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Organic grower figures extra work is worth it Klamath-area farm turns out wheat, barley, alfalfa and variety of row crops

John Schmitz, Capital Press 2/16/07

Start small and have good buyers lined up. These are the two most essential ingredients in establishing an organic farm, says one veteran organic grower who farms in Oregon's Klamath Basin.

Mike Noonan, his brother Matt and cousin Mike Reynolds began transitioning to organic agriculture about 10 years ago in the Henley-Lower Klamath Basin area. Three years later they became organically certified for grains and row crops.

"We started with a relatively small farm, and it's grown into a number of acres," Mike Noonan said. "I usually don't quote the number, but it's a lot."

What got the Noonans and Reynolds interested in growing organically was a visit by Mike to a barley miller in the Willamette Valley. The Noonans had just harvested their first input-free crop of barley.

"The man told me that some day this organic thing is going to be a big deal. So we started doing it, and there were more and more opportunities." The farm's organic portfolio includes alfalfa, soft white wheat, barley, oat seed, fresh-market potatoes, carrots and yellow sweet onions.

The farm is certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers, the equivalent of Oregon Tilth.

"We've always been limited-input, dollar-in, dollar-out type of farmers," Noonan said. "We've always spot-sprayed and taken soil tests to put on exactly what we need and no more, to try to minimize them."

Noonan said growing organically isn't for all farming operations. It fits perfectly into his program because of the huge amount of alfalfa, about 85 percent of that grown organically, that must be moved around and rotated with other crops.

Because chemical sprays are not used to control weeds and diseases, alfalfa is rotated every five to seven years on the Noonan farm, depending on the ground.

Noonan said that while the organic sector is growing at around a 20 percent clip annually in the U.S., markets are still somewhat limited. "Probably one of the biggest holdbacks in organics is not being able to market your product."

The Noonans and Reynolds sell their alfalfa to feedlots and dairies in Oregon and Washington. Currently, because the price for conventionally grown alfalfa "is hot right now," they're getting no more for their organic crop.

Noonan added, however, that if a good working relationship is established with buyers, and if the quality is there, "you'll get more stable pricing over the long term, and usually a price that has been more beneficial than commercial markets."

As for what the price differential will be between organically grown crops and conventionally grown crops, "nobody really knows," Noonan said. "It's finding new ground right now."

Another tip Noonan has for organic growers is to avoid becoming one-dimensional when marketing products and establish several buyers. "Different regions have different uses for feed rations and produce."

He added that organic growers deal mostly with more diverse and smaller markets. "And nobody knows where exactly it's headed. That's why I can't emphasize enough that marketing of your product - before you grow it - is so important."

Noonan said his yields are not quite as high as those of conventional farmers, "but I think you can hold them the same depending on your crop rotations. And I would emphasize that crop rotation is mandatory."

A big part of organic production is for growers to look for new, authorized inputs that will make the operation more efficient and increase yields and quality, Noonan said. "The big things are weed control and fertility and how to maintain organic status."

To farm more sustainably, the Noonans go with varieties that are less susceptible to diseases and insects. The trade-off is that sometimes these cultivars deliver lower yields.

For weed control the Noonans, among other practices, pre-irrigate the ground and apply compost before the crop is planted to encourage weed growth that can more effectively be dealt with under cultivation without the crop in the way.

When it comes to fertility, the Noonans are working with a local dairy farm to bring composted cow manure onto the farm.

Noonan said that his management costs, especially when it comes to weed control, are higher than those of conventional growers. "It's a little bit harder. It takes more management skills, more tillage time, more hours on the tractor. It's going to take longer to spread and incorporate inputs at the right time."

Noonan said some of the biggest challenges facing organic growers these days are labor availability, coming up with the right fertility program and controlling weeds.

Noonan, who is president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, was accompanied by an organic grain miller in Utah when he spoke to Northwest wheat growers at their annual meeting in Portland.
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