Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
With prices falling, will there be an increase in farmers planting non-GMO corn next year to take advantage of a niche market and save on seed costs?
A small, but growing percentage of corn farmers planted conventional corn hybrids in 2014 and the trend seems to be continuing based on the interest farmers show in conversations with crop consultants and seed dealers.
“The rationale is the money,” said Steve Sodeman, a crop consultant and owner of the Trimont-based firm United Ag Tech. “There were some people that opted to plant conventional corn this year. Not too many, but there was $70 an acre in it for them if they chose to do that. And more are talking about it this year.”
Farmers who went conventional saved $70 per acre by not paying for genetically engineered traits: the RoundUp trait costs $30 dollars per acre, and the corn root worm (bT) trait also costs $30, while the corn borer trait goes for $10 per acre (these are last year’s prices — most companies have not announced prices for the coming year).
“Managing by expense rarely works out,” notes Trimont seed dealer Steve Williamson, who has helped clients access conventional seed. “I like to work through the whole process with farmers to make sure they’re making an educated decision — there are about as many reasons to plant conventional as there are farmers out there doing it.”
Though economics is an obvious reason, Williamson said he has one client who raises corn for silage because he feels that non-GMO corn stalks are more palatable for his beef cattle.
In 2014, Williamson’s sales of non-GMO seed rose seven percent over the previous year.
Of course, planting conventional corn has challenges, Sodeman warns.
“You have a non-RoundUp crop, so you have to be careful,” Sodeman said. “Inform your neighbors you’re planting a non-RoundUp crop, so that it doesn’t get damaged,” Sodeman said. “Then it’s about root worm control. So most of the guys who would try this would probably not have corn on corn, they would have corn following soybeans, so they don’t need that root worm trait.”
With research, some farmers have been garnering modest premiums for non-GMO corn, though food-grade non-GMO soybeans are a more established market niche. Sodeman said that Galena Genetics in Orsmby markets a full line of non-GMO soybeans geared to the market in Japan.
SunOpta, near Rochester, offers contracts for non-GMO corn, soybeans and sunflowers for identity preserved, non-GMO and organic markets. At times, Sodeman said, they offer premiums for delivery of these products.
Williamson, who has been a seed dealer since the mid 1970s, thinks conventional planting may end up to be a passing fad.
“We are very early in the ordering process for 2015,” said Williamson. “Obviously funds are going to be a lot tighter this year for growers and they are exploring options. In the past we have seen people exploring options, but then at the end of the day they come back to whatever is going to give them the most yield, and for the most part, that’s going to be the seed with the most traits.”
Williamson advised producers thinking of conventional seed to lock in their purchases now, because the supply will not meet the demand.
Going conventional is not the only way to lower production costs, Williamson advises.
“When looking over options, one of the things people often overlook is that the largest cash discounts are available if you order seed now,” Williamson said. “A lot of companies have 10-12 percent cash discounts right now. They would lower their cost, even if they are paying interest. There are banks lining up to finance seed purchases. They can borrow the money and make money on the borrowed money. Sometimes it makes sense to borrow money if you are lowering your cost of production.”