CORVALLIS - Oregon farmers in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) should consider the possibility of organic production on some acreage, according to an Oregon State University Extension Service specialist.
"It's a once in a blue moon opportunity to jump right into organic growing without having to do much to make the transition," explained Russ Karow, a cereals specialist. "Normally, when converting conventional agricultural lands to organic farming, one of the constraints is that neither prohibited fertilizers nor pesticides can have been applied to the ground for three years prior to harvest."
The CRP is a voluntary program that began in 1985, contracting with farmers to withdraw highly erodible land from production for 10 years. Benefits from not farming the land include reduced erosion, increased wildlife habitat and a reduction in surplus agricultural production. About 80 percent of Oregon's CRP lands are in Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Morrow and Umatilla Counties, comprising more than 400,000 acres. The land withdrawn from production in these counties is primarily dry land wheat and barley acreage.
"Much of the CRP ground has not had anything applied to it for 8-10 years," he said. "Therefore it may qualify for organic production immediately."
There is a growing market for organically grown cereal grains.
"A market exists for wheat, oats, corn, barley, rye, sorghum and millet," he said. "Prices range from 120 to 170 percent over conventionally grown grain."
There are two levels of organic certification available to growers- "transitional" and "organic," explained Karow. "Transitional requires that no prohibited materials be used for 12 months prior to harvest. Organic requires that no prohibited materials be used for 36 months prior to harvest.
"Organic Tilth Certified Organically Grown is the designated certifying agency in Oregon," he added. "To be certified you must obtain and complete application materials and pass inspections including soil lab tests for most conventional pesticide and herbicide residues."
Spray drift and dust or water movement from non-organic fields could pose a problem to growers considering organic production, he warned.
Growers may need to change cropping systems as well.
"Fields would need to be carefully selected to minimize these potential problems," said Karow. "For example, growers might want to grow spring crops rather than winter in order to avoid winter annual week problems. Perhaps rotations with organically grown lentils or peas, for which there are also good markets, would work."
"A small, organic field in a sea of conventional fields is fraught with production and paperwork headaches, but it may be a niche for a few folks," he added. "There are several growers in Washington already producing organic grains, one on over 400 acres. It can be done."
Karow recommended that interested persons should contact Oregon Tilth, P.O. Box 218, Tualatin, OR 97602, telephone 541-692-4877 for more information on organic certification.