Balancing environmentalism and profits works for Texas farmers
By Jennifer M. Latzke
Jimmy and Susan Wedel don't consider themselves "radical environmentalists."
"I'm not a radical environmentalist, I'm a reasonable environmentalist," Jimmy Wedel said. It's that "reasonable environmentalism" that has the Wedels farming 3,700 acres of organic crops--including forage corn--near the Texas-New Mexico border in the southern Texas Panhandle.
A change in production
The Wedel family has been farming near Muleshoe, Texas, for three generations. Up until 1993 the operation was a typical conventional farming operation in the Panhandle with a rotation of cotton, wheat, and corn with a few other crops thrown into the mix.
But one pheasant and her nest changed all that.
Wedel told the story of how one day in the early 1990s his father had been applying a pesticide in a field near their house. As he was driving along he saw a pheasant hen sitting on a nest of eggs. He didn't want to disturb the nest, so he maneuvered around it in the field and continued applying the pesticide.
The next day, the Wedels returned to the spot to find the mother pheasant was dead. Susan quickly took the eggs, incubated them, hatched them and raised the pheasants until they could be released into the wild. But beyond a science lesson for their two children, Jimmy and Susan realized that the pheasant was a lesson for their farming operation as well.
"There just wasn't much money in conventional farming at the time," Wedel said. "Chemicals didn't always work as they're promised to, and this is of course in the days before Roundup Ready, but there were chemical failures. A product might kill bugs, but it would leave 20 percent of them in the field."
The pheasant hen's fate pushed the Wedels into looking into ways to farm differently.
"One of the reasons why organic farming fit for us is that we were already doing it," Wedel said. "I was already using feedlot manure on our fields. I just had to stop using herbicides." They gathered information on organic production from as many sources as they could and started out with 250 acres of cotton as their main organic crop because the market was available.
It was their organic cotton production that lead to their organic corn production. Because of Texas Department of Agriculture rules, any crops that were used in rotation with organic cotton must also be organic. So, Wedel started looking for those other crops. As the farm grew in size, and land was switched into organic production, the Wedels began expanding what they grew to include organic peanuts, wheat, soybeans, blue corn, and yellow field corn.
Because they had good water wells and the price of corn was good, they began growing it as a rotational crop without an organic market already set. "When we started out in 1993, there wasn't much of a market for organic corn," Wedel said. "So, I started out by growing conventional corn organically and selling it on the conventional market. Interestingly, we had very little yield loss." This was just to meet the TDA organic certification requirements to raise certified organic cotton.
Within a few years, though, an organic market opened up for their corn. Today, the Wedels have several hundred acres in organic corn that they contract as feed to a nearby organic dairy farm. "We're chopping this corn today for a dairy that's 35 miles away," Wedel said. That market came about because Wedel had known the family dairymen for many years and they both found organic niche markets for their products. The dairy found it could market organic milk, and source their organic feed from Wedel just down the road.
"All of our organic corn goes to that particular dairy," he said. "We had been growing some grain corn that goes somewhere else, but because of our water situation this year, we didn't plant any grain corn this year. The dairy needs all the silage."
Rules of the road
The Wedels have to follow strict regulations in order for their crops to be certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture. It starts with the seed they plant.
"The law states I have to plant organic seed and if that is not available then I can plant conventional untreated seed as long as it's not a GMO," Wedel said. "There are organic varieties of corn available on the market, but none that work well here where we farm. So, I still plant a conventional variety that's untreated." He orders his seed in October from his dealer in Muleshoe, in order to ensure he has enough and it remains untreated for his planting dates.
Weed and insect control are the key factors many organic farmers focus on, and Wedel said their location makes organic production ideal. "We live in a desert," he said. "There's not much rain, so as long as you can get your corn ground wet, and plant into a wet, firm seedbed you're all right. And, typically, we're planting our corn in April and we don't get a lot of rain until mid-May." That allows the corn to sprout ahead of any weeds.
However, the Wedels know that staying ahead of weeds makes the difference in profits at harvest. They use GPS-guided equipment to plow close to the crop, use a set of double rotary hoes, and run sweeps through to try to disturb the ground enough to break up any weeds that are starting out. "I used to strive for perfection with our weed control," Wedel said. He still does to a certain extent, but once the crop creates a canopy the weed pressure is minimized to the crop.
"It depends on how bad the weeds are, but we cultivate and then what we miss we bring in a hoe crew," he said. "Most years that will be 12 to 20 people working all summer long. Sometimes it will be up to 50 or 60 people for a short period. One year, we had 100 for three days and I could have used 200. We made a mistake and let the weeds get ahead of us."
As for insect management, Wedel knows there's little he can do in order to control pest pressures on his fields, so he builds that crop loss into his bottom line.
He sources his fertilizer, which is compost and manure, from local dairies. After nearly 20 years in organic production, Wedel knows the fine art of applying the right rate of fertilizer to his fields. "It depends on the field and what we're growing," Wedel said. "But if I have really good water and I'm growing corn this year and soybeans the next year and coming back with corn after that, or corn-peanuts-corn, or corn-cotton-corn, we'll apply 15 tons every other year." If it's weaker water, he added, they'll apply 10 tons of fertilizer every third year. If it's really weak water, they may only apply fertilizer once every 5 years.
When he first started out he tried some of the fertilizer products on the market that are made for organic producers but he didn't find much success, he explained. "We were trying to make that last 5 to 10 percent of production," Wedel said. "Well, I'm making enough on the bottom 90 to 95 percent of the crop that I don't really need to fool with it." Perhaps the biggest advantage of organic production, Wedel said, is that he doesn't have to worry about calibrating spray rigs, or worrying about employees applying the wrong rates or the wrong products on the wrong field.
Fortunately, Wedel said his conventional farming neighbors understand his organic production goals and his farming operation and they are conscious of their spray rigs on fields near his. But other organic producers in Texas still have problems, especially when it's time to spray Roundup on a nearby cotton crop, he added.
The TDA organic rules only state that organic fields must be far enough away that they aren't affected by spray drift from conventional farmers. "Typically they like to see a 50-foot buffer," Wedel said, and that includes the turn row.
The good neighbor policy doesn't just apply to herbicide application, though. Wedel said many of his markets came about because of good relationships.
He pointed to his one field of organic blue corn, which is marketed to a company that makes organic blue corn tortilla chips. The market for that came from his cotton marketing cooperative group, who often share ideas with each other for markets not only for their organic cotton, but for those organic rotational crops that are required.
"The whole organic marketing thing is about relationships," Wedel said. "I don't have a written contract on my acres, but it's all contracted before I grow it.
"What you get from conventional farming, is you grow a crop, it goes to the elevator and gets commingled with others from your area and you don't know where it goes or you might not even care," Wedel said. "Organic production, you know where it's going. Our soybeans go into soy milk. The organic milk in the store is because of my organic corn silage." Their organic Valencia peanuts end up in organic peanut butter store brands at big box stores like Costco and Target. Their cotton even winds up in the screen-printed T-shirts sold at Walt Disney stores in North America.
All of these markets, are only possible because of detailed record keeping, though. Susan Wedel is in charge of tracking not only production stats for the TDA certification process, but also making sure that records are kept for the many market streams the farm covers. Record keeping, she said, is sometimes the detail that trips up new organic growers, but it can't be overlooked.
"I tell people if you like to fish, if you like to golf or go to your kids' T-ball games in the summer, organic farming isn't for you," Wedel said. During the growing season from May to July keeping on top of production needs in the field doesn't allow for down time.
Just like in conventional farming, though, water is the key factor in farming success in the Panhandle.
This year, with new water restrictions from the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, and the drought of last year, the Wedels decided to plant fewer acres of corn and plant them to forage hybrids. The strategy worked out.
"We had a good 3-inch planting rain in May, but after that, the rainfall we have as of today is the same as we did last year, 5 inches total," Wedel said. The difference is it has been 5 to 10 degrees cooler this year than last year and so there was a better crop in the field.
"It won't be a bumper crop," Wedel warned. But with a range of 17.5 tons to 25 tons per acre it will top last year's 12 to 20 tons per acre. In a normal year, he said, he ranges 22 to 30 tons per acre, depending on the farm and the water.
"Everything on my operation is a combination of market- and water-driven," Wedel said. Rotation plays a role as well, but going forward, with tighter and tighter water supplies the Wedels have to carefully weigh their production decisions against their markets.
"Going forward, if the markets are the same, I'll still keep growing as much corn and peanuts as I can because of the markets," he said. On those acres where he has little water, he runs a rotation of wheat and cotton, and this is where being organic has another advantage, Wedel said. "We can switch in the middle," he added. "I can plant cotton and switch to sorghum if I need to."
One important advantage to organic production that is sometimes overlooked, Wedel said, is the economic and social aspect to local communities. And, in the Panhandle that could be quite a bit.
"I employ at least twice as many as my conventional neighbors on a year-round basis and we run hoeing crews all summer long," he said. "That's 12 to 25 people working all summer long, working locally, spending money locally." With less people involved in the production aspect of conventional farming, though, that means less of a tax base for communities, closed schools and reduced services, he added.
"We used to struggle to find people to hoe our fields," Susan said. "And now they struggle to find jobs."
Organic farming is hard work, Wedel said, but for their family farm the risk and the hard work of their "reasonable environmentalism" have a reward of good markets, solid relationships and growing communities.
And, maybe a few more pheasants as well.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.