Improving Sustainability of A Long-term Certified Organic Cash Grain Production System

Final Report for FS08-225

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $8,828.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
W. Todd Henry
Hillsborough Farm
Kathy Henley
Hillsborough Farm, Inc.
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Project Information


Getting the SARE grant proved to be beneficial for Hillsborough Farm. As a result we were provided with answers to some of the questions we had about organic crop production. Putting more poultry litter is a short term solution to help with the nitrogen that the corn needs. Hand rouging weeds works but is not economically feasible, therefore do not let weeds get ahead of you.
The beef intensification project raised more questions and has given Kathy some more ideas on marketing, changing the order sheet, giving the consumers a little “cheat sheet” of specifications such as how much freezer room it takes to give a home to a beef ¼ and a beef ½. It also helped to answer some of the many asked questions for first timers as to cost +/- and an approximate idea of how many steaks and roasts to expect from a ¼ and a ½.
Jerry Swisher consulted with us on the beef operation and made written recommendations specific to our farm which is on the shelf for reference.
The objective to put in perennials was not accomplished. We found that it did not make sense if our route was going to change and the monies in the budget were not used therefore it will be available for someone else to do other research.
We decided to give up our organic operation as the test plots gave us the answers that we already partially suspected that some of the practices were not economically viable to sustain our organic operation not mention the intensity and stress which is not sustainable to good health. We will continue to apply the knowledge that we learned over the years about using biologicals, foliar feeding, cover crops, sugar, and crop residue sprays. To continue to be sustainable we will have continue to find other ways to diversify our operation.


The biggest challenge to my organic farming operation seems to be the weeds. They are rapidly increasing and multiplying despite timely cultivating. At harvest time, the time it takes to harvest and to run all the organic crops through a seed cleaner appears to be economically unfeasible. This project will allow me to investigate and see if hand rouging the weeds will increase yields enough to prove economically feasible and if adding more nitrogen in the form of poultry litter will increase my yields in organic corn production. These are the short term challenges.
The long term challenges will be to try to intensify the livestock enterprise and to add different perennial legumes. We worked on intensifying the livestock enterprise but did not do test plots with different perennial legumes.

Project Objectives:

• Winter 2008 will travel to Beltsville, Maryland to learn all I can at the experimental station about the tests they are doing there with organic grain production.

• Spring 2008 will develop a plan for test plots on the farm for weed and fertility experiments.

• Summer 2008 the test plots for fertility and on-farm hand rouging will commence.

• Mid summer 2008 North Carolina organic grain farmer group will visit, Virginia Extension Agents will visit, and Shenandoah Organic Dairy farmers will visit.

• Fall 2008 results on test plots for on-farm weed and fertility experiment.

• Winter 2009 will hire consultant to help with beef intensification plan.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Keith Balderson
  • John Henley
  • Chris Lawrence


Materials and methods:

Spring 2008 litter was purchased and applied in 3 T. vs. 6 T. Test plots to see if there was any significant increase in production with the increased rate in fertilizer.

In June of 2008 students were hired to weed organic corn. Before starting weeds were identified so as not to confuse with young corn plants and the field was flagged off into plots. We timed weeding to see how efficient hand rouging was. After the first weeding session seven six row plots of 150 ft. each were successfully weeded. There were two weeding sessions in the corn test plots.

On June 17,2008 Hillsborough Farm hosted an Extension Agents Farm Tour to educate them more about organic crop production.

July 2008 saw the same students hired to hand rogue weeds in organic soybeans. Again before starting weeds were identified so that the soybean plants themselves were not mistaken and uprooted. Identification of weeds in soybeans is a little trickier than in corn. Again these test plots were marked off and timed for efficiency of hand rouging weeds.

August 22, 2008 Hillsborough Farm hosted Organic farmers from the Shenandoah Valley. They met and exchanged information on organic crop production.

Hillsborough Farm was also a hosting farm for the Down on the Farm Day October 25, 2008, which opened the farm to the public and tried to answer questions that they had about organic crop production.

To intensify beef enterprise Kathy bought SARE publications “How To Direct Market Your Beef and Building a Sustainable Business” which she used to educate herself and go from there. In addition Jerry Swisher a retired senior extension agent with Virginia Tech made a farm visit to help us analyze our cow/calf production enterprise in winter of 2009. Early winter 2010 saw Kathy searching the internet and printing much information on freezer beef and studying it as well as talking to the beef extension agent Kelly Liddington about freezer beef, different definitions of beef, and different options of marketing beef as well as slaughterhouses in Virginia

Research results and discussion:

There was a good response to the additional poultry litter in the corn test plots but it was probably a response to the increase of nitrogen and only a short term solution to an ongoing problem with getting nitrogen to the corn to increase yields.

We were surprised by the yield response to the hand weeding in the soybeans. There was about 20 bushels per acre increase. The downside is that it took about 25 man hours per acre to weed so the practice probably would not have increased income. It does not appear to be an economically viable solution.

The project to intensify the livestock enterprise raised a whole of other questions as Kathy educated herself. Should we go to an approved slaughterhouse and try to sell beef by the piece at farmer’s markets? Should we have beef ready at more than one time during the year? How big do we want to go with this? Should we use more than one slaughterhouse? Think we will try to increase our market. The time frame that we finish the beef seems to be alright, especially as it comes before the big rush to plant corn and soybeans.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

To disseminate the information generated from the SARE grant, the following publications have information with on-farm test plots and results. This information can be found at the following links given below. The first link contains an "Evaluation of Poultry Litter Rates and Weed Control in Organic Corn." The second link contains information on "2008 Weed Control Plot In Organic Soybeans" with a photo on the following page. page 33 pages 30-31

Chris Lawrence, our NRCS partner in this project, stated that he is going to insure that the organic grain farmers and their advisers in the Mid-Atlantic region are made aware of the valuable information contained in the published reports to which links are given in this report.

We had several outreach projects. We hosted an Extension Agents Farm Tour to help educate the agents about organic grain crop production.

We hosted organic dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley. They were customers and we toured the farm and met and exchanged information about organic production challenges.

We also were the organic farm on tour for the Down on the Farm Tour which was open to the public and we spent the day answering questions about the challenges and intensity of organic crop production.

Below is a link with a summary of the North Carolina Organic Grain Producers bus trip in 2008 which visited Hillsborough Farm too.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

We answered the questions that we had posed by using test plots. We were able to utilize local students to help pull weeds. They learned to identify weeds, the value of hard work, and also learned about the problems associated with weeds in organic crop production. It gave some of them an introduction to agriculture.


Potential Contributions

Research was done and published on weed control in organic corn and soybeans. Along with timely cultivation hand rouging was done which showed an increase in bushel potential but it also proved not to be economically feasible.

Research was also done and published on addressing the issue of nitrogen deficiency in corn using more poultry litter. This did prove to boost the yields but is only a short term solution.

Hopefully this research and information will help other organic grain farmers so that they can prevent the weeds from getting ahead of them and they will be able to research and utilize other methods which are economically viable to get nitrogen to the corn.

Future Recommendations

Obtaining the SARE grant was helpful. It also gave children the opportunity to be exposed to agriculture and actually work on a farm as well as learn some plant identification. In the future, if possible, would highly recommend continuing to allow children to participate in the research and studies as they are and will have an impact as future voters on the policies of agricultural production where farmers are in the minority.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.