Willamette Valley farmer Garth Mulkey started growing seeds for cover crops in 2007 when a Pennsylvania company contacted him about producing radish seed for the Midwest cover crop market.
But the seeds of his decision to enter the market were planted several years earlier while scouring Midwest farm magazines for stories on no-till, which he adopted in 2003.
“The no-till literature kind of turned into cover-crop literature,” Mulkey said. “And the thing that became apparent is they are going to need seed.”
Today Mulkey owns and operates GS3 Quality Seed, a company he started in 2010 that produces, packages and markets cover crop seeds, primarily radish, in the Midwest. GS3 Quality Seed contracts with several distributors to move its seed and purchases radish seed from about 10 Willamette Valley farmers, Mulkey said.
Mulkey provides marketing for the distributors through his participation in trade shows each winter.
Asked why he and not his distributors market the seeds at trade shows, Mulkey said, “The cover-crop thing is so new that (the distributors) don’t have the knowledge and expertise. They are still learning, just like we are. So, as a service to my distributors and dealers, I am supplying that knowledge and distributing that knowledge.”
The radish seed, clover, vetch and other seeds he grows for the Midwest cover crop market are among several crops Mulkey produces on his 1,000-acre farm in Monmouth, Ore.
He estimates he’s grown about 25 different crops on his farm in the last five years alone.
“I set a goal for myself about 10 years ago to grow a new crop every year,” he said.
The crop rotations help him control weeds and diseases while keeping ground in production, and it helps stretch out his harvest season, which allows him to harvest more acres with less equipment.
“We can spread out our harvest from the first of July to the middle of September,” he said. “(Growing multiple crops) also is risk management. We’re probably not going to have a failure on 10 crops at once.”
Growing a new crop every year has its challenges, he said, adding that it probably takes four or five years to really grasp how best to produce a new crop, given the different weather patterns that hit the valley each growing season.
“Sometimes I think I’m creating work for myself,” he said, “but it’s a challenge and it keeps things interesting.”
He’s looking at phacelia for this year’s new crop. The herbaceous flowering crop is used for cover crops in Europe and for bee pastures.
“We’ve got some customers who are interested in trying it, so we are going to see if we can grow it, and see if we can be priced competitive in the marketplace,” Mulkey said.
Mulkey attributes much of his success in the Midwest cover crop market in part to good timing.
“We got in the market at the right time,” he said.
With corn and soybean prices dropping, Mulkey is a little nervous about the future of the market.
“We don’t know how (the drop in commodity prices) is going to affect the marketplace,” he said. “I think we are going to see stable growth, but not the rapid growth that we have seen in the last three years.”