Growers considering a switch to organically grown hay should ask a lot of questions before jumping in, suggests Lou Anderson, an organic grower and broker from Fairfield, ID.
That's just what many did at the recent Midwest Hay Business Conference, where Anderson talked about organics. Here are several questions and his replies:
Q: What can a grower expect to get over and above what conventional hay would bring?
A: "I can't give a definite answer. In our area specifically, we probably get $30 more per ton for our hay than we would if it wasn't organic. But I buy hay in areas where they're only getting $5/ton more. It depends on the market. If you're in an area where conventional hay sells at a really high level, the difference isn't going to be very much. Most of the organic people we deal with would like to pay 15% more, but I know of a lot of situations where 30% happens."
Q: As a buyer, how can I be assured that the hay is organic? Is there some system in place that will say this hay is organic and that I can be fairly certain that it really is?
A: "The National Organic Program set up a system of organic rules for the entire U.S. A lot of states have certifying agencies and there are private certifiers. Before you buy any organic products, and we're talking about hay or grain or feed, you need to ask the grower or the broker for a copy of their organic certification for that product. When you get that copy, then you're assured. As with a lot of things, the organic program is based on a certain degree of integrity."
Q: What is the certification process?
A: "The certifier gives you a form to fill out that lists all of your farm ground and what you have done with it -- what inputs have been put into it. He'll want maps and ask you to write a farm plan telling what you have done and what you plan to do. He's going to make sure you have answers to all his questions. Then he's going to look at that field and if you've said it's been organic for three years and he sees sprayer tracks or a herbicide container in the corner, he's probably going to question you. But he should take a look physically and may pull soil samples and take tissue samples of the crops just to make sure everything is on the up and up."
Q: How much will it cost to hire a certification agency?
A: "As a general rule, they would charge $300-400 for your farm to set it up. Then they charge an inspection fee based upon how much time they have to spend and where they have come from. Most charge 2% of your gross organic sales. The fee from people we deal with, once your sales get to a certain level, is halved. If you sell $100,000 worth of organic products, it shouldn't cost you more than $200-300/year."
Q: Does it work to overfertilize a problem area just before you go organic with it?
A: "I think you have to find a way that's sustainable. If you have a poor piece of ground and the fertility is really bad, that might be a piece not to make organic. There are things coming that are going to solve challenges that we have right now with soil fertility. In five years you're going to see giant strides along these lines."