon, featuring local farm products, followed by a walking tour of the Allison Farm and an equipment demonstration.

Directions

If arriving from the north, travel on Rt. 67 five miles south of the Rt. 67 and Rt. 116 intersection in Roseville to County Rd. 20th Ave. N, then turn west and travel four miles on 20th Ave. to the southeast corner of the Allison Farm (intersection of 20th Ave. and 20th St.). Turn left and proceed south 0.7 miles on 20th St. to the Dakin Farm shop.

If arriving from the south, travel on Rt. 67 seven miles north of the Rt. 67 and Rt. 9 intersection in Good Hope to County Rd. 20th Ave. N (2 miles north of the McDonough/Warren County line), then turn west and travel four miles on 20th Ave. to the southeast corner of the Allison Farm(intersection of 20th Ave. and 20th St.). Turn left and proceed south 0.7 miles on 20th St. to the Dakin Farm shop.