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The Natural Choice
by Marlene Fritz

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organinc farming. nate jonesWhen Nate Jones first tossed in the trowel on conventional farming, he worried that the weeds on his 200-acre Elmore County farm would grow 3-feet tall overnight.

They did not.

Now, the third-generation rancher-farmer worries that his 600 acres will produce so much organic beef and so many organic vegetables that he will not be able to sell them all without a broker.

Organic farming has become a way of life for Nate Jones, right in photo, who receives a lot of sound advice from UI extension educator Mir-M. Seyedbagheri, left in photo. © Pam Benham. All rights reserved.

Jones’ Idaho organic certification tags read No. 6. He is the sixth Idaho producer to achieve certified organic status since 1990. “In the beginning, I was looking for higher returns,” he says. “But it’s become a lot more philosophical for me. This is the way I’m going to farm until I die, regardless of the prices.”

Organic produce is still profitable, although competition is intensifying and pressuring prices downward. Nationwide, production research is increasing, but extension educators
such as Elmore County’s Mir-M. Seyedbagheri are still very rare.

“We are so fortunate to have him,” says Jones. “I have to pinch myself every once in a while. He understands organic principles, and he’s a wealth of knowledge.”

For Seyedbagheri, working with Idaho’s organic producers is consistently challenging, satisfying, and interesting. “Their cultural practices are very different and it’s harder to answer their questions, but they are so creative,” he says. “They have to do the right things at the right time in the right place.”

“In the beginning, I was looking for higher returns. But it’s become a lot more philosophical for me. This is the way I’m going to farm until I die, regardless of the prices.”

And, like Seyedbagheri, they are committed to build their living soils with life-sustaining microorganisms.

To help them determine how much compost to apply to their fields and when that compost will release nitrogen in a form crops can use, Seyedbagheri has studied compost mineralization since 1996. At Jones’ farm, he found that 3 tons of compost per acre is sufficient and that carbon-nitrogen ratios below 20:1 will prevent unwanted bursts of late-season fertilizer.
Seyedbagheri continues his mineralization work this year on organic farms near Shoshone and Buhl with funding from the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. “Your soil pH, soil organic matter, soil temperature, and moisture all play very pronounced roles in mineralization—and when and how mineralization occurs is very important,” he says. Potatoes, for example, benefit from nitrogen while they are forming tubers but are harmed by nitrogen while they are setting skin.

Research on Colorado potato beetle control, conducted by extension entomologist Bob Stoltz with Buhl organic grower Mike Heath, also has given Jones clearer insights into his pest-management strategies. Stoltz found that growing winter wheat in a rotation following potatoes provides a “formidable physical barrier” to recently hatched beetles—especially when this year’s potatoes are moved as far as possible from this year’s wheat. “It’s hard for them to crawl up the stalks and get out,” Stoltz says, and cooler soil temperatures at the grain’s base interfere with their warming up and flying off.

Seyedbagheri believes that organic production will remain a small slice of Idaho agriculture for the foreseeable future. But even if it nets Gem State growers only a modest premium, he considers his time well-spent—and Idaho’s living soils well-served.

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