EL PASO, Ill. – Steve Leesman’s shift to organic crop production began several years ago to meet consumer demand and he continued this diverse farm operation in Logan County, Illinois.
Leesman, who operates a farm near Hartsburg, is in his seventh year of organic farming and shared his story at Beck’s Hybrids Field Day at his factory in El Paso. Dave Ross, Brand Manager of Beck’s Great Harvest Organics, also participated in the program.
Leesman has been growing commercial pumpkins for Nestlé Libby’s in Morton for over a dozen years when the company asked if he would be interested in growing organic pumpkins to meet growing consumer demand.
“I told them I was going to check it out, so I went to a few organic conferences to learn. I contacted a certification company to see what I needed to do to get certified, ”said Leesman.
Leesman’s steady rotation allowed him to smoothly meet the three-year requirement to transition from farmland to organic.
“We had cattle and our rotation was oats, and then we usually had a mixture of alfalfa and cocksfoot curled up in our planter. So I had oats, it was in the hay my second year, so I was two-thirds of the way through my three-year transition period in my first year, ”he explained.
As part of the transition process, the certification company requested an invoice for its last pesticide application on land going organic. His last fungicide application was to corn in July 2013. He planted oats in 2014, alfalfa in 2015 and followed with pumpkins in 2016.
“I planted pumpkins in May 2016, when this farm was not yet certified, but by the time we harvested in October 2016, it had been 38 months” since the last fungicide application, he said. for follow-up.
Pumpkins don’t require a lot of nitrogen and when he plowed under alfalfa to plant pumpkins in 2016, he determined the soil had 120 pounds of nitrogen credit.
As part of its organic production contract with Nestlé Libby’s, the company supplies the pumpkin seeds and also harvests the crop.
Seven years later, Leesman has an organic rotation of oats, corn, pumpkins, and then back to corn. Organic popcorn and organic white corn are also part of the mix. He also grows conventional soybeans and corn in other fields.
“Next year we may be able to add green beans to the rotation. I have never made organic soybeans. Weed control is very difficult in soybeans. With corn, once you’ve grown it, emerged and shaded it, you have the weeds under control, ”he said.
“Dave (Ross) helped me a lot when I started. I didn’t know. He helped with the selection of seeds. He helped with the marketing. He was emailing me about someone looking for organic soybeans, organic corn or whatever. There is always someone looking for organic crops and he has helped me a lot with all of that.
“If you don’t like keeping records, then probably don’t do organic,” Leesman recommended.
He had 50 certified acres in the first year, 100 certified acres in the second year, and in the third year 200 acres had moved to organic certification.
An annual certification inspection is performed and in the third and final year of transition, an inspector spent approximately six hours on the Leesman farm.
“He wanted papers. He wanted seed labels. He wanted bills. He wanted to look at my equipment and my bins. He wanted documentation on everything I was using to produce this organic crop. He wanted to know when I cleaned the planter, how I cleaned the planter, and when I cleaned the planter, ”Leesman explained.
He first used forms from an online site to document the dates and required information, and in the third year he recorded them on a calendar.
“When I went from white corn to popcorn, I just put the date on the calendar when I made it. Now this year I’ve taken pictures with my phone of every time we’ve cleaned the planter, every time we’ve done anything with this biological field, ”he said.
“I usually put 80 feet of pad, especially on an organically grown one, and will take photos of that pad and photos when I mow it. When you take a photo on your phone the date is shown and when the certifier comes out and I can show the photos to it. I hope it works. I haven’t had my inspection yet this year, but it saves a lot of paperwork. They just want a huge amount of documentation.
Leesman uses granulated chicken litter from a large Michigan organic poultry company as part of their fertility program.
“I like using it because you can get a really good broadcast on it. I don’t think you get such a good or accurate spread pattern with wet chicken litter. I also have a cousin who raises a lot of pigs and I usually have 200 acres of oats. His pits are usually full in July and he’s got to go somewhere with that and he’ll bring some pork manure and inject it into my oats. They put in about 4,000 gallons per acre. They send out an analysis and the chicken litter also has an analysis so you can look at your soil test and decide how many tonnes per acre you need to put in, ”he said.
“The nitrogen from the manure that is put in in July is not available until next spring or next summer, which works very well.
Its certifying officer said the manure doesn’t have to come from an organic pig farm, “but they have to sign an affidavit stating that they did not use any insecticides. Some use insecticides in manure pits to control flies. This is another document that you must complete each year.
Pelletized chicken manure costs $ 120 per tonne and he applies two tonnes per acre.
“It costs $ 240 an acre, but it’s for total nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. I get about 90 pounds of N per ton of chicken litter. So two tons gives me 180 pounds of nitrogen from chicken litter and the local FS plant is spreading though for me and they charge $ 6.50 an acre to spread it.
His corn yields have ranged from an average of 140 bushels to just over 200 bushels per acre.
As with all other aspects of organic production, there is also a learning curve for weed control.
In 2018, Leesman planted corn in a 50-acre field and it rained that night. The foxtail and weeds all germinated on the same day as the corn and within three weeks the field was green, the rows of corn were barely visible, and the field was still too wet to cultivate.
“I had a 50 acre field with 20 acres in a low spot. I ended up cleaning the 30 acres pretty well, but it never got through the 20 acres. Then by the time the corn was as high as a table, it was yellow and wasn’t going to do anything. So I got out with a scissor plow and tore it up. It’s going to happen with organic, ”Leesman said.
“I attended a conference that winter and the speaker said not to plant organic crops until May. Work your soil in April to get that first wave of weeds. Go back to May 10 and hit it a second time to kill that second color. Watch the weather and make sure you have five to seven days when it won’t rain. The ground is quite warm in May and you can get this crop and you can row it in a week if the weather is right.
“Get that crop before the weeds sprout and hit it with a rotary hoe. I will go out to hoe seven days after planting. I don’t care if the corn is in place or not, as there are weeds germinating under the crust. I will weed it again 10 days later and maybe 10 days later the corn can grow to about 6 inches and grow about 10 days later. If you can do that you’ll have really good weed control, but if it rains and you can’t, you might end up with problems.
“The secret of organic is that you need storage. Nobody comes looking for this stuff in the field. They want you to stock and so it’s the buyer’s call. But when they come to pick it up, you have to have a bill of lading, you have to have a clean truck affidavit that they’ve washed their truck, ”Leesman noted.
“They put cables on the doors of their hoppers, on their tarpaulin and there is a label on the end of the cable with a number on it. All of these labels must match your bill of lading number or they won’t drop. They are very particular about it.
“I’m lucky where I am. I am 25 miles from Nestlé Libby’s pumpkins; I grow organic popcorn for Weaver Popcorn in Forest City, which is just 40 miles from me. I grow organic white corn for Clarkson Grain at Cerro Gordon and they are about 80 kilometers away, ”Leesman said.
“A few weeks ago I just got a call from Del Monte asking if I would grow organic green beans for them and they grow a lot of them in Mason County which is the next county. So if you are looking for special crops, you need to see where you are and where your market is.
“I don’t think I would grow organically and have nowhere to go with it. When I put something in the ground, I usually have a contract signed.
“If you want to go organic, the first thing you need to do is commit to it completely. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to get it right and if you don’t commit to it, you’re not going to stick with it.