Utah Organic Grain Producer Builds on Last Generation's Successes
When Lydia Poulsen was a small child, she recalls that the ground on her parents' Utah farm "would set up like cement. We had areas that we called 'alkali slicks' where, because of the high pH, nothing would grow."
After Poulsen converted 800 acres of small grains and hay and 3,000 acres of pasture to organic production in 1989, the alkali slicks all but disappeared. And now, following rainstorms, the soil no longer crusts.
"There are a lot of positive things about organic farming," she said, attributing the improvements in her soils to the elimination of chemical fertilizers. For Poulsen, who farms with her husband, Dennis, near Snowville, Utah, the switch to organic production was not that hard because she was already rotating small grains, alfalfa and oat hay for her 130-head beef operation. About 10 percent of her grains stay on the farm for the cattle while she sells the rest off the farm.
Poulsen's father also employed many environmentally sound methods in his production system, including techniques compatible with current organic practices. When he subdivided the farm, leaving 800 acres to Lydia, she merely adapted many of his successful practices.
"My father recognized that sprays were limited in how long they would control the bugs in alfalfa," Poulsen said, "and could see that there was a better, more complete way to go."
To control aphids, weevils and other insects, her father introduced ladybugs. Following in his footsteps, even before Poulsen switched to organic, she used "nola-bait" to control grasshoppers. After years of releasing ladybugs, along with lacewings and praying mantises, "the natural population is now established," Poulsen said.
Poulsen converted to organic after a large organic dairy in the area asked her to certify her grain. At that time, the transition period was only one year instead of the current three, and with a ready-made market, her transition was smooth. For growers looking to transition to organic production today, Poulsen recommends that they research a reliable market before beginning.
Poulsen also wanted to find ways to improve the health of her ground. While additions of organic matter clearly have improved her soil, Poulsen has been frustrated by fertility constraints in her organic operation, specifically in wheat.
"It's hard getting fertility into the ground and getting the microbial population up," Poulsen said, referring to the prohibitive cost of transporting compost or manure to her land. Potential organic farmers, she adds, should calculate costs of manure or other amendments for their systems.
Instead, Poulsen has tried winter peas and clover as nitrogen suppliers, but seed is very expensive. She also has experimented with gypsum and fish emulsion. But while she admits that wheat yields do suffer from less nitrogen - they tend to be half of what they are the first year following alfalfa - she hasn't seen net profit drop.
While profit is important, it's not the sole argument for farming organically. More than anything, Poulsen said, "Organic provides a way to educate people about agriculture. People are far more interested in why I farm organically than why I farm."