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

Project Overview

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.


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans
  • Animals: bovine


  • Crop Production: double cropping, organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, marketing management, feasibility study, value added, agritourism
  • Pest Management: biological control, economic threshold, physical control, cultivation
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life

    Proposal summary:

    Over the past 20 years, I have built a significant organic farming operation. I have faithfully tried to follow organic standards and have successfully maintained my organic certification. Yet the farming system I have ended up with is not sustaining my economic viability and it is not enhancing my soils or my quality of life. I believe that finding solutions to my problems is critical to the sustainability of Southern agriculture, because I believe that I am a fairly typical Southern cash grain farmer. Therefore, I believe that the average Southern farmer who converts to organic grain production will sooner or later encounter the same obstacles to sustainability that I face today. The obvious long-term solution to my problems is to change my organic crop rotation and restructure my business accordingly. However, the risk associated with such changes means that I must make them cautiously over a period of years. Therefore, I must also pursue short-term solutions that can be adopted sooner and without changing my rotation. My proposal for this project is to start pursuing both short- and long-term solutions simultaneously as described below. Short-Term – Improve Cultivation Methods Mechanical cultivation for weed control is an art. I propose that by visiting experts in this art and learning more about the techniques and/or equipment they use, there is a good chance I can improve weed control in my current system. Short-Term – Try Hand Weeding Our small-plot research this summer suggested that more intensive weed and fertility management on my irrigated organic corn might increase yields enough to justify the high cost of hand weeding. Therefore, I propose to conduct a field-scale test to determine whether supplemental hand weeding is a viable option under current grain prices. Short-Term – Increase Manure Rates Our small-plot research this summer suggested that simply increasing the rate at which I currently apply manure will increase my corn yields. But will the extra yield justify the increased costs and potential increase in weed problems? To answer these questions, I propose to add litter treatments to my field-scale weeding experiment described above. Long-Term – Add Perennial Legumes to Rotation My cooperators have advised me that rotating to a perennial legume is not only the most sustainable way to increase my soil N supply, it will also help with both my annual weed problems and my soil quality concerns. Therefore, I believe that adding alfalfa or red clover to my rotation is my key long-term solution. However, implementing this solution will be challenging and raises many questions. For starters, I have no experience growing these crops. More importantly, can I afford to give up multiple years of grain sales while waiting for long-term rotational benefits to pay off? I propose to begin answering these questions during the two-year project period by establishing and experimenting with strips of different perennial legumes in one of my organic crop fields. Long-Term – Intensify Livestock Enterprise How will I convert my new perennial legume crops to income? Harvesting them for hay is not ideal, because hard-to-replace nutrients will be mined out of my organic land and shipped to wherever the hay is sold or fed. The ideal solution is to graze the perennials with my own herd, converting the sod to a marketable product while maximizing soil nutrients for subsequent grain crops. However, implementing this strategy means developing a truly integrated organic crop and livestock operation and will be an enormous challenge. During this two-year project, I propose to study the question of how to intensify my livestock enterprise and develop a practical written plan for doing so in the future.

    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.