Perspectives Online

Wave of the Future? A Cooperative Extension workshop explores organic grain and oilseed production. By Suzanne Stanard.

Extension assistant Molly Hamilton (top) coordinated the workshop, which included tours of organic crops (middle) and a soybean variety trial (bottom).
Photos by Daniel Kim

Under the blazing July sun - with not a cloud in sight - nearly 50 farmers, Extension specialists, seed producers and others with ties to agriculture gathered in the fields of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro to learn about organic farming.

The North Carolina Organic Grain Project, created by N.C. State University in 2004 with a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, hosted a workshop on July 21 to equip farmers with the skills and agronomic support they need to produce organic grain and oilseed crops.

Molly Hamilton, project coordinator and Extension assistant, designed the workshop to inspire farmers to explore and adopt organic crop rotations. According to Hamilton, demand for organic grains for livestock feed and food-grade milling is on the rise, but most North Carolina farmers lack adequate information on organic grain and oilseed production, marketing and certification.

"We want to help farmers meet this demand, but first the education and infrastructure must be in place to enable them to do so," Hamilton said.

Sponsored by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, the workshop featured tours of organic and transitional crops such as corn and hay, cover crops and alternative grain crops, and a soybean variety trial. After serving box lunches and cold drinks, the research farm's staff led demonstrations of mechanical weed equipment, describing the pros and cons of each device.

Beth McArthur, who just inherited a 50-acre farm in Laurinburg, came to the workshop to learn more about growing cover crops. Her wheat will be certified organic next year, but she's struggling to find cover crops that work well.

"I'm not a farmer, so I have to depend on neighbor farmers to do most of the work for me," McArthur says. "It's difficult for me - without a background in farming - to give them direction, so I rely on the help of the Cooperative Extension Service."

A higher-than-expected number of participants came to learn about growing oilseed crops and organic grain.
Photo by Daniel Kim
For Roseboro dairy farmer Yogi Naida, the story is similar. Her goal is organic cheese production, but she finds it difficult to obtain reasonably priced organic livestock feed, so she's considering growing her own. "I just bought a 242-acre piece of land, and I'd like to use it for organic grain or seed production," she said. "I came today to learn more about how to grow these crops."

Workshop attendance was higher than Hamilton expected, and the crowd included farmers, landowners, extension agents and specialists, organic grain buyers, N.C. State faculty and students, employees from the Caswell Research Station and folks from Soil and Water Conservation districts. Air-conditioned bus rides between tours and coolers of ice-cold water provided welcome relief from the scorching July heat.

Charles Bass Jr., agriculture cost-share specialist for the Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District and also a 1981 graduate of the College's Agricultural Institute, came to the workshop to gather information for tobacco farmers in his county who are considering growing different crops as a result of the buyout.

He believes organic farming is catching on in North Carolina. "I'm interested in taking information back to the farmers on alternative cover crops for winter time," he said. "We want to make sure there is something green and growing on our land at all times."

After the outdoor segment of the workshop, the crowd moved inside for a talk on organic grain budgets by Dr. Gary Bullen of the College's Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Bullen outlined a sample budget for organic grain farming and invited feedback from farmers on their experiences and budget concerns.

The day concluded with a networking session among farmers, extension specialists and organic grain buyers.

"I hope people took from this workshop ideas of how to improve the sustainability of their farms - or to provide information to farmers they work with," Hamilton said. "I also hope that participants were inspired to consider organic production on their own farms."

The North Carolina Organic Grain Project plans to offer similar workshops throughout the year, covering topics such as pest management, grain quality for food-grade and organic grain marketing. Tours of organic grain and oilseed farms are slated for early fall.

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