Non-GMO Farming

Questions:

I am having trouble locating specific information on non-GMO crop farming. I would like to locate resources that would help me evaluate and consider moving farms (including my own) into raising non-GMO field crops in Minnesota.   Are their certifications and land preparation requirements —  i.e., is it like going Organic where the land has to be free of pesticide use, etc, for so many years?  Can you use traditional fertilizers and herbicides?  Also, what about marketing and selling crops in Southwest MN including financial evaluations of switching from conventional to non-gmo crops — what impact does it have on margins and profitability?  What are crop production practices for raising non-GMO that keep it competitive — I’ve been reading about foliar feeding?

Response:

Raising non-GMO crops is not at all the same as switching to organic agriculture.  Organic agriculture requires a whole-system change that includes crop rotation with a minimum of a 3-year rotation, use of manure or green manure crops for fertility instead of synthetic fertilizers; as well as a number of other practices intended to improve soil health and reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides.  Non-GMO crops are grown in conventional agricultural systems just like their GMO counterparts — and were for decades; the first GMO corn was introduced in 1996. The main difference would be the need to adjust the weed control program and the insect control program, if needed. Weeds and insects are reasons why a longer crop rotation might make things easier. Rotating into a hay crop such as alfalfa for one or two years breaks up the life-cycles of the weeds and pests that typically plague corn and soybeans, as well as adding nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. However, the longer crop rotation is not a requirement for growing non-GMO grain.

Here’s information about a recent Iowa State University study that showed the equivalence of a 3-year and 4-year rotation with a 2-year rotation for profitability:

There are no nationally required certifications to grow non-GMO crops like there are for Organic.  Requirements will come from your buyers. A buyer might request that you show them the tags from your seed bags to verify that the seed you planted was non-GMO, so you should hang on to those tags.  Depending on your buyer, they might want to see that you have a protocol for keeping non-GMO grain separate from GMO grain in the field and post-harvest.  The buyer might require testing of the grain to prove that it isn’t contaminated with GMO grain. This kind of marketing is called “Identity Preserved,” (IP) and it’s nothing new.  People have been using IP marketing for many years for specialty versions of common crops like waxy corn, high-lysine corn, food-grade soybeans, etc.  If you have a buyer for a specialty sub-set of a common crop, you use identity preservation techniques to track and store and ship it.
There are a couple of older fact sheets (2001 – 2002) from Iowa State University and University of Minnesota that have some good basic information on selling IP grain.
You can find large amounts of additional IP information online, including IP protocols from some grain buyers.  Do a Google search on “identity preserved grain.”
The Ag Decision Maker also has a whole series of enterprise budgets for various crops.  You can download a corn budget spreadsheet and plug in your own numbers for prices you expect for non-GMO corn, and your own production cost numbers, to see what that would look like.
Regarding your question about ways to make non-GMO varieties “competitive:”
In many cases the yield potential of a non-GMO variety is actually higher than that for a similar GMO variety. The main reason why farmers adopted GMO corn and soybeans in droves is because it simplified their weed and pest control protocols, not because of higher yields per se. Good agronomic practices will be what you need, not necessarily fancy stuff like foliar feeding.  I fear that some of those basics may have been lost in recent years when all that was needed to deal with weeds and insects was a stacked corn variety. Soil management; fertilizer application according to current recommendations; a weed control plan that gives you several pre- and post-emergence herbicide options to use depending on weather conditions; an insect control plan that may include scouting to check for the presence of insects and having a spray option available if they’re detected at levels high enough to cause economic damage to the crop; and consideration of cultural weed- and insect-controls like crop rotation.
A very good resource for information about crop rotation, weed control, insect control, soil fertility, and other important considerations is the Organic Risk Management manual: http://organicriskmanagement.umn.edu/.  Don’t let the title fool you: this is good basic agronomic information that can apply to all crop production, not just organic.
Lizabeth Stahl is an Extension crop production specialist based at the Worthington regional office who knows a lot about good agronomic practices.  I’d recommend that you contact her for help with production practices.  Her email:stah0012@umn.edu
Albert Lea Seed House is a seed supplier in Minnesota that offers non-GMO seed.  They also offer some technical assistance to growers and have varietal trial information available on their website:  http://www.alseed.com/
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