Based on his success in organic farming, Iowa farmer wants to increase organic acreage in the state.
Making the transition from conventional to organic farming can be a big leap, but Harn Soper will tell you—based on experience—that it is worth it in terms of better crops, soil, and financial returns. Soper, a member of four generations of an Iowa farming family, is so convinced of organic farming’s value that he has launched a fund, Sustainable Farm Partners, to increase organic farming in Iowa.
Based in Emmetsburg, northwest Iowa, Soper Farms is a century farm; from the family’s move to Iowa in the 1840s, Soper Farms began taking shape as farms were passed down through the family along with the responsibility for their stewardship. Harn’s grandfather, Emmet, started managing the farms in the 1920s. By 1955 Harn’s father took on responsibility and soon thereafter it was Harn’s turn. Today Soper Farms spans four generations with 73 family stockholders (with a bun or two in the oven) and 17 family board members, including Harn.
After working for 30 years as an entrepreneur in California’s Silicon Valley, Harn returned to manage the farms in 2007. At the time, the farms were producing genetically modified corn and soybeans. But that was about to change.
Tripled net income switching from GMO to organic
The Soper family voted to transition the farms to organic, starting in 2010. “When we decided to go into organics it was unanimous,” Harn says. Under Harn’s stewardship the Sopers tried everything from growing organic vegetables, raising grass-fed beef and pasture-raised chickens, but those didn’t work out. “We couldn’t scale those projects,” Harn says. But what was working were the organic row crops including a rotation of corn, oats, and alfalfa. The first two transition years to organic included growing oats, alfalfa, and clover. “We focused on soil restoration,” Harn says.
In a crop share arrangement with our operators, net income from the first two years of the transition, 2010 and 2011, averaged $134 per acre, compared to $180 per acre from GMO corn and soybeans in 2008 and 2009. In 2012, the final year of the transition and first year of organic certification, net income from the organic corn crop soared to nearly $900 per acre. Continuing the rotation in 2013, the Sopers planted organic oats and alfalfa, and these produced $254 per acre. “Our organic oats earned more than our GMO corn and soybean crops,” Harn says.
Comparing the two years of GMO corn and soybeans with the first two years of organic certification, Soper Farms increased their net income from $180 per acre with GMOs to $578 with organics. “We tripled our net operating income,” Harn says. “I consistently see premiums of organic that are two to three times greater than conventional crop prices.” He emphasizes that the financial returns can vary according to the weather and market conditions. Soper Farms also reduced their costs up to 40% by eliminating expensive GMO seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Better weed and soil management
The benefits of going organic were more than financial. “We don’t have superweeds,” Harn says. “We use nature and crop rotations to deal with weeds.” Oats, alfalfa, and clover are planted at the same time and grow in sequence to crowd out weeds. “Our hay crop rotation inhibits the presence of weed seeds significantly,” Harn says. “By the second year of the rotation, weeds are much less in our corn crop and it continues to improve over time.”
Perhaps the biggest benefit has been to the soil. “Our soil is our most important asset, and it gets healthier every year,” Harn says. Based on his experience Harn is confident that other conventional farmers can successfully transition to organic. “For conventional farmers who are nervous about transitioning to organic, I don’t see a problem,” he says. “To me, it’s an economic win all the way around.”
Sustainable Farm Partners
Harn’s experience inspired him to launch an investment fund to increase organic farming acreage in Iowa. He attracted several partners and named the fund, Sustainable Farm Partners (SFP), LLP. The aim is to raise money to buy conventional farms, secure operators to convert the ground to organic, and then after 10 years sell the land, ideally back to the farmer who has been working it.
“We are pooling investors together to convert ground to organic production, and get it back into the hands of Iowa farm families,” Harn says. “The goal is to put the land in an organic easement to ensure it is farmed organically in perpetuity.” Investors, which can include individuals, family offices, endowments or even food manufacturers, will earn returns from revenue generated by organic crops and land appreciation.
SFP was launched in October. The fund’s goal is to purchase 10,000-12,000 acres initially with plans to add more over time. “We would like to transition 30,000 to 40,000 acres over the next four years,” Harn says. SFP currently has six organic farm operators in its network spread throughout Iowa to work the land, and plans to attract more as farmland is purchased. “In our program we are confident we can double our operating partners gross income and put them on a path to greater land ownership” said Harn.
Harn is having discussions with food manufacturers that want to expand organic farming acreage there by securing long-term supply contracts to meet the fast-growing demand for organic food. The supply of organic crops has fallen far short of the demand. Harn believes Sustainable Farm Partners is one way to help alleviate the supply challenges.
Overall, Harn calls SFP a “triple bottom line investment” that can generate profits and a healthier environment through organic farming while helping to support rural communities. “There is so much demand for organic, and it makes so much sense for farmers to do this. It is also about stewardship of our world’s most valuable asset, our soil” he says.