Burkey Farms in southeast Nebraska looked into the future a couple of years ago and didn’t like what it saw — a continuation of depressed prices for conventional corn and soybeans. So, the families who run the farm together started discussing how the operation would make money if they couldn’t earn more from their crops.
Their conversation took a turn toward organics, a $40 billion industry and growing, especially in Iowa and Colorado.
Eric Thalken, whose wife is a member of the extended Burkey family, led the charge after an alfalfa field caught his eye. It was full of weeds, he says, "and so it gave me the idea that this could be certified organic right away."
Thalken persuaded Burkey Farms to switch that weedy field to organic. And now, all 2,400 acres are making the transition.
It takes three years to be certified as an organic farm. During that time, farmers cannot use genetically modified seed, synthetic pesticides or synthetic fertilizer. But there’s a significant payoff.
Thalken pulls back the husks on a few ears like he’s unwrapping Christmas presents.
"Some of (this corn) is sold at $8.80, some of it’s sold at $9," Thalken says. That’s almost triple the current price for conventional corn.
There were 5 million acres of organic fields and pastures in the U.S. in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 37 percent increase over the last five years. It’s still a small percentage of farmland overall, but several states have seen a jump the amount of land devoted to organic crops: soybeans in Iowa, corn in Minnesota and wheat in Colorado and Texas.
“Those type of numbers perk the interest of farmers. Money talks,” according to Greg Lickteig, who oversees purchasing of organic grain for Scoular, a grain marketing company based in Omaha, Nebraska.