During his farming career, Mike Shuter, Frankton, Ind., has been an experimenter and innovator. From no-tilling corn in 1983 to seeding cover crops to adapting sprayers to seed cover crops into standing crops — and most recently, to working with equipment companies on product innovations — Shuter loves to try new things.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything inside the box,” he says, chuckling. But his latest experiment — combining certified organic production with a no-till system and using cover crops as his primary weed control — may be his gutsiest venture to date.
For the past two seasons, Shuter has worked with Ecocert, an organic inspection, certification and transition company located in Plainfield, Ind. Ecocert has helped him transition 260 acres on his home farm from conventional crop production in a no-till and cover crop system to organic production.
To accomplish this three-year process, Shuter has been raising non-GMO soybeans for the past two years, with a cover crop in between. In 2018, he will raise his first crop of organic corn, strip tilled, on 75 acres. Then in 2019, he will raise organic corn on the balance of the 260 acres.
5 key reasons
So why would a large operation switch some production to organic? Shuter cites five main reasons.
1. Economics. With consumers demanding more organic food choices, there’s a premium for those willing to jump through the rather formidable series of hoops required to become a certified organic producer. Switching some acres to organic production will provide diversification in a time of low commodity prices.
2. Learning lessons for regular program crops. In transitioning to organic production, Shuter learned he didn’t have to burn down his cereal rye cover crop. Instead, he used a roller-crimper when the cereal rye was pollinating, which was effective. He’s confident there are more practices and lessons that will transfer to his non-organic production that will save money, improve soil health and increase organic matter.
3. Less chemistry. Like most farmers, Shuter has used herbicides for decades, and will continue to do so with his non-organic crops. But he is quick to say he’s not a big fan of chemicals, and to the extent possible, believes “less is better.” Shuter is phasing out his use of anhydrous ammonia on his entire operation, and will be using 28% nitrogen to sidedress corn from now on. “I believe it’s better for our ‘livestock in the soil’ [earthworms] and safer for humans,” he says.
4. Love of innovation. With Shuter’s sons Patrick and Brian pretty much running the farm, he is free to try more new things. He especially enjoys working with like-minded individuals and has established a network of mentors around Madison, Wis., a hotbed of organic production activity. “I suppose I could look this stuff up on the internet, but I feel like I learn so much more by talking person to person with other farmers who are actually doing these things,” he says.
5. Man on a mission. “I feel like God’s put me here for a purpose, and part of that is to develop some of these practices, and then help other producers understand how they work,” says Shuter.
Boone writes from Wabash, Ind.