Ed Sills - Pleasant Grove,
Ed Sills' father, Thomas, began growing
rice—and wheat, oats, and grain sorghum—in
1946. After Ed joined his father in the farming
operation, they grew their first organic
crop, 45 acres of popcorn, in 1985.
They planted an organic rice crop in 1986
and, seeing success, began to transition
the rest of their farm crops to organic.
1995 was the last year any crops were raised
with purchased chemicals.
Rice, grown on about 900 acres, remains
the primary commodity, with the other crops
adding market niches and a diverse rotation.
Sills manages the fields with 2-, 3-, and
4-year rotational strategies, depending on
soil type and condition. Turkey litter, obtained
from the bedding of area free-range turkey
producers, has become an effective fertilizer
that Sills incorporates before planting corn,
popcorn, and rice.
Sills designed the 100-acre almond orchard,
first planted in 1985, for easy care. The
trees grow on berms to improve drainage.
An annual cover crop of vetch on the orchard
floor helps to improve soil quality by increasing
organic matter and water infiltration. Today,
Sills sees healthy populations of beneficial
organisms that help control pests, partly
because he stopped spraying pesticides.
Sills takes advantage of organic premiums
that range from 25 percent to 100 percent
above conventional prices. Using his own
processing equipment, he cleans and bags
popcorn, wheat, and beans for sale to the
organic wholesale market, primarily to natural
food distributors and processors.
Today, costs to raise rice organically are
similar to their former conventional methods,
and perhaps lower, because Sills no longer
purchases herbicides or commercial fertilizer.
The main difference, Sills says, is that
costs now are spread throughout the rotation.
During most of the 1990s, the organic market
"Pricing has continued to be fairly
strong, with some dips," Sills says. "But,
overall, nothing compares with the conventional
market, where prices are mostly below the
cost of production."
Sills' farming system, heavily reliant on
rotations, has improved the fertility and
quality of his soil. In large part, his strategic
rotations and use of cover crops have reduced
insects and weeds.
"There are a lot of weed problems in
rice production," says Sills. "Many
of my organic fields, especially the ones
in my long rotation, are as clean as some
Orchard cover crops help improve soil quality
by increasing organic matter and water infiltration
rates. The vetch provides a home to beneficial
organisms that control unwanted almond insects
and helps fix soil nitrogen.
Community, Outreach, Quality of Life
Sills worked with University of California-Davis
researchers to examine the benefits of on-farm
residue. Sills has hosted field days to spread
information about the best mix of residues
to break down in the soil, provide nitrogen,
and improve soil.
Sills believes his products provide a supply
to consumers who have few alternatives for
organic field crops. With the advent of biotechnology,
some consumers are asking for guarantees
that some products do not contain genetically
"One of the things farmers forget is
that you have to grow something people want
to buy," he says. "And that's one
of the things we learned right away in the
organic movement. We're producing something
that people are asking for."
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