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One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to organic crop rotations

Three organic producers share their top tips for building a sustainable crop rotation — no matter what kind of operation you have

Organic crop rotations are “a real ball of wax to deal with,” says veteran organic grower Steven Snider.

“There’s so many options out there. I think people would like for me to just tell them what to put in, and that would be nice and simple,” said Snider, who runs an organic grain operation near Edberg.

“The problem is I don’t know your operation and I don’t know what your resources or your capabilities are.”

Ultimately, producers need to decide for themselves “what works best and what makes them profitable and sustainable.”

“A lot of it boils down to making good management decisions,” said Snider, part of a panel at Organic Alberta’s conference in late February.

So if there’s no easy answer when it comes to developing an organic crop rotation, what can you do?

Snider — along with two other organic producers — shared their top three tips for building an organic crop rotation that could work for your farm.

Manage marketing risks

Snider’s piece of advice for developing an organic crop rotation is simple.

“Make sure you’ve got your risks covered, he said. “The key going into deciding what your rotation is going to be is knowing what your risks are, and there’s lots of them.”

Topping the list is marketing risk.

“What’s happening in the market? What are the contracts? What’s the competition both locally and globally? What’s the demand in the market? Who’s buying what?” asked Snider.

“One of the frustrations I hear from growers a lot of times is, ‘I grew this commodity, but I can’t sell it.’ Maybe that was a little homework you should have done before you put it in the ground.”

Many producers grow crops like hemp and flax based solely on their price in the marketplace, but that’s the wrong approach, said Snider.

“It sounds good in the coffee shop to say, ‘If I can raise 30 bushels an acre of flax at those prices…’” he said. “Your head’s spinning. It’s like Christmas on steroids. But it’s not practical.”

There’s a reason why crops like hemp and flax sell so high, he added.

“You have to remember those crops are at that price level for one reason and one reason only — they’re tough to grow. They’re high risk.”

“What I see continually — and I think it’s dangerous and it happens way too often — is guys rushing in and chasing those high-risk crops and putting all their eggs in one basket. Sometimes it works, but a lot of times, it doesn’t.”

The key to Snider’s success is diversity and patience.

“We have a variety of crops. Some peak, some fall. And we try to wait for the peaks to sell into,” he said.

“The sliding scale of price can move very quickly, up or down. These are very volatile markets, and we all know that.

“If you can actually hold that commodity and not have the banker push you over to push it into the market, you’re going to win.”

Intercropping

Country music duo Van Zant once sang that “if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, Ward Middleton has found that to be true on his 750-acre organic operation near Morinville.

“I’ve seen some really good six-year crop rotation plans, but I’d get two years into a plan and something would change,” said Middleton.

So Middleton began intercropping to manage some of those risks.

“Intercropping is something we’ve embraced because we’re a smaller land base,” said Middleton. “I find that in general, it provides me with a crop insurance strategy. I’ve never seen a failure of both crops.”

Intercropping has also helped with weed competition and nutrient management in the soil, said Middleton.

“We do an awful lot of intercropping because of our strategy for weed management, which seems to be my biggest consideration in my cropping rotation choices,” he said.

Right now, “a typical combination” of intercrops on Middleton’s farm is wheat intercropped with flax, peas intercropped with Polish canola, and barley intercropped with sweet clover.

“I always let the barley get established, and when it’s about the three-leaf stage, I go out and harrow it and incorporate the sweet clover. That’s nice because it’s cheap legume establishment for the next year.”

Middleton has seen a variety of benefits from introducing intercropping to his operation, including improved weed management, water use efficiency, and additional marketing options.

“Nature has never wanted a monoculture to exist. If I’m going to have something growing and competing with my crop, let it be another crop that I can sell and get an organic premium for,” he said.

“The more species you have growing, the better it is.”

Using livestock

For organic producer Tim Hoven, using livestock in his crop rotation has improved his soil health, his weed control, and his bottom line.

“I don’t believe in sustainable farming. I believe in regenerative farming,” said Hoven, who runs a mixed operation near Eckville.

“When I look at my soil, I do not want to live on a slowly degrading soil. I want to be doing practices and activities that are building up that soil over time.”

And he’s achieved that by grazing cattle as part of his rotation.

“Cattle have two purposes on our farm. No. 1, they convert grass into dollars, but they also improve our pastures and our soils,” said Hoven.

“The cattle take nutrients in those grasses — which is an unmarketable product — and it comes out their back end as manure and back into the soil. That manure feeds the soil life, which in turn grows more grass — which allows me to grow more beef.”

Cattle are part of his “very simple rotation,” owing to the “mediocre” land he farms at the edge of Clearwater County.

“Where we are in the province, we have a very short growing season. We can get off two crops organically, mainly barley and oats. We just don’t have time to do anything else,” said Hoven.

“Our rotation is two years of barley or oats, and then it’s seeded back into alfalfa and grass mix. We hay and pasture that grass mix up until we’re not getting a return on that grass anymore.

“I consider myself a grass farmer more than a grain farmer.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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