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Possible Rule Change Casts Uncertainty on Southeast Wyoming Organic Wheat Producers

January 29, 2020
man outdoors, gesturing
Jay Norton

Researchers at the University of Wyoming hope a $340,000 grant to study the effects of compost on a number of factors in southeast Wyoming also will address a problem sprouting for organic wheat producers.

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists will study water efficiency, soil and yields, and intercropping strategies as part of a larger $1.9 million award spread across Wyoming, Utah, Montana and Washington.

A possible change in how the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) may designate organic wheat has some southeast Wyoming producers ill at ease.

Many Wyoming wheat producers had switched to organic for the additional price boost, but the USDA may no longer recognize the long-used practice of fallow as a rotation, says Jay Norton, soils specialist for UW Extension and one of the scientists on the UW grant.

Producers fallow, or rest, the soil and allow fields to soak up any moisture in their crop rotations, but the wheat-fallow system is known to accelerate erosion and loss of soil organic matter compared with systems that include more constant soil cover, Norton says.

The USDA may require producers to reduce or eliminate fallow periods to retain organic certification.

“They have to do something else like incorporate cover crops or a more genuine crop rotation to reduce or even eliminate fallow,” Norton says. “They are looking for options to diversify and incorporate soil building practices so they can remain certified.”

A dryland wheat session at this year’s High Plains Organic Conference in Cheyenne will take on this issue, he adds. The conference is Feb. 27-28. For more information and to register, visit www.highplainsorganic.org/.

Straight wheat-fallow production does not help build soil nutrients under an organic system, and Norton says whether an organic system is sustainable is one of the biggest questions needing answered.

“Farmers know wheat-fallow is their lowest-risk option for harvesting a crop every other year, but also that it degrades soils,” he says. “They are interested in evaluating options to improve their soils and stay organic certified. They are anxious to be involved in this research.”

Wyoming has about 120,000 certified organic acres. About 77,000 acres are cropland and 46,000 pastureland/rangeland, according to the USDA. Norton says six farmers have already provided letters of support and commitment. The Wyoming studies also will be at the university’s James C. Hageman Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center (SAREC) near Lingle and in laboratories.

The research will look at wheat varieties, intercropping and other practices. But, according to Rob Hellbaum, an organic wheat producer from near Chugwater, research at SAREC is valuable but lacks the modern equipment now used in dryland farming and does not have the organic farming experience of area farmers.

He says many in the farming community hope much of the organic inputs available today are studied and evaluated at SAREC.

“The inputs tend to be expensive, and actual results for our area are in question,” he says.

Norton notes that Hellbaum is always looking for ways to reduce soil disturbance and erosion.

“He is developing and testing his own ideas about how to use cover crops and even perennials like alfalfa in longer-term rotations,” Norton says. “We are hoping this new phase of our research will help us catch up with Rob and evaluate some of the ideas he and other farmers are interested in.”

Hellbaum says that half the wheat in Laramie County is organic and, if not for organic wheat, the wheat industry “is done” in Platte County.

“This is no small deal. People bought into organic because the organic prices still make it work and work well if you cut the wheat,” he says. “Organic wheat in Wyoming is not a flash in the pan. It has become a major deal. If they say we can’t get certified as an organic wheat producer, what are our options?”

Hellbaum says he, Norton and others have tried explaining the differences between dry southeast Wyoming, in the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains, from other places that receive substantially more moisture.

“I’m not saying they are wrong, but you can’t paint the entire U.S. with one brush,” he says. “If talking sustainability and soil health, I think our fallow system is as good as anything else and has proven sustainable for over 100 years.”

While Wyoming is a leader in organic winter wheat, which is crucial to local communities, the state only produces a small portion of the national organic wheat crop.

“They honestly don’t care if Wyoming produces organic wheat or any wheat,” Hellbaum says. “We are just such a small player.”

Norton adds that farmers he has been working with have their own ideas about cover crops. The crops could be planted after harvest and killed early in the spring before using too much soil moisture. The cover crops would become part of the biomass, or compost.

But, there is a glaring problem.

“Study after study shows cover crops tend to decrease the yield of the following wheat crop during all but the wettest years because of the soil moisture they use,” Norton says. “We are trying to figure out ways to get around that.”

An alternative could be planting a cover crop in the fallow about the time of wheat harvest, then planting the wheat in the fall as usual but into the established cover crop. The cover crop would die in the winter, and the wheat would make use of nutrients released by the decomposing biomass in the spring.

Norton also is looking at planting every other row with a cover crop.

For more information, call Norton at (307) 766-5082 or email jnorton4@uwyo.edu.

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