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Agricultural Horizons - Agricultural Sustainability Notes Series    



Organic Grain Farming

Jon and Sharla Tester, Big Sandy, MT

Jon and Sharla Tester have successfully converted their 1,400-acre farm in north central Montana to a fully organic grain production operation. They farm a sandy loam soil in an area that is traditionally wheat-fallow. The annual precipitation is 12 inches, of which 6 to 8 inches of moisture falls the growing season. Their land is fairly flat, so soil erosion is not usually an issue unless the spring season is exceptionally windy.

The goals of their operation are:

  • to produce high quality food,
  • to use environmentally sound farming practices,
  • to improve soil health on their farm,
  • to keep the farm in their family.

Tester initially turned to organic production to reduce dependence on inputs (petroleum products) and add value to his crops. He converted his farm to organic production between 1987 and 1993. Crop rotation is key to the operation, and each crop has a specific place and purpose in the rotation. Tester grows spring wheat (including durum), safflower, lentils, buckwheat, fenugreek, millet, mustard, and alfalfa. He also runs some cattle, which is a tremendous advantage in his system.

A typical rotation would be: green manure plowdown - spring wheat - broadleaf (lentils safflower, or buckwheat in areas heavily infested with wild oats). In heavily weed infested fields it could be spring wheat - buckwheat - green manure. A third possible rotation manages both early and late weeds: spring wheat - lentils - buckwheat - green manure. The green manure is Trapper peas or Austrian winter peas planted in the spring. Tester maintains one cannot afford not to use green manure, though yields the next year are reduced due to the delayed release of nitrogen. Buckwheat may also be plowed down as green manure and releases phosphorus. The alfalfa is put on the poorest ground for 4 to 5 years, and improves it tremendously

Tester uses the green manure as a nitrogen source, and buckwheat plowdown or rock phosphorus to supply phosphorus. Sulfur and potassium are not typically deficient in his soils. The crop rotations, with different crop types and seeding dates, help to manage weed and disease problems that developed with the previous crop monoculture Tester grows spring wheat (1/3 of his acreage) because he can get good protein levels and market prices. Lentils are his best cash crop, but compete poorly with weeds. Buckwheat is a low cash crop but an excellent weed competitor, especially with wild oats. Fenugreek fits in the same seeding window as lentils. It is very high value (the seed $2.50/lb, but it is an extremely poor weed competitor. The peas are worth a lot plowed down (he saves back his seed).

Tester uses a moldboard plow for weed control, also a chisel plow or disc. There are 4 to 5 tillage operations between plowing down a green manure and seeding the next crop. He seeds everything with a John Deere 9350 drill with 6-inch spacing.

Tester is more secure financially with organic production that when he was farming conventionally. He doesn't carry a lot of debt, and has been able to build a new house. Wheat grown conventionally in the area averages 45 Bu/A (25 Bu/A without fertilizer), and Tester's organic wheat yields 35 Bu/A with 14% protein. He has also been able to spread his workload in the spring, and harvest takes seven weeks instead of one.

Tester, however, does not believe one should try to get out of debt with organic farming - you'll go broke. He advises going into it step by step because of the steep learning curve. He believes the system should work in any area, but one needs to learn to work with the local ecosystem. Regarding marketing, start with what you're interested in growing. Contact local brokers, and try to get preplanting contracts for grains. He emphasized that it is a huge mistake not to share information as with zero growth the organic movement won't survive. Working with other organic growers enables one to market cooperatively and to fill markets/rail cars that one couldn't do alone. Besides, he believes the methods he uses are not really new.

Concepts in this report were provided by Jon Tester, a producer from Big Sandy Montana, during a seminar held in Spokane Washington on November 20, 1997. Prepared by Diana Roberts, WSU Cooperative Extension.

Agricultural Sustainability. Highlights from a seminar series conducted by Washington State University's Ag Horizons Team and funded by USDA Western Region SARE.

Diana Roberts
222 N. Havana
Spokane, WA 99202-4799
Phone: (509) 477-2048
FAX: (509) 477-2087

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