Planting for premiums

It’s been 25 years since Roundup Ready soybeans hit the market, an event that dramatically changed agriculture.

Those first commercially available biotech seeds—created through transgenic breeding—revolutionized weed control with tolerance to over-the-top glypho­sate applications. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. Many more genetically engineered traits have been introduced since then to address issues such as plant diseases and pests, drought tolerance and enhanced nutritional content.

Given the agronomic advantages, biotech seed now accounts for 95% of soy­bean acres, 93% of all corn acres and 97% percent of upland cotton acres planted in the United States. That means only a small frac­tion of growers plant “conventional” crops—those that aren’t categorized as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Missouri producers Mike Moreland and Jake Taylor are among that minority.

Moreland, who farms with his brother, Jay, and oldest son, Matt, in Harrison­ville, Mo., grew two varieties of conventional soybeans on about 650 acres this year. Taylor, a first-generation farmer in Columbia, Mo., is converting his 500 acres of row-crop ground into certified organic production. Growing non-GMO crops is part of that process.

“I started farming in 2014 and figured out pretty quick that I had to either get really big to spread my overhead costs over more acres, or I had to figure out a way to make more money on fewer acres,” Taylor said. “That’s when I switched over to non-GMO crops with the idea of eventually going organic. There’s a mar­ket for this, and there are companies willing to pay a premium for growing crops a certain way.”

Indeed, there is demand for non-GMO crops in both the feed and food industry, fueled by a complex and controversial consumer-level debate. As such, “non-GMO” labeling is becoming more prevalent on grocery store shelves. Many coun­tries, including a majority of the European Union, ban the production or import of GMO crops. And recent research suggests that the global market for food made with non-genetically modified organisms could increase at an annual growth rate of more than 15% from now through 2026.

In response, manufacturers that want non-GMO ingredients are willing to make it worthwhile for farmers to grow them. Both Taylor and Moreland say the promise of a premium price is the reason they grow non-GMO. Taylor’s organic corn and soybeans are used in poultry and hog feed. He also grows food-grade non-GMO soybeans that will end up in products such as tofu or tempeh, a fermented soy cake often used to replace meat in a vegetarian diet. The Morelands sell their non-GMO soybeans through an identity-preserved contract with a nearby grain company. The beans will eventually be exported to south­east Asia, where soy-based foods make up a large portion of the consumer’s diet and non-GMO products are in demand.

“Even with today’s $14-$15 beans, we’ll still get a premium of up to $1.50 per bushel on top of those prices for growing what these markets want,” Moreland said. “And yields with these non-GMOs have been comparable. We saw 55-plus, even 60, bushels per acre last year.”

However, those premiums don’t come easy. Producing non-GMO crops requires stringent cleaning procedures for com­bines and equipment, segregated storage, inventive ways of dealing with weed and insect pressures and careful scrutiny by the contracting company.

The Morelands don’t mind the rigorous standards. They have grown seed beans for around 20 years, so the leap to non-GMO wasn’t much of a stretch. They started with about 150 acres of conventional soybeans about four years ago. This year, the Mo­relands weren’t asked to grow seed, so they devoted those fields to non-GMO, too.

“With seed beans, we were used to the whole system of keeping everything clean and following all the protocols,” Mo­reland said. “For example, you have to vacuum out the planter between varieties, and make sure every last bean is out of the grain bins. The biggest thing is the combine. It takes four hours just to clean it out. But the extra money we get is worth the extra work.”

The protocols for certified organic production are even more strict, Taylor said, requiring meticulous rules and record-keep­ing. The fields have to be farmed for 36 months as if they were organic, which means only using USDA-approved practices. Plant nutrition and soil fertility must be managed through till­age and cultivation, crop rotations and cover crops. Animal and crop waste materials and some synthetic products can also be used. Pests, weeds and diseases can only be controlled through physical, mechanical and biological practices.

“It takes a lot of time, and if you’re not a detailed paperwork person, it could be a disaster,” Taylor said. “You have to track every sort of field activity—when you did it, what you did, what you used. Everything’s traceable.”

Taylor said he considers weed control one of the most daunt­ing challenges in both non-GMO and certified organic crops. He uses a specialized cultivator, the Austrian-made Einbock Chopstar, to remove weeds early in the season. As the inno­vative implement moves through the field, a camera pointed down at the crop continually sends a message to the hydraulics and adjusts the position of its harrows between the rows.

Later in the season, Taylor uses another implement called the Weed Zapper to control weeds that grow above the crop’s cano­py. This machine kills weeds by sending electricity down their stems and rupturing the plant cells.

“You’ve got to have the right equipment to do this, and it’s not cheap,” Taylor said. “One thing I don’t like about organic production is the amount of tillage required. That’s bothersome to me, but it’s something we have to do.”

Because the Morelands aren’t growing their non-GMO soybeans organically, they have more freedom in their inputs and practices. They use regular agricultural fertilizers and crop protection products, and all of the farm’s non-GMO ground is no-till. After an effective burndown, the crop only needs to be sprayed once more in season, he said, if conditions cooperate. The family usually relies on West Central AGRIServices to make that application.

“You definitely have fewer weapons when it comes to weed control, so you have to make sure you start clean in order to stay clean,” Moreland said. “We follow a strict rotation of corn and soybeans, and that’s helped. We also have a good residual program that works until we come back in with whatever product we can use in a non- GMO situation.”

Extra weed pressure can also make plant nutrition a challenge in non-GMO crops, said Kaitlin Flick, MFA district agronomist. Those undesirable plants can compete with the crop for soil nutrients, which means scouting becomes crucial to ensure growers keep weeds under control and provide sup­plemental plant nutrition if necessary. To that end, MFA’s Crop-Trak and Nutri-Track programs can be a tremendous benefit for non-GMO and organic crop production, Flick added. She and other MFA agronomists can work closely with growers to help accomplish their goals.

“A lot of time and energy and money are invested into these special projects, so we want to help growers maximize their profits,” Flick said. “We start by learn­ing about their expectations, where they’re selling the crops and what their yield goals are. Knowing those things, we can check in throughout the season to help keep the crop on target. In niche markets like these, especially, you want to be proactive instead of reactive when it comes to potential problems in the field.”

Careful handling at harvest is also a major consider­ation, Moreland said.

“They want the beans clean—no weeds, no corn, no mold or mildew—and they want them kept in very good condition,” Moreland said. “We bought a belt conveyor a few years ago, so all the beans go in and out on that belt, instead of an auger, which can dam­age them. The premium is based on quality. The better the quality, the more money we get.”

During the three-year organic certification period, his crops can’t be sold as organic, Taylor ex­plained. He is growing non-GMO soybeans in the fields that are still in transition. They will bring the $1-to-$2-per-bushel premium of­fered for non-GMO grain, whereas organic production usually garners twice the regular commodity mar­ket price, he said.

“It needs to be about double to justify the extra input costs and the time you put into organic produc­tion,” Taylor said.

Ultimately, non-GMO and organic crop production involves the same basic agronomic princi­ples and problems as traditional farming, both Moreland and Taylor point out. They still have to manage fertility, weeds, insects and diseases. They still have to plant and harvest in a timely manner. They still have to worry about the weather, the environment and government regulations. They just have to manage and market their crops a little differently.

“When it comes down to it, we’re really just doing old-school farming with a lot more tools in our tool belt than growers had back then,” Taylor said. “It’s not always easy, but it does pay in the end.”

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