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Sustainable Agriculture

Ed Sills - Pleasant Grove, California

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.

Profitability

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 grew.

"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."

Environmental Strategies

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 conventional fields."

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 modified foods.

"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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