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One missing link: organic grains



Demand is growing for locally raised organic meat and eggs from Triangle farms, as well as organic, locally produced breads. But the dearth of organic grain in the state has prevented small producers from serving this market. A recent push by N.C. State is aiming to turn the situation around.

Teresa Fischer of Singing Winds Farm in Chatham County drives to Virginia every eight weeks to buy organic feed for her chickens.

"I was just shocked to find out that it wasn't available here in North Carolina," says Fischer, whose family farmed in New Hampshire before moving to Silk Hope. "And when you could get someone to order it for you here, the markup was so high that it came out better for me to drive up to Virginia."

But not only is the time away from the farm a strain for Fischer and farmers like her in our area, but the burgeoning cost of gas has made the trip increasingly expensive.

It's not just organic food for chickens that's scarce and expensive; bakeries that produce organic breads are also struggling with the supply chain. Weaver Street Market in Carrboro recently posted a sign near their bakery apologizing to customers for the increase in bread prices.

Molly Hamilton, extension assistant and project coordinator for the organic grain project at N.C. State, explained that the infrastructure is not in place right now to allow small producers local access to organic grains.

Hamilton says that the state has a growing demand for organic corn and soybeans for livestock food.

"For organic wheat production, we have two large mills that want it for food consumption," she adds.

There is hope for improvement, however. N.C. State University recently received two grants to promote organic grain production. The Golden LEAF Foundation contributed $100,000 to N.C. State's organic grain program, and another $35,000 was donated by Organic Valley, a cooperative of small and family-operated organic dairy farmers. Golden LEAF is a nonprofit originally funded by North Carolina's settlement from cigarette lawsuits and is dedicated to strengthening the state's economic well-being, particularly in rural areas previously dependent on tobacco.

Golden LEAF President Valeria Lee says her board was impressed with "the scope and scale of opportunity" for organic grain production in the state. This is the second year the foundation has provided money for the project.

The fact that North Carolina, an agricultural state with a significant amount of land in production, imports $8 million worth of organic grain a year was not lost on the foundation.

"That message was brought home to us loud and clear," Lee says. "And yet we have the land and the interest and the capabilities of growing not only what is needed but also of becoming an exporter."

North Carolina produces more organic eggs than any other state in the country, according to N.C. State. Most of those eggs are produced by farms that contract with Braswell Foods, in Red Oak, northeast of Raleigh. The company markets organic eggs under the Horizon Organic label.

But smaller organic egg producers struggle, as they don't have the economies of scale to allow for direct contract with grain growers—or, in many cases, the milling and storage capacities—so they are relegated to buying bagged feed, and organic grains are not available in those quantities in the Triangle.

Chris Reberg-Horton, N.C. State's organic cropping systems specialist, runs the project that will administer the grants. He was hired by the university two years ago as an assistant professor for crop science, filling the school's "first really organic position," in his words.

The grant money will expand the number of farms producing organic grains, increase the profitability of organic grain production, and expand the market by increasing the number of certified organic grain processors. That will be accomplished through the county agriculture extension programs that provide support and advice to farmers directly.

The big-ticket item the grants will fund is a bus tour for farmers and extension agents scheduled for this summer. Participants will travel to Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to see how organic grain farmers in those states manage weeds, improve soil fertility and handle other cultivation practices.

Although North Carolina has been a leader in organics in the Southeast generally, Reberg-Horton explains, the state has been a latecomer into organic grain production.

"We do have a tougher hurdle in some ways," he says. "We have a very long growing season, so the weeds can be really competitive with our crops. And we have higher insect pressure."

The effort to move the state toward what's known as "no-till" has also affected organic grain production. The practice of avoiding turning the soil under is employed to prevent soil and nutrients from entering the water supply. (Both are critical to farm fertility and unwelcome by wastewater treatment plants.)

Tilling the soil destroys its structure and integrity and hastens the loss of nutrients and topsoil. But farming without tillage in a conventional system requires huge amounts of herbicides to kill weeds in the field, and those petrochemicals present a threat to the water supply and human health.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has helped the state convert to no-till practices.

"They view organic as great because we are reducing or eliminating pesticide use," Reberg-Horton says.

The problem is many organic producers rely on tilling to disrupt weeds without chemicals. The challenge is to develop methods and teach farmers how to go no-till and organic.

Reberg-Horton says it's already being done successfully. Essentially, farmers plant a crop such as clover for the sole purpose of suppressing weeds. The clover grows quickly and prevents the weeds from getting sun and nutrients. Then, before the grain crop (wheat, barley, rye) is seeded, the clover is gently killed by breaking its stems with a machine that acts like a large steamroller. The clover then fulfills its second duty: covering the soil to prevent weeds from gaining hold while the grain crop grows.

"You grow your own mulch in place," Reberg-Horton explains.

But although it's simple in theory, it's rather delicate in practice. "To get it to work, you have to get that cover crop to die at the right time. If it doesn't die, you have it in the field at the same time as your crop, like a weed," he says.

But mastering these techniques has its rewards. Increasingly, farmers are finding that success in the organic system yields premium prices, increased soil fertility without petrochemical inputs, and protection from drought and disease.

A recent study released by N.C. State found that soils on farms using organic or other "sustainable" methods had lower levels of Southern blight disease and were overall healthier than soils from farms using conventional farming methods.

Jean Beagle Ristaino, professor of plant pathology at N.C. State and the lead researcher, says that farms practicing organic (defined here as no synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides were used) and sustainable (no synthetic pesticides) methods had soils that tested much higher for nutrients, water-holding capacity, porosity and beneficial microbes that contribute to disease and weed suppression.

The research was published in Applied Soil Ecology.

Ristaino decided to analyze soil from organic fields after seeing evidence that they were naturally resistant to soil-borne diseases.

"All of the microbial diversity indices were much higher in the organic and sustainable samples," she says, including those known to act as "biocontrol" agents, thwarting weeds and disease.

The amount of activity by microbes (bacteria, fungi and other tiny organisms) is considered by soil scientists to be a key marker of soil health. Healthier soils produce healthier plants. This vigor may be just what North Carolina needs to keep up with the state's demand for organic grains.

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