OSAGE | “I am not mainstream, I am more in the process of growing food,” said Mike Lewis, who farms southeast of Osage. “All my stuff is non-GMO.”
Lewis, an Osage High School and a 1980 Iowa State University with a degree in farm operations, recognizes he has to deal with problems GMO farmers don’t have, but he also acknowledges the production of his food-grade soybeans brings a premium price, which overshadows some of the challenges he faces.
Thirty years ago, Lewis began a limited planting of the food-grade soybeans. Ten years later, he turned to full production of the soybeans.
GMO crops came into existence when agronomist began to genetically modify plants so they could tolerate new herbicides, which could provide better weed control. Along with the GMO science came an ongoing conversation as to GMO crops and health-related issues. These conversations have led some countries and some food processors to only purchase non-GMO food stocks.
“I grow food grade beans, which yield about 90 to 95 percent of what regular soybeans yield, and I have to deal with more of a weed problem, because I am limited with solutions for my weed problems,” Lewis said, “so that is where cover crops come in. The premiums I get for my beans offset the yields.”
“The Helium Soybeans I raise are a very large soybean and are void of the familiar black spots that are seen on regular soybeans. They are a high protein beans, which are grown for the production of tofu,” Lewis said. “Right now I just truck my beans to Nora Springs. They clean the beans there and ship them out. They go to California or overseas.”
One of the innovations Lewis uses in his fields is planting twin rows that are seven inches apart, next to an open space of 23 inches, and then another set of seven inch rows. Basically, it is the same set up as 30 inch rows, except the twin, seven inch rows spread the bean seeds over a larger area.
“The non-GMO seed is not hard to get,” Lewis said. “Actually non-GMO seed production is increasing. I grow a variety of soybeans that my buyer wants me to grow.”
Lewis said most seed companies handle both non-GMO and GMO seed.
Lewis, who has been invested in farming for 45 years, said one of the major elements in his bean production is the use of cover crops. “Five years ago when it was so wet and we had preventive planting, I used a cover crop,” he said. “I saw a lot better weed control the next year, so that is why I went to cover crops. The cereal rye I use chokes out the weeds.”
“The cereal rye is drilled in corn stalks after the corn has been harvested. It doesn’t kill out during the winter, but stays green,” Lewis said. “It was more difficult this spring, because it was wet. I really didn’t want the rye to get so tall. It was a challenge for the planter, but it handled it fine. With cover crops, every year is different, it’s what the weather dictates.”
After planting, Lewis sprays a burn down and a pre-emergent herbicide. “I have to use older herbicides on my crops,” he said.
A side income has developed with the use of Lewis’ cover crops. This year, he planted 10.5 acres of cereal rye that will be used for seed in the upcoming year. In 2018, Lewis hopes to increase his production of cereal rye to 40 acres. He not only raises rye for a seed dealer, but he uses the tall grass straw from the combined rye for bedding in his livestock operations.
“My son, Tanner, is a chemical engineer who lives in Charles City, and he helps me accomplish the things we are doing around here,” Lewis said. “His input has helped to transform some of the practices in my farming operation.”
Speaking of his soybean production methods, Lewis said he thinks the practices are environmentally sound and they create a safer source of food grade soybeans. “It is more of a long-term thing,” Lewis said, “You have to be committed to it.”