Professor and Extension Organic Specialist
Iowa State University
Amid the stressful headlines about COVID-19, organic beef producers, like the Rosmanns of Harlan, Iowa, are seeing a surge in organic meat sales, among other organic purchases.
“Whether it’s due to consumers knowing the source of their food in these uncertain times, or lower availability of conventional meat at grocery stores, people are showing far more interest in local and organic meat,” said Maria Rosmann, who owns the on-farm store Farm Sweet Farm.
While grateful for the increased sales, Rosmann and other organic sellers worry about supply keeping up with demand. According to the Organic Produce Network and Category Partners, fresh organic produce sales were up 22% in March, as most of the U.S. began to “shelter-in-place” and purchase larger than ordinary food volumes.
Even with Farmers Markets permitted to open, many consumers feel safer ordering online, as the Des Moines Farmers Market expects customers to do in the foreseeable future, or at smaller shops where social distancing is more easily achieved. Over 17,000 people participated in a virtual Farmers Market in Des Moines on May 2, with 14 vendors listed as selling organic or chemical-free products.
Farmers with excess farm products can always donate to food banks, or through many of the nonprofit organizations distributing to those in need during the pandemic. There is also a number of federal programs open to all farmers to assist with any financial hardship due to COVID-19.
Organic field report
Farm activity has not ceased during the pandemic on Iowa’s organic farms, which are primarily family-operated and multi-functional with numerous enterprises. Organic farmers are observing exponential growth in their fields of small grains (rye, barley, oats and spelt), especially those planted last fall, like annual and hybrid rye.
Hybrid rye is a relatively new crop that can be grazed or used in hog or cattle feed. In general, organic farmers are waiting until growing degree-days (GDD) reach 100 to 120 before planting corn and soybeans.
Because synthetic seed fungicides are not permitted in organic farming, crops need warm soils to germinate and emerge quickly to resist any damaging pests. There has been greater demand for organic seeds this year, as organic acres climbed to 103,136 in Iowa, which ranks fifth in the nation for number of certified organic farms.
Cover crops and grazing interest increases
More farmers are interested in raising cover crops, either as a “green manure” crop, or harvested for grain and straw. However, all cover crops could potentially be grazed by livestock in the early spring and summer.
Grazing is a low-input method to feed livestock, which could improve soil health by adding fresh manure to the field or pastures. Farmers who want to improve soil health and utilize a low-input grazing system may benefit from integrating crops and livestock in their system.
An experiment in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, supported by the United States Department of Agriculture-National Institute of Food and Agriculture, examined the effect of grazing cover crops of wheat and rye on beef cattle health benefits and food safety of meat products deriving from this system. The grass-based system was found to support a more balanced omega-6/3 fatty acid ratio, which can accrue in cattle and beef.
The cover crops of winter wheat and winter rye provided an early start to the grazing season, averaging three weeks earlier than other perennial pastures on the farm. The integrated crop-livestock system in this study demonstrated a high probability of meeting food safety goals for limiting E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp. contamination in the forage, feed, feces, hide and meat, according to a study published by Iowa State University researchers.
The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Organic Ag Program is planning a virtual field day to demonstrate rolling rye in an organic no-till system on June 2 at the Levi Lyle Farm in Keota, Iowa, weather-permitting. Lyle expects the rye to be past anthesis at that date, which is necessary for proper termination of the rye crop where soybeans will be planted.
“We are happy the farm looks so good this spring,” Lyle said, “Especially our rye crops, which are about a foot high now.”
The ISU Organic Ag Program will host other virtual events this year. The 16-week “Transitioning to Organic Agriculture” on-line course is planned for January to May 2021. Details on all events will be posted on the ISU Extension and Outreach Organic Ag website.