at a Glance
Ed and Wynette
Pleasant Grove Farms
Pleasant Grove, California
Summary of Operation
• Rice, popcorn,
wheat, dry beans, cover crop seed on 3,000 acres,
grown organically or in transition
• 100 acres of almonds
Pest pressure and poor fertility.
For 40 years, the Sills raised rice and
a variety of other crops in California’s
Sutter County using conventional practices. As
the years passed, Ed Sills began to notice that
pest pressures were increasing while fertility
seemed to be dropping.
“We were really not improving any of our
land,” Sills says. “The weeds were
becoming resistant to the expensive rice herbicides,
and I didn’t feel we could be successful
in the conventional farming arena.”
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 152 to 154
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
father, Thomas, began growing rice — and wheat, oats,
and grain sorghum — in 1946 near Pleasant Grove, Calif.
After Ed Sills 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. After that, Ed Sills
began to aggressively transition his land to organic. The last
year that any crops were raised with purchased chemicals was
for Market: The Sills’ main crop
is organic rice, but they also grow wheat, beans,
popcorn and almonds.
Today, Sills manages pests and improves soil fertility through
rotation, cover crops and incorporating all crop residues.
Focal Point of Operation —
The Sills farm is divided into several fields for crop rotation.
Rice is their primary crop, grown on about 900 acres each
year. Sills also plants popcorn, wheat, dry beans and some
oats. He manages the fields with two-, three- and four-year
rotations, depending on soil type and condition.
Sills devised a simple, two-year rotation for his soils that
are poorly suited for crops other than rice: a year of rice
followed by a year of vetch. He plants purple vetch in the
fall after the rice harvest, and it grows throughout the winter.
In the spring, he either grows the vetch for seed or incorporates
it into the soil to help fix nitrogen. He sells most of the
vetch seed to seed companies and other farmers, but also retains
enough for his cover crop needs.
Sills then lets the field lay fallow, depending on the amount
of weeds or the quality of the vetch stand. In the fall, the
fallow fields are re-seeded with vetch and the harvested fields
re-seed naturally from shattering during the harvest. The
vetch is plowed under the following spring and Sills once
again plants rice.
The three-year rotation, used on poor soils, includes a rice
year followed by a vetch seed/fallow year. During the second
fall, oats are planted with the vetch and grow through the
third year until Sills harvests their seed. Vetch is again
planted in the fall, then incorporated in the spring before
The four-year rotation is reserved for the better quality
soils. Sills follows rice with dry beans, wheat and popcorn.
Purple vetch is planted in the fall and incorporated in the
spring before each new crop except the fall-planted wheat.
Sills uses a limited amount of turkey manure as a fertilizer
on his fields, mostly because of the expense. “We’re
trying to find out how little of that we’re able to
use and still get yield,” he says. Sills applies all
of the manure either in the fall before the summer crop or
prior to the summer crop in the early spring.
In addition to his traditional crops, Sills grows 100 acres
of almonds. He planted the first orchard in 1985 and has grown
it without purchased chemicals since 1987. Sills designed
the orchard for easy care. The trees are planted on berms
to improve drainage. A cover crop of clover on the orchard
floor helps to improve soil quality by increasing organic
matter and water infiltration rates. The clover also helps
establish populations of beneficial organisms to control pests,
enabling Sills to stop spraying pesticides.
“We’ve just got tremendous predation on all our
insect problems,” says Sills. The ground cover has attracted
beneficial insects that reduce worm damage on almonds and
knock back two major almond pests: peach twig borer and naval
orange worm. “We have very, very low levels of those,”
Economics and Profitability
The Sills take advantage of organic premiums that range from
25 percent to 100 percent above conventional prices. Using
their own processing equipment, they clean and bag popcorn,
wheat and beans for direct sale to the organic wholesale market.
They sell primarily to natural food distributors and processors
found in The National Organic Directory published by the California
Association for Family Farmers (CAFF), although they also
have gained customers through referrals. They sell all of
their wheat to organic flour millers.
Sills says they have been fortunate to find markets for their
additional crops. “We have good organic wheat markets
and dry bean markets, and the popcorn market we’ve sort
of built ourselves.”
It’s difficult to compare the cost of production and
profits between organic farming and conventional farming,
Sills says. When he was farming conventionally, there was
a continuous production of rice each year, so it was easy
to figure costs, which were consistent in fertilizer, chemicals,
rent or land. Today, his costs to raise rice organically are
similar, and perhaps lower because he no longer purchases
herbicides. Using vetch to fix nitrogen in almonds reduces
commercial fertilizer needs. The key, he says, is that the
costs now are spread throughout the rotation.
“A lot of the expenses in the rotational system are
either an opportunity cost, where it’s fallow that year,”
he says, “or just the land costs, which are harder to
Labor costs remain. Sills hires a hoeing crew through a labor
contractor, although the rotations ensure the dry beans are
relatively clean. Sills incurs a tillage cost because he incorporates
all of his straw into the soil, and also purchases turkey
The farm went through a period of economic difficulties in
the late 1980s when they began producing organic crops on
a large scale. “We were aggressive in transitioning
land,” he says. “We were able to grow more organic
grain than the market could bear and we sold quite a bit of
our production at conventional prices. That was either at
a loss or break even.”
During most of the 1990s, the organic market grew. “Pricing
has continued to be fairly strong, with some dips, but overall
nothing compares with the conventional market where they are
mostly below the cost of production,” he says.
Sills’ organic farming system has improved the fertility
and quality of his soil and, in a large part, controlled insects
and weeds. This all has been accomplished through his rotational
methods and by abandoning the use of conventional fertilizers
Sills credits his cover crops and rotations with effective
weed control. “There are a lot of weed problems in rice
production and I don’t see where conventional growers
are reducing any herbicide usage,” says Sills. “Many
of my organic fields, especially the ones in my long rotation,
are as clean as some conventional fields.”
The cover crops help in other ways, too. Cover crops on the
orchard floor help to improve soil quality by increasing organic
matter and water infiltration rates. The clover also helps
establish populations of beneficial organisms to control unwanted
almond insects, while the vetch helps fix nitrogen.
Finally, Sills has focused on soil health through rotations
and residue management. “The rice straw and the other
crop residues are a very important part of our organic program,”
he says. “They’re just as important as the vetch
for returning organic matter and nutrients back into the soil.”
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Sills worked with a group from the University of California-Davis
and Butte and Sutter county farm advisers, with support from
University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture Research
and Education Program (SAREP), to examine the benefits of
on-farm residue. They set up a 25-acre plot to investigate
the best mix of residues to break down in the soil, provide
nitrogen and improve soil tilth. Sills also has hosted field
days at Pleasant Grove Farms.
Sills believes that he provides a service to consumers, who
have few sources for products such as those he grows. With
the advent of biotechnology, some consumers are asking for
guarantees that some products do not contain genetically modified
“With all the controversy surrounding it, and the demands
from consumers, I have to write letters to my buyers guaranteeing
my product is certified organic. They even want to make sure
the seed I use does not have biotechnology origins.
“One of the things farmers forget is that you have to
grow something people want to buy,” he says. “And
that’s one of things we learned right away in the organic
movement. We’re producing something that people are
Sills recommends that farmers who wish to transition to organic
production go slowly to spread out the risk.
“I’ve seen some farmers go too fast and try to
do too much with too many acres and get into a situation where
maybe the yields during transition were lower than expected,”
Sills suggests that farmers seek information on organic growing
from their county extension offices. He, too, is happy to
offer advice to anyone who writes to him.
Sills is currently transitioning 500 acres of new ground to
be put into organic production in the future. Chemicals cannot
be applied to the land for three years prior to the planting
the first organic crop.
“This new land has good soil and we’re planning
to use it for the long rotation,” says Sills. “We’re
very excited about getting that started.”
As for the future of organic farming, Sills believes that
most tools farmers are offered today are conventionally based,
including the new varieties of rice being developed. Those
varieties are high yielding and offer disease resistance,
but are short-growing and are, therefore, not competitive
“Most seed breeders figure farmers have herbicides to
take care of the weeds, so they do all of their testing with
a zero weed population,” he says. “Many of us
in the organic or sustainable movement would like varieties
that are more competitive when not using chemicals, so maybe
even a conventional farmer could get by without using as many
chemicals as they do now.”
-- Photograph by Tom Gettings/Rodale Inst.