By Tim Leeds
Organic farming can take a lot of work, but it has its rewards. Just ask Robert Boettcher, who works Rob-An Farms about 15 miles west of Big Sandy with his wife and son, An and Earl.
The National Soil and Water Conservation Society has rewarded Boettcher for his work in conservation with an award, which he will receive on July 17 in Indianapolis.
"It all started with sunflowers," Boettcher said.
He said he got the idea from Ben Lund, who also farms near Big Sandy. After Lund looked into raising sunflowers, Boettcher started raising the crop in 1978, he said. The Boettchers bought their farm in 1966.
In 1996, the Boettchers started converting their entire farm to organic methods. Boettcher said a field must have no chemicals or fertilizers on it for three years to be certified organic. Rob-An Farms has been certified fully organic since 1992.
The farm has to be recertified every year, which takes quite a bit of work in itself. There is a 15-page application to fill out, and the Boettchers have to keep a clear history of each field.
"We have to keep a record of everything we do," he said.
Running the farm takes a lot of organization and planning. Rotating the crops is key to success, Boettcher said
"We try not to have the same crop on the same field in less than four years," he said.
He has divided the fields to make rotation easier. Each 160-acre quarter-section is divided into four 40-acre plots, with different crops rotated to each plot each year.
An Boettcher has created a computer database to keep track of which crop has been planted where, making the record keeping a little easier, Robert Boettcher said.
Rob-An Farms normally raises a variety of crops, from sunflowers to wheat, chickpeas, buckwheat and alfalfa. This year, because of the drought, all the Boettchers are raising is soft white wheat.
Facing low moisture conditions like the area had in April, all a farmer can do is flip a coin and hope for the right choice, Boettcher said. With the large amounts of moisture the area received in June, he might try to diversify his crops again next year, or it might take the flip of a coin again, he said.
Planting just one crop makes it tough to get back into rotation, Boettcher added.
"It screws up the system and makes it difficult to get back in," he said.
The Big Sandy area has a much higher concentration of organic farmers about six than most of the state, he said. Many farmers refuse to consider changing their ways, Boettcher said.
"We're creatures of habit. We get into a system and stay with it," he said.
Government programs also encourage staying with the traditional systems, Boettcher said. Programs encourage raising certain crops in certain areas, especially winter wheat in the Big Sandy area, he said.
"It's an incentive to stay with those crops. There's a lot of things that will grow out here and we've proven that," Boettcher said.
Staying with the same crops and traditional methods causes problems, he said. Last year, more people planted winter wheat in the Big Sandy area than he had seen in years. The large amount of tillage creates a huge potential for erosion.
"Sometimes we create our own problems," he said.
Rob-An Farms uses many techniques to prevent erosion, and to improve the health of the land and the yield of the crops, Boettcher said.
He uses special equipment to till the soil without breaking it up, slicing a portion of the topsoil up from underneath, leaving the surface and residue virtually undisturbed. He uses minimum till on each field, generally once or twice a year at most, Boettcher said.
He keeps as much as he can of what's left of the crop on the ground to prevent erosion, and said everyone should try to do that.
"We need to keep as much of that residue on the ground as possible," Boettcher said.
The techniques work quite well, he said.
"We've changed the soil texture with what we're planting and rotating," he said.
One advantage is low evaporation from the soil. Tilled soil, with large areas of dark soil exposed, absorbs more heat than no-till soil with plant cover, and the higher moisture loss shows it, he said.
"The evaporation on that type of ground is tremendous," Boettcher said.
There are conflicting opinions about whether organic farming can yield as much produce as farming with chemicals and fertilizers does. Boettcher said his experience makes him believe natural farming can be just as successful as using traditional techniques.
"Once you get into the system and are able to utilize it right, there's evidence the yields are just as good," he said.
Farmers should expect several years to pass before yields are back after switching from traditional techniques, Boettcher warned.
"People that want to go into a different system have to be careful," he said. "If they're in a system of heavy pesticide and fertilizer use and go cold turkey, they could be in trouble," he said.
But Boettcher's techniques including how he rotates the crops, times the planting and spaces the plants work to keep weeds and insects down, he said. At a discussion at Montana State University-Bozeman, an entomologist and plant pathologist grilled him about his farm they couldn't believe he has no major weed and bug problems until some others in the group said they had seen Boettcher's farm and knew there is no problem, he said.
The alternative crops he plants can be expensive to invest in. But if they grow to a good crop, the return is even higher. Chickpeas, for example, can cost $70 to $80 an acre to raise.
"That's mainly the seed. But if you get a good crop, the benefit is enormous. It will gross you more income than wheat by far," he said.
The reasons Boettcher received the National Soil and Water Conservation Society award go far beyond his own farm. He is involved in many conservation organizations, including the Big Sandy Conservation District, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service State Technical Committee and the Western Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. He serves as treasurer of the Organic Crop Improvement Association.
He traveled to Taiwan, which is very interested in finding sources of food for its burgeoning population. He visited the country as a delegate for three years for the Western United States Trade Association to promote Montana organic farm products. He also helped organize return trips, where Taiwanese delegations came to Montana to tour agricultural operations.
He has also hosted agriculturalists from Canada, and presented a workshop to a group of visitors from China.
The Montana Chapter of the National Soil and Water Conservation Society nominated Boettcher for the award because of his work organizing and hosting a 2001 sustainable agriculture tour.
Boettcher said he gives presentations at MSU-Bozeman, which has an extensive agriculture department, fairly regularly.
"There's a lot to book learning, but some of these professors have discovered that it's nice for those students to find out there's a real world out there," he said.