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WRITE TEAM: Not your grandfather's 'organic' farming

Winifred Hoffman
Winifred Hoffman

“You’re organic farmers? Doesn’t that just mean you don’t use any chemicals?”

“How do you control the weeds? I remember how my grandpa was out on the corn plow all summer when they didn’t have herbicides.”

Well, no, organic farming isn’t just “not using chemicals.” Many aspiring organic farmers, attracted by the favorable prices offered for certified organic crops, have been blindsided by weed problems if they don’t take into account field history, crop rotation, cover crops, and other aspects of weed control. Timing and vigilant observation also are very critical, just as they are in conventional farming.

My farmer son is following the leading edge of new research. He is in continual conversation with various researchers, particularly at Western Illinois University and UW-Madison, that are doing some useful studies of organic practices to enhance soil biology and reduce tillage.

It’s fascinating seeing the new techniques being developed for growing organic crops.

Mechanical weed control isn’t the only weapon in our “arsenal,” although it certainly is an important part. My son has a growing collection of such tools, from rotary hoe to front-mount cultivator to rolling cultivator, each one adjusted precisely to do its job at the right time, depending on the crop and stage of growth.

I get a kick out of him tossing out words like weed recruitment, false seedbed and fatal germination. Essentially, these refer to tilling a field, but not planting the crop yet, then waiting long enough for a flush of weeds to grow before tilling again. So, you “trick” the weeds into thinking you got the field ready to plant the crop, but you didn’t. This process should reduce the number of viable weed seeds in the top layer of soil, so the new crop plants can gain the upper hand.

Another aspect of his strategy is to plant at a higher rate so he still has a good population after aggressive rotary hoeing and cultivation.

However, we are quite aware that, especially on more rolling ground than ours, the repeated working of the soil required by more old-fashioned mechanical weed control can allow too much soil erosion. Cover crops have a valuable role also.

For example, we had pretty good success last summer with no-till organic soybeans planted into standing winter rye. We terminated the rye by rolling it down after planting the beans, and it served as mulch to keep the weeds at bay, without the usual several passes of cultivation we would normally have to do. The beans yielded well, and we even got a wonderful crop of bedding from the residue.

It’s great to see some conventional farmers are diversifying their weed and pest control with some of these old and new methods. The work at Allison Farm at WIU makes a point of being applicable to a variety of situations. I encourage my farmer readers to check it out.

The future of agriculture looks promising if everyone keeps an open mind and studies a broad approach to all of our challenges.

WINIFRED HOFFMAN, of Earlville, is a farmer, breeder of dual-purpose cattle and a student of life. She can be reached by emailing

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