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Organic Production Satisfying & Profitable

Sunday, November 1, 2009
filed under: Planting Systems

As an organic farmer, Mike Klipfel is certainly a believer in what’s termed “sustainable agriculture.” But he’s also a pragmatist. “If you can’t make a profit, you’re not ‘sustaining’ yourself very well,” he says with a smile. And sunflower is one crop that has definitely helped Klipfel sustain his farm and his family.

Though his mailing address is the small south central North Dakota community of Forbes, Klipfel actually lives just across the state line in South Dakota. The dairy farm where he grew up remains his home base. He left the dairy business in 1995, the same year he was first certified as an organic producer. Because much of their crop production always had been fed to the dairy herd, Klipfel and his late father, Alvin, had not been applying herbicides, insecticides or synthetic fertilizers to their fields. “So our transition into organic farming was actually fairly easy,” he says. (Organic certification requires proof of at least three years without treatment with pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.)

Sunflower also has been in the Klipfel rotation since 1995. During that period, he has effectively disproved two common perceptions about organic sunflower production: (1) weeds cannot be adequately controlled, and (2) yields are typically inferior to those achieved through conventional farming practices.

Sunflower yields? While he’s usually satisfied with a 1,500-lb average, “we consistently do better than that,” Klipfel reports. “We’ve harvested 2,200 lbs in the right year. While we do see a yield drag on corn, we do not on sunflower.”

An extended rotation is central to those solid yields, the McPherson County producer emphasizes. Along with sunflower, his crop mix encompasses wheat, flax, oats, barley, millet and occasionally corn. Alfalfa is also an important component for its nutrient contributions and soil mellowing effect. Klipfel plants to alfalfa after a field has been cropped for four or five years. He also fall-seeds cover crops — hairy vetch, sweet clover, rye, radishes — on his fallow ground, taking advantage of the USDA-NRCS cost-share program.

Disease control is a central tenet behind Klipfel’s extended sunflower rotation. “Sometimes we won’t raise ’flowers at all one year — not because we don’t want to; rather, because we’re beginning to see some disease buildup,” he relates.

While he’ll follow almost any of his rotational crops, Klipfel prefers planting sunflower on millet ground. The shallow-rooted, thick-matted millet “just makes the soil mellow — and leaves it virtually weed free for a good length of time,” he says.

Weed control? The late harvest date for millet — compared to wheat, barley or oats — leaves minimal time for late-season weed growth. So the ensuing sunflower crop typically goes into a field that’s quite clean. Two — occasionally three — in-season cultivations comprise his entire weed control program. “ ’Flowers are really weed-competitive,” he affirms. “If we can cultivate them when they’re small, then again when they’re about six inches tall, they’ll compete very well.”

That’s even with an unusual row width. Klipfel plants his sunflower in 36” rows — for two reasons. First, his tractors are set at 36 and, he laughingly admits, “I just don’t want to change them over to 30s.” Second, he doesn’t believe he has hurt his yields by staying at 36. Even with the wide rows, Klipfel says the sunflower plant canopy effectively helps suppress weed growth following his second cultivation pass.

The two weed species that do concern Klipfel are wild buckwheat and creeping jenny. “Both of those are a challenge,” he admits. “But we can control thistle — Canadian and otherwise. We’ll kill those in a year of fallow.”

One production problem for which the organic grower does not have an effective solution is insects — specifically, the red seed weevil. While it’s not an every-year occurrence, Klipfel did incur a serious seed weevil infestation in his 2009 sunflower fields. Had he been raising confection ’flowers (as he has in the past), the resulting dockage would have been heavy. But the conoil variety he planted this year will be crushed for oil, so the weevil damage will not be as economically painful.

Klipfel soil tests all his fields. Along with the alfalfa and cover crops, he spreads manure from his 200 stock cows. (He also feeds calves.)

How does organic sunflower pencil out in terms of input costs and returns?

Klipfel was able to contract his entire 2009 crop at 35 cents/lb. (In 2008 his contract price was 40 cents.) As of early October, he was anticipating a seed yield of 1,600-1,700 lbs/ac, so the gross return — weevil damage aside — would come out to $560 to $595 per acre.

Input costs? While he’s obviously not spending for pesticides and commercial fertilizer, there are those two — sometimes three — cultivations and their associated costs. Plus, he points out, one must take into account the fallowed acreage. “We leave about 20% of our ground fallow each year,” Klipfel notes. “You have to add that in; plus, assuming you would have made a profit off those [fallow] acres, that has to be factored in.” The bottom line, in Klipfel’s opinion, is that on a per-acre basis, his costs of production are probably lower than those of a conventional producer. But on an overall-farm basis, they’re probably quite similar.

“You’ll have organic growers who say their costs are less because they’re not using fertilizers or pesticides,” he remarks. “But they’re not always telling you the other factor (i.e., the lowered income due to the fallowed acreage).” Still, the fallow is essential part of his success, Klipfel emphasizes, and he’s not going to abandon the practice.

While Mike Klipfel knows farming in the conventional manner, utilizing pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, would make his life easier in some ways, he’s not about to change. “I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” he confirms. “I’m not farming organically just to make a living; it’s also something I enjoy and believe in. I love what I’m doing.”

— Don Lilleboe

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