Organic Farmer - December 2018/January 2019

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December2018/January 2019 December 2018/January 2019 Feathered Friends: How Birds Help you Farm Soil Solarization—A Potential Tool for Organic Growers to Manage Weeds and Improve Soil Health Breeding Better Vegetables for Organic Agriculture True Soil Balance—How Can You Tell?

JANUARY 4, 2019

See page 32-33 for agenda details


Volume 1 : Issue 4 Photo courtesy of Ryan Bourbour

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Feathered Friends: How Birds Help you Farm

4 12

Soil Solarization—A Potential Tool for Organic Growers to Manage Weeds and Improve Soil Health


Director of Advocacy & Communications for the Organic Seed Alliance

Neal Kinsey

President of Kinsey Agricultural Services

Sara Kross


Breeding Better Vegetables for Organic Agriculture


True Soil Balance—How Can You Tell?

Columbia University, Department of Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology


Carol Mallory-Smith, Maria Dragila, Brian Hill, Nami Wada, and Clara Weidman Dept. of Crop and Soil Science and Leonard Coop and Kristine Buckland, Dept. of Horticulture Oregon State University, Corvallis

Andy Pressman,

Northeast Regional Director, National Center for Appropriate Technology



Jennifer Parke,

Emily J. Symmes

UCCE IPM Advisor, County Director and UCCE Pomology Farm Sacramento Valley Advisor, Tulare/Kings Kris Tollerup County UCCE Integrated Pest Management Advisor, Dr. Brent Holtz Parlier, CA County Director and UCCE Pomology Farm Advisor, San Joaquin County

Maintaining Farm Tools and Equipment in Organic Production

Steven Koike


Director, TriCal Diagnostics

Organic Apple Production is on the Rise


December 2018/January 2019

The articles, research, industry updates, company profiles, and advertisements in this publication are the professional opinions of writers and advertisers. Organic Farmer does not assume any responsibility for the opinions given in the publication.


A heart-faced juvenile barn owl has a bad hair day due to its baby down not quite being gone yet. All photos courtesy of Ryan Bourbour.

Feathered Friends: How Birds Help you Farm By: Sara Kross, Columbia University, Department of Ecology, Evolution & Environmental Biology


he call of a barn owl is not beautiful—it fits somewhere between a badly creaking gate hinge and someone scraping their fingernails across a chalk board—but for farmers who have rodent pests on their land, it should be music to their ears.

Economic Ornithology For generations, farmers have welcomed the sight of swallows dipping across their fields, and the sounds of kingbirds chatting from fenceposts and of barn owls shrieking from haylofts. Not only are these birds beautiful and dynamic (which is reason enough to ensure their numbers thrive), but they provide farmers with biological pest control services for insects and vertebrate pests. In fact, understanding the role of wildlife, and birds in particular, for controlling insect and vertebrate pests was so important prior to the widespread availability of pesticides that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) formed a department of ‘Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy’ in 1886 (it would later become the Bureau of Biological Survey, and eventually was absorbed into


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December 2018/January 2019

what is now Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS)). Publications from the Government scientists at the time relied heavily on studying the contents of bird stomachs—some 32,000 of them—to understand the diet of common farmland birds across the country. Browsing through publications from the days of economic ornithology is fascinating. In just one example, a USDA bulletin from 1902 entitled ‘Audubon Societies in Relation to the Farmer’ Henry Oldys laments the wanton destruction of birds for ladies’ hats or curio collections, and states “Let the farmer remember that every bird destroyed, and particularly every nest robbed, is equivalent to a definite increase in insects with which he already has to struggle hard…”. Despite many similar publications, economic ornithology disappeared from the literature around the 1940’s.

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December 2018/January 2019


Continued from Page 4

Ecosystem Services After a long hiatus, economic ornithology has re-emerged over the past few decades under a different title: Avian Ecosystem Services. Farmers and scientists alike have a growing interest in understanding and maximizing the benefits that birds provide for farms. We all gain from the services birds provide society, which range from seed dispersal and nutrient cycling, to pollinating plants and reducing disease risk through scavenging. For farmers though, the most apparent services come in the form of pest control. Compared to the early 1900s, modern methods for measuring avian ecosystem services are less invasive and more focused on quantifying the scale of effects that birds can have on pests, and what this means for subsequent crop damage. Exclosures, which are essentially cages meant to keep birds out, are the most common technique used today. Combined with counts of insect pest abundances and estimates of changes in crop damage and/or crop yield both inside (no birds) and outside (birds) the cages, exclosures measure the effect of birds on insect pests. The majority of studies focus on naturally-occurring pest insects, whereas

some use ‘sentinel’ insects which are artificially introduced to fields (and often tethered to a location in some way by pinning, gluing, or tying them down). Sentinel prey experiments allow researchers to manipulate and control the number of insects, giving more precise estimates of the number that are removed by birds. Many of these experiments are conducted across

“Farmers and

scientists alike have a growing interest in understanding and maximizing the benefits that birds provide for farms. "

multiple fields, or even whole landscapes, to capture the effects of different bird community diversity or abundance.

Insectivores and Omnivores are your Friends Insects make up some or all of the diets of many species of songbird. Go out into your fields, orchards or vineyards early in the morning in spring and watch the birds work. You’ll undoubtedly spot

multiple species of bird helping control the insect pests that are emerging around the same time. While swallow nests might make a mess under the eaves of a garage, every seemingly unpleasant dropping encases the remains of insects ranging from mosquitoes and midges to aphids and moths. These aerial insectivores are also likely to provide control of flies that harass cows and other livestock. Numerous studies from both the original heyday of economic ornithology and from today’s modern exclosure studies have illustrated the valuable role that birds play in controlling insect pests. As early as 1908, birds including blackbirds, plovers, curlew, quail and prairie chicken were credited with controlling pest numbers in locust outbreaks in the Mississippi valley so that the United States Entomological Commission declared that the efficacy of birds for controlling pests was “… so full and complete that it was impossible to entertain any doubt on this point”. More recently, in corn in the Midwest, a mixed assemblage of birds was shown to decrease the densities of cutworms, European corn borer, corn leaf aphids and weevils, although the infestations of these insects was too low to detect a change in crop yield from birds. In three

A Swainson’s Hawk standing guard over an alfalfa field gets welcome relief from the heat via irrigation sprinklers. Large numbers of hawks and wading birds visit fields as they are irrigated to catch rodents that are flushed from underground burrows.


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December 2018/January 2019

A Western Kingbird ready to sally for insect prey in a California sunflower field.

separate studies in brassica crops, birds were shown to decrease the number of caterpillars and subsequent crop damage on broccoli in Hawaii, reduced the damage to kale crops in Kenya, and decreased the number of sentinel caterpillars on organic kale in California. Exclosure experiments that my colleagues and I conducted in non-organic alfalfa fields in California showed that birds decreased the abundance of alfalfa weevil by 33 percent and that this effect was higher in fields that had trees along their edges. Birds were shown to control some pest insects in hops in Washington state, but the role of predatory insects was more important. Birds reduced the number of aphids and their damage in cider apple orchards in Spain, and three different sentinel prey experiments in vineyards showed that birds are likely to control caterpillar outbreaks if they occur. Recent trials by Cornell University researchers have even shown that hummingbirds may help reduce spotted wing drosophila in fruit crops. Hummingbirds are nectar





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feeders, but also consume thousands of small insects when feeding their young. While most studies focus on the spring and summer months, the benefits of birds are certainly not limited to the growing season. In a 1988 study in Southeastern Ontario, American crows were shown to decrease the over-wintering larvae of European corn-borer by 50 percent, presumably reducing the population that would invade the crop the following season. In apples alone there have been numerous studies showing that birds control codling moth and are particularly important for consuming the overwintering larvae that shelter under the bark of trees. Birds that forage on

“First and foremost, providing habitat for nesting, perching, and foraging is critical for almost all bird species."

branches or pry away loose bark are particularly important: such as woodpeckers, creepers, titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches. Crows and ravens also regularly break open ‘mummy nuts’ in tree nut orchards, likely reducing the population of naval orangeworm and other insect pests that overwinter in such nuts.

Benefiting birds The benefits that farmers glean from birds is not limited to a few star species. Studies have shown that a greater diversity of bird species is associated with greater pest-control services. This concept is most well studied in coffee agroecosystems in the tropics, where numerous experiments have demonstrated that farms harboring higher avian diversity have lower incidence of coffee berry borer infestations than farms with fewer species of bird. More species means more overlap of hunting effort and potential ‘insurance’ for the control of multiple pest species. Virtually all bird species feed their chicks protein-rich insect diets during the breeding season, so even species that might be considered pests at other times of the year may actually be helpful during the spring and summer months. If birds are a nuisance for crops at specific times (for example at seed planting, or as fruit ripens), rather than taking steps to deter birds from fields year round, targeting deterrent methods for those specific times would mean gleaning the benefits of ‘pest’ species at other points over the growing season. If you want to increase the benefits you derive from birds on your farm, there are multiple steps you can take. First and foremost, providing habitat for nesting, perching, and


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December 2018/January 2019

foraging is critical for almost all bird species. Simple habitat management, such as retaining treelines or planting hedgerows, has been shown to greatly increase the diversity and abundance of birds on farms. Planting hedgerows along field margins is a serious financial undertaking, but such habitat also harbors beneficial insects that provide pollination and pest control services. Economic studies by the University of California (UC) have shown that the initial cost of establishing a hedgerow are offset by the pollination and pest control benefits provided by beneficial insects within seven years. If the benefits provided by birds were taken into account, this payoff time could presumably be quicker. Numerous insectivorous species are cavity-nesting, so retaining old trees is highly beneficial for those species. You can also augment natural cavity availability by installing nest boxes for swallows, wrens and bluebirds. Ensure that you purchase or build boxes that are specifically designed for native cavity-nesting birds, since European starlings and European house sparrows, both invasive species, are also cavity-nesting and often outcompete native birds for available nesting spaces. Many songbirds also prefer to hunt from perches. A study in India demonstrated that planting ‘perch’ crops such as sunflowers and sorghum alongside crops of chickpea increased bird abundance, decreased damage to the chickpea crop by gram-pod borer, attracted beneficial insects, and acted as a trap crop for other pest insects. Artificial perches, such as bamboo poles installed in the chickpea fields also increased bird predation on the insect pest.

Barn Owls The voracious rodent-hunting habits of barn owls are no secret. Farmers have been encouraging barn owls to nest on their properties for generations: building and installing artificial nest boxes to take advantage of the barn owl’s non-picky nesting habits. Barn owls are the ideal provider of natural pest control. They are not very territorial compared to most other birds of prey, they raise large broods of hungry chicks, they are relatively tolerant of human activity near their nests (hence the name ‘barn owl’), and they will hunt for the most abundant small mammals in a landscape. The ground under barn owl boxes is often littered with the skulls and bones of their prey, in a veritable graveyard of rodent pests. In a study I conducted with students at UC Davis in California, we found that over 99 percent of the diet of barn owls consisted of pest species in mixed row crop, vineyard, and orchard farms. Using data from that and other studies conducted in California vineyards, Roger Baldwin and I calculated that an average pair of barn owls and their chicks would consume 215 pounds of rodents every year—equating to 843 pocket gophers, 578 voles, and 1,540 other prey items, most of which are mice. In Malaysia, barn owls have been shown to decrease the abundance and damage from rodents in palm oil

Continued on Page 10

Bio With Bite.

December 2018/January 2019


Continued from Page 8 plantations and in rice paddies. In Israel and Palestine, a network of thousands of barn owl nest boxes has contributed to pest control services and also link farmers across a contentious international border. Barn owls may also affect the behavior of rodent pests through a ‘landscape of fear’ effect, which has the potential to reduce the damage caused by rodents, although the likelihood and impacts of this in the field is currently unknown. To attract owls to your property, there are numerous barn owl nest boxes for purchase online, or you can build nest boxes yourself using readily available instructions from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or the National Audubon Society. In North America, we suggest you use boxes that have an entrance hole that is no larger than 4 inches across and that you do not include a perch on the outside of the entrance—barn owls do not need an external perch and great horned owls have been known to use such perches to raid the nests of barn owls. Barn owl boxes should be cleaned out annually to


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prevent pellets and feces from building up. We recommend cleaning the boxes well before the start of spring because pairs of owls will begin roosting together towards the end of winter, which is likely part of the pair bonding process. Be patient if you put up owl boxes: Barn owl populations in the Midwest and Northeast have declined, likely due to the shortage of barns and fewer open hunting areas in those regions, so it may take longer for owls to find and utilize nest boxes there. If you do have rodent issues and plan to put up barn owl

fast-breeding rodent populations, and working with farmers to conduct before-and-after studies that collect trapping or other rodent abundance data will be extremely useful.

Herons and Egrets

Many people are surprised when I tell them about the rodent-eating habits of herons and egrets. These graceful birds are lethal killers that are particularly drawn to fields that are being flood-irrigated or as fields are plowed. In California, we regularly observe 50 or more wading birds in alfalfa fields as they are flood irrigated. Farmers in the area know where the water is in a field by the line of egrets, herons, and Swainson’s hawks that are lined up waiting for rodents to literally be flushed from their burrows by the advancing water. You can actually see a lump move down the long A barn owl glances sleepily out from its daytime perch amongst the cool dark leaves of an oak tree. neck of a great egret as it swallows a vole whole. These cleanup crews are likely contribboxes, I’d love to hear from you! While uting to rodent control, and supporting we have ample evidence that barn owls wetland conservation measures in your eat a ton of rodent pests, there is a real region is key to ensuring healthy popuneed for more concrete evidence that lations of wading birds. barn owls are able to actually control

December 2018/January 2019

Flushed from its daytime roost, this barn owl will find a tree or nest box to hide in until the sun sets.

Duirnal Birds of Prey Day-hunting birds of prey—eagles, hawks, falcons, and kites are also likely to provide vertebrate pest control services for farmers. American kestrels were recently shown to decrease the abundance and damage from pest birds in sweet cherry orchards in Michigan. In New Zealand, a reintroduction project for the threatened New Zealand falcon in vineyards led to a reduction of introduced bird numbers and a 95 percent reduction in the damage they caused. The presence of falcons in those vineyards also likely led to landscape of fear effects, since damage by a native silvereye was halved even though their abundances did not change. Overall, the effects of falcons led to a 68 percent reduction in grape damage by pest birds. In Australia, erecting artificial perches for birds of prey increased raptor abundances and led to a reduction in mouse populations in soybean fields. To attract more birds of prey to your farm, it is important to retain and

provide habitat that gives raptors places to perch, rest, and nest. In North America, species such as sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks and merlins prefer to hunt from perches amongst trees. Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, as well as kestrels, great-horned owls, barn-owls, and golden eagles are all willing to hunt from artificial perches. Designs for artificial perches are published online by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Perches are more likely to be used if they are not immediately adjacent to trees (because the birds already have perching opportunities in the trees), and should be located at the tops of hills if your land is hilly. If you raise chickens or small livestock, you should be careful about providing cover for them and place perches far from them.

Win-Win-Win for Farmers and Birds

simply loved birds, and their desire to ensure that birds could thrive on their land for future generations to enjoy was a key responsibility that they felt they had to the land. Taking steps to conserve and enhance bird populations on your farm will provide you with natural pest-control services while simultaneously benefitting biodiversity. Beyond the services that they provide, birds are a joy to hear and watch. As the snow melts this spring and birds return to your land, take some time to watch the birds flitting around: each one is likely gobbling up insects as they emerge.

Comments about this article? We want to hear from you. Feel free to email us at

When we surveyed farmers in California to find out about their perceptions of birds, we found that many growers

December 2018/January 2019


Soil Solarization—A Potential Tool for Organic Growers to Manage Weeds and Improve Soil Health By: Jennifer Parke, Carol Mallory-Smith, Maria Dragila, Brian Hill, Nami Wada, and Clara Weidman, Dept. of Crop and Soil Science and Leonard Coop and Kristine Buckland, Dept. of Horticulture Oregon State University, Corvallis


eed management and soil health are two of the biggest concerns for organic farmers. There are few options for managing weeds other than hand weeding and mechanical cultivation. Hand weeding contributes to the high cost of labor. Cultivation is fuel-intensive, often involves significant soil disturbance (soil inversion practices such as rotary tilling), and is less effective in controlling weeds within rows. Moreover, soil disturbance is linked to a decline in soil health due to a reduction in soil structure and soil organic matter. Meanwhile, growers identified soil health and weed management as the top two priorities nationwide in the 2016 National Organic Research Agenda. Is there a way to manage weeds in organic crops without harming soil health? Results from Oregon State University soil solarization trials on nursery crops may provide some options.

What is Soil Solarization? Soil solarization is a pre-planting technique in which clear plastic is laid over fallow soil to heat it with solar radiation. The increased soil temperatures can kill certain weed seeds and soilborne plant pathogens. Clear plastic allows sunlight to heat soil directly and to trap heat losses from infrared radiation, evaporation, and convection. Some horticultural poly films designed for covering greenhouses are engineered to prevent condensation and to increase the amount of infrared radiation trapped; these types of plastic result in greater soil heating than regular plastic. While soil solarization has been used successfully in Israel, Spain,

and California, where hot, sunny conditions exist for several months each year, less is known about the effectiveness of this technique in the Pacific Northwest where the “window” for solarization is shorter.

"Soil solarization is a pre-planting technique in which clear plastic is laid over fallow soil to heat it with solar radiation." Oregon State University Soil Solarization Trials With Nursery Crops The Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (W-SARE) program and the Western Integrated Pest Management (W-IPM) Center funded projects by Oregon State University to determine the effectiveness of soil solarization for managing weeds and soilborne pathogens in tree seedling nurseries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Solarization trials were conducted in two commercial nurseries, one in Clackamas County, and one in Yamhill County, during the summers of 2016 and 2017. The plastic used was 1.5-mil anti-condensation, infrared-optimized clear plastic (C-790, Ginegar

Continued on Page 14


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Continued from Page 12 Plastics, Inc., Santa Maria, California). Seeds of the tree species in these trials, apple and Mazzard cherry, were sown in the fall following each soil solarization period. Seedlings emerged the following spring, and crop growth was monitored for one growing season before trees were harvested for use as grafting stock or scions. In one experiment, conducted at both sites for both years, beds 4 feet wide x 100 feet long were solarized for six weeks or non-solarized (not covered with plastic) (Figure 1a). There were 3 replicate beds per treatment at each site. Soil temperature and soil moisture at 2 inch and 6 inch depths were monitored throughout the trials, as were solar radiation and air temperature. Any remaining weeds were killed or removed in preparation for planting seeds of Mazzard cherry or apple in the fall. We took fall weed emergence counts six weeks after planting and in the following spring, after the tree seedlings emerged. Data were collected on weed seed packets buried in the beds, soilborne pathogens, soil nutrients, soil microbial communities, and crop parameters (stand density, stem caliper, and height).

Figure 1.a. Soil solarization (July 2017). The middle bed was left uncovered as a nonsolarized control. At the end of the solarization period, all weeds were removed prior to planting in Sept. 2017 with Mazzard cherry seeds.

A second experiment addressed how soil moisture and the duration of solarization affect weed emergence. This experiment was conducted for two years at the Clackamas County nursery. Nursery beds 4 feet wide x 50 feet long were either not solarized, or were solarized for three, six or nine weeks. Initial soil moisture was adjusted with drip irrigation to achieve low, medium, high, or very high soil moisture conditions. There were 4 replicate beds for each duration and soil moisture combination.

Effects of Soil Solarization on Weeds Fall and spring weed emergence were reduced in solarized beds compared to non-solarized beds. In fall, emergence of the most common weeds was


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December 2018/January 2019

Figure 1.b. The same beds in May 2018. Weeds were much more abundant in the non-solarized bed (center) than in the solarized beds.

"Fall and spring weed emergence were reduced in solarized beds compared to non-solarized beds." reduced by soil solarization. These species included annual bluegrass (Poa annua), little bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma), mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum), spring draba (Draba verna), and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). Weeds were then removed by hand from all plots. A similar spectrum of cool season weed species were observed in spring (Figure 1b, Figure 2). In 2018, both nurseries also kept track of time required for crews to hand weed each plot. Data were collected for the growing season (May through August) until the trees were harvested.

Figure 2. Emergence of natural-occurring weeds in November 2016 and May 2017 following soil solarization during summer 2016 and seeding in September.

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Figure 3. Average time required to hand weed 400 sq. ft. beds during May-August 2018. Beds were either not solarized, or were solarized during the summer of 2017.

conditions. Controlled experiments are underway to examine the interaction between soil moisture and temperature on specific weed species as well as plant pathogen species.

Effects of Soil Solarization on Soil Biology

Figure 4. Fall weed emergence in the trial comparing four soil moisture levels and three, six or nine weeks of solarization. Nonsolarized treatments are designated as zero weeks.

Fall Weed Emergence in Moisture x Duration 2016 Trial a

Seedlings 0.25m -2









50 d d










Medium High Soil Moisture


0 wks

3 wks

6 wks

Very High

9 wks

At the Clackamas County location, total season-long hand weeding times in 400 sq. ft. non-solarized plots averaged 53:01 minutes as compared to 24:11 minutes for solarized plots, a reduction of 54 percent. At the Yamhill County nursery, total weeding time was reduced from 15:52 to 7:34 minutes (52 percent) (Figure 3). The effect of soil moisture and the duration of solarization differed between years. Data from 2016 (Figure 4) indicated that at low and medium soil moisture levels, solarization for at least six weeks was required for reducing weed emergence, while with high or very high soil moisture conditions, three weeks was sufficient. These results support other research that weed seeds are more sensitive to heat damage when seeds are moist. In 2017, which was warmer and sunnier than 2016, a threeweek solarization period was sufficient to reduce fall weed emergence regardless of soil moisture level. Variation in initial soil moisture and soil temperatures from year-to-year may explain these differences, but suggest that adequate soil moisture and longer durations help ensure solarization effectiveness under suboptimal


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December 2018/January 2019

We sampled soil before and after soil solarization to determine effects on populations of two soilborne plant pathogens, Pythium spp. and Fusarium oxysporum. Both pathogens contribute to damping-off and root rot diseases for a wide variety of plant species. Solarization eliminated both pathogens from the 2 inch depth, and drastically reduced populations at the 6 inch depth. The 20-24 percent greater stand density observed for apple and Mazzard cherry seedlings in solarized vs. non-solarized plots likely resulted from the reduction in these soilborne pathogen populations. We are also investigating the effects of solarization on other soil microbes. While solarization reduced overall diversity of bacteria and fungi in the top 2 inches, microbe communities at the 6 inch depth were barely impacted. It will take some time to understand the impact of soil solarization on individual components of the soil microbiome, including pathogens as well as beneficial organisms. Interestingly, increases in crop growth (seedling height and/or stem caliper) were generally observed following solarization (Figure 1c, see page 17), suggesting that the net effect of solarizing on the soil microbiome benefited plant growth.

Integration of Soil Solarization With Organic Cropping Systems While solarization’s potential has been demonstrated in nursery crops, this practice has not been applied to a wider range of cropping systems because of a lack of integration with existing crop timing and rotations. The June-August optimal time period for solarization in the Pacific Northwest coincides with the peak growing season for many crops.

Figure 1.c. The same beds in July 2018. Weeds were managed by hand weeding. Crop plant height and stand density were greater in solarized vs. non-solarized treatments.

Even in intense cropping rotations, organic vegetable farms often have fields that are fallow for three to four week periods between crops that could be solarized in mid- to late summer (Table 1, see page 18). Soil solarization after early crops

and before planting late season or overwintering vegetables or fall-planted seed crops is likely to provide weed control during fall, winter, and spring when wet soils make mechanical cultivation unlikely. A small on-farm trial plot installed before planting overwintering vegetables produced such a dramatic

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Table 1. Examples of cropping sequences to include a minimum of 4-week solarization period in July-Aug

Table 1. Examples of cropping sequences to include a minimum four-weeks of soil solarization during July or August.

Year 1 Rotation Jan 1 2

Year 2

Feb Mar Apr May Jun cover crop overwintering kale

3 4 5

Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul


spring-planted veg spring-planted veg spring-planted veg



parsnip SOL SOL SOL

fall-planted crops grown for seed leafy greens



fall planted overwintering crops for fresh market SOL cauliflower cover crop fresh veg SOL fall-planted squash spring-planted veg SOL

spring-planted veg


onions fresh market

Legend fall-planted crops grown for seed: beets, chard, broccoli fall-planted overwintering crop for fresh market spring-planted vegetable crops: arugula, cilantro, fava beans, peas, spinach cover crop fall-planted crops for fresh market SOL solarization period

reduction in weeds, a grower cooperator said, “Wow! I'm convinced! I think I may never sow overwintering root crops without first solarizing the bed. The results are that good.” (Sarah Kleeger, Adaptive Seeds). If adopted, solarization has the potential to increase the profitability and economic sustainability of organic vegetable farms and address the top pest management needs identified by growers. Benefits of soil solarization include reduced labor costs for hand weeding, a reduced need for tillage, which should improve soil quality over the long term, a reduction in soilborne diseases, and improved crop growth. If soil were solarized every few years, we would expect to see a long term reduction in the weed seed bank and the soilborne pathogen population. Plastic mulch offers certain advantages and is allowed in organic crop protection (check with your farm’s certifying officials). It can be reused from greenhouse operations over several years and may be recycled commercially, making efficient use of non-renewable resources. Drawbacks to soil solarization include the initial cost of plastic laying equipment (around $6,000) if the plastic is applied on a large scale, the cost of the plastic itself ($8.74 per 1000 sq. ft. for 1.4-mil thickness) and environmental considerations associated with the manufacture of the plastic.

A Sunny Future To help west coast growers determine the best time to solarize and the length of time necessary for their location, they can access the OSU soil solarization program at soil/solarize. Initially developed to predict soil solarization effects on soilborne Phytophthora spp., additional soilborne


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December 2018/January 2019

"Wow! I'm convinced! I think I may never sow overwintering root crops without first solarizing the bed. The results are that good." pathogens and weed species are being added to the program. Growers will be able to select their target species and available time period to determine the feasibility of solarizing soil for their cropping system. Soil solarization will not solve every weed and pathogen problem, but it offers an alternative management strategy that could be useful in organic cropping systems with a summer fallow period of at least three to four weeks. Soil solarization appears to be an especially good fit for fall-planted crops. For more information, contact

Acknowledgements This work was funded by the Western SARE and the Western IPM Center. Comments about this article? We want to hear from you. Feel free to email us at


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fast uptake and high availability so critical peak nutrient demand timings are not missed, preventing yield drag and quality issues. CLEAN SYMSPRAY – A seaweed based foliar nutrient designed to complement a support plant growth and function. CLEAN Symspray is also an excellent tool to prevent and/or reduce both environmental and physiological stress, leading to higher quality fruit at harvest. CLEAN CALCIUM – An organic foliar calcium designed to increase calcium levels in both tissue and fruit while improving the nitrogen to calcium ratio. Higher calcium levels in the crop helps build stronger more disease tolerant cell walls. Thicker more durable fruit cells generate higher yields, less bruising, less shrinkage and longer shelflife – in short better quality and increased grower returns. CLEAN BIOMAX – A fermentation derived food source for beneficial soil borne bacteria and fungi. Designed to increase nutrient cycling of compost and other organic matter while also maximizing plantavailable nutrients in the rhizosphere. Increasing soil available nutrients is the basis for increased crop quality and higher yields. If you’re looking to increase marketable yield in your organic farm talk to Agro-K today about tailoring a nutrient management program to improve results and deliver higher economic returns.

CLEAN ZN, MG, MN, FE, CU, B – Organic micronutrients - zinc, magnesium, manganese, iron, copper and boron designed for keep white space around the seal equal to 25% the size of the seal

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December 2018/January 2019


Organic farmers are not only challenged by a lack of organic seed sources but a scarcity of information on variety performance under organic conditions. NOVIC’s breeding and variety trial activities are driven by the belief that plants bred under organic conditions have the potential to be better adapted to these production systems. All photos courtesy of Organic Seed Alliance.

Breeding Better Vegetables for Organic Agriculture By: Kristina Hubbard Director of Advocacy & Communications Organic Seed Alliance


hen the National Organic Program (NOP) launched in 2002, there was virtually no organic seed industry. Only a handful of companies sold certified organic seed. The federal organic standards included, for the first time, a requirement for organic operations to use organic seed. The requirement aims to ensure the integrity of organic products starting with this critical first link in the production chain. It was coupled, however, with a necessary exemption to use untreated, non-organic seed when an “equivalent organically produced variety is not commercially available” given the state of the organic seed supply at the time.

More than 15 years have passed and the organic seed sector is no longer a niche


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market but a growing sector of the seed trade. Dozens of companies now participate in the organic seed marketplace, and data from Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) show that organic farmers are using more organic seed than ever before. Still, even with this progress in increasing access and use, organic seed supply gaps remain. Every five years, OSA publishes a “State of Organic Seed” report to monitor organic seed trends and provide recommendations—from research investments to organic seed policy. The long-term goal of the project is to ensure organic farmers have the seed they need to be successful.

December 2018/January 2019

Increasing the availability of organic seed will require more skilled seed producers and more seed companies focused on producing and distributing organic seed. Not discussed nearly enough is the need for more organic plant breeding. Organic plant breeding is the science and practice of developing new varieties in and for organic production systems. This work is often participatory in nature, where farmers, formal plant breeders, and sometimes members of the seed and food industry collaborate on setting breeding priorities and evaluating the results. Participatory plant breeding combines the practical experience of farmers with the technical expertise of formal plant

breeders, resulting in more high-quality organic varieties and more farmers with skills to develop or improve their own varieties. Only a handful of companies focus on breeding crops for organic farming systems. Increasingly the public sector is advancing this area of breeding—and with much success. One example is the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC). For the last eight years, Oregon State University, Cornell University, Washington State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Organic Seed Alliance, have collaborated on multi-regional organic plant breeding projects focused on the needs of growers in the Northern Tier of the U.S. NOVIC’s goals, further described below, are to develop new varieties for organic farms, identify the best performing varieties for organic agriculture through trial networks, and train farmers in organic seed production practices and on-farm plant breeding. The project has furthered a number of breeding goals, including season extension traits in broccoli, carrots, snap peas, sweet corn, and winter squash.

Developing New Vegetable Varieties for Organic Agriculture Organic varieties must meet unique challenges and consumer demands. Organic farmers are not only challenged by a lack of organic seed sources but a scarcity of information on variety performance under organic conditions. NOVIC’s breeding and variety trial activities are driven by the belief that plants bred under organic conditions have the potential to be better adapted to these production systems. Organic farming challenges can be quite different from conventional systems, where synthetic chemicals and nutrient sources are commonly used to control pests, diseases, and plant nutrition. Seed provides the genetic tools to confront these day-to-day challenges in the field, and breeding plants in the environment of their intended use benefits this process.

Farmers are intimately involved with conducting NOVIC trials to identify which varieties on the market already perform well under organic conditions and which ones are in need of improvement, either for variety integrity maintenance or to use in new breeding projects.

NOVIC is working with more than 30 organic growers in four states to increase access to improved varieties. These varieties are being adapted to organic systems and meet the need for critical production traits, such as disease resistance, as well as nutrition and flavor characteristics. Some examples of current NOVIC projects focused on key traits with the goal of providing improved varieties to organic growers include: Bell pepper: Early, high yielding blocky red types with great flavor. Purple cabbage: Exceptional color, flavor, and field holding and storage capacity. Sweet corn: Early maturing hybrid and open-pollinated varieties. Tomato: Late blight resistant and adapted to the Pacific Northwest. Winter squash: Short season, disease resistant acorn and delicata types. Each region also chooses an additional crop to prioritize based on farmer input. For example, in New York growers are working with breeders to improve leek varieties with better storage capacity;

December 2018/January 2019

in Oregon, partners are focused on year-round production of fennel; and in Wisconsin, partners are selecting for a larger leaf surface area in lacinato kale types. The project provides an excellent example of collaborative research in the public sector that is responding to the organic seed needs of farmers both regionally and nationally. The collaboration allows multiple partners to leverage each other’s expertise in addition to the environmental conditions and climates in their respective regions. For example, a variety coming out of NOVIC, ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ sweet corn, which is now available commercially and grown in 40 states, was developed by UW-Madison in partnership with an organic farmer in Minnesota (see page 22). Following its commercial release, NOVIC partners began work to adapt the variety to even more targeted regions: the cooler, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest and the hotter, drier conditions in Montana. Farmers in these regions are working with breeders involved in NOVIC to take that improved material and further adapt it to their specific needs. Many more farmers will benefit from these ongoing selections taking place once the projects are complete and an improved variety is available. NOVIC has supported the release of 10 additional


varieties of four crops, and an additional 12 varieties of seven crops are in the pipeline. In this way NOVIC is delivering varieties that are better adapted to changing climates, resource availability, and environmental conditions to help mitigate these risks for farmers and the food supplies they serve. Adaptation is key to achieving resilience in our food and agricultural system. This resiliency is longer lasting when more organic farmers have the skills to further adapt and improve plant genetics through seed saving and on-farm breeding, which is why NOVIC emphasizes farmer education as a project goal.

Conducting Variety Trials in Partnership with Organic Farmers NOVIC project partners at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Organic Seed Alliance collaborated with organic farmers to breed this sweet corn variety for organic systems. Following its commercial release, NOVIC partners began work to adapt the variety to even more targeted regions: the cooler, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest and the hotter, drier conditions in Montana.

NOVIC is breeding winter squash for short season growing and disease resistance.


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December 2018/January 2019

Farmer involvement is important to NOVIC achieving its goals beyond having input on crop improvement priorities for organic agriculture. Farmers are also intimately involved with conducting trials to identify which varieties on the market already perform well under organic conditions and which ones are in need of improvement, either for variety integrity maintenance or to use in new breeding projects. These variety trial results inform the breeding work of NOVIC and also provide useful data to farmers as to which varieties perform best in their region under organic conditions. The NOVIC team uses the mother-daughter trial method in each region to conduct replicated trials, while, at the same time, several single reps are grown at regional commercial organic farms. The variety trial component of the project is critical for helping the team identify commercial varieties and new breeding lines that are productive, stable, and resilient in organic systems. By partnering with farmers, new breeding lines are tested in the diverse, real-world environments of the farming systems in each region. Having data sets from multiple farms and regions is necessary for helping the breeding team understand how varieties perform in different environments.

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Over the course of eight years, the NOVIC team has hosted 80 events or presentations in 20 states. Some of these events have focused on regional field days to showcase variety trial results with farmers, researchers, students, chefs, certifiers, and seed industry professionals. Other events have focused on formal courses for farmers and agricultural students to learn the basics of seed production and on-farm plant breeding.

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NOVIC has also trained more than a dozen graduate students in organic plant breeding, variety trials, and seed research. Several of these students are now working in the organic seed industry or in the public sector.

The Future of Organic Research Is Bright NOVIC is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), a program that is reauthorized as part of the farm bill. Thankfully NOVIC received its second renewal in 2018, meaning it will be funded for another four years. Twelve consecutive years of funding for a plant breeding project is critical, since it takes several years to breed new varieties. Organic plant breeding relies heavily on OREI, which is why the passage of a new farm bill in December 2018 was so critical for organic research. When the last bill expired on September 30, 2018, OREI and other critical programs were left unauthorized and unfunded.


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Thankfully, not only did Congress reauthorize OREI in the 2018 farm bill, they more than doubled the amount of funding available for this program. Over the course of the next farm bill, OREI funding will increase from $20 million in 2019 to $50 million by 2023. The importance of these research dollars to the growth and success of organic agriculture cannot be overstated.


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True Soil Balance— How Can You Tell?

To learn more about NOVIC, go to Learn more about the work of Organic Seed Alliance at

By: Neal Kinsey, President of Kinsey Agricultural Services


hould organic growing be based on supplying nutrients by guess and assuming so long as it is organic adding it to the soil will surely be the right thing to do. Finding some avenue or approach that can be counted upon to provide accurate information concerning nutrient needs for every obvious difference in each field is important for proper fertility management. This is one of the greatest errors made by organic growers. Growers cannot accurately manage what they cannot accurately measure! Rather than helping to increase the nutritional value of plants, adding too much of anything can adversely affect nutrient values. Failure to understand or believe there is an accurate way to measure these results, too many are hurting, not helping, the quality and value of organically grown foods. Just keep in mind that the nutrient holding capacity of every soil is always filled to capacity. What this means is that every time there is too much of one element added to the soil, this will always cause there to be too little of something else that is needed for the plants to do their best there.

Accurate Nutrient Analysis From working with organic farmers and growers since 1973 to build up and improve their soils, there are ways to tell when indiscriminate compost, lime or fertilizer applications become a problem. The real need is some type of analysis or indication that can accurately reflect the consequences before they actually happen. In most cases, the damage to nutritional values has already been done beforehand, because without a way to detect them these problems only become evident after the fact. This is one very important reason for growers to find and utilize an accurate method for nutrient analysis.

Continued on Page 26

Compost can be good or bad for organic growing depending on whether the soil can safely tolerate what the compost contains. All photos courtesy of Neal Kinsey.


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December 2018/January 2019

December 2018/January 2019


Continued from Page 24 Without a proven program to indicate what the soil does and does not need, consider what can happen. So many organic growers and consultants talk about balanced soil nutrition, but how many can even define what it is? And of those who know how to define it, how many actually know the steps necessary to achieve such balance? And of those

"For every negatively charged clay or humus particle, there is always a positively charged ion of some nutrient attached to each one." who initially strive to achieve such balance, once it is attained, how many know how to determine the needs and the means to correctly maintain it from year to year? Without an accurate way to test for soil needs and knowing how to properly interpret such tests, balanced soil nutrition is only another empty value with little or no real meaning. Perhaps that is why so many who are considered as authorities in soil fertility insist that there is no such thing as soil balance to provide for better crops.

What is Balanced Soil Nutrition? What is balanced soil nutrition? To answer that again consider that the soil’s nutrient holding capacity is always completely filled to capacity. For every negatively charged clay or humus particle, there is always a positively charged ion of some nutrient attached to each one. The only way to remove an ion from the clay or humus is by a trade-off for some other one to take its place. So every time something is taken away, the soil will receive something else to replace it. Because soils work in this way, when


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any soil has too much of one element it will also have too little of some other element. When each individual soil has the proper percentage of each nutrient present, only then will that soil have the correct nutritional balance and provide such to the crop being grown there. There is a set amount of each nutrient that is needed for every different soil to do its best. (The model is the average nutrient make-up of what is known as the soil’s colloidal humus content, which represents the average nutrient make-up from the complete decomposition of all living things.) That amount is based on the percentage of each nutrient required and the pounds per acre or kilo’s per hectare are only of value in helping us to achieve the proper percentage of each positively charged nutrient present for uptake and use by growing plants.

Nutritional Imbalance There is a warning sign that will become evident when a nutritional imbalance becomes severe. It is when what is growing there, even though produced organically, begins to give off a bitter taste. Extremely bitter cucumbers, squash, turnips or even broccoli are good indicators that something is wrong with the nutrient balance in that soil. When this type of problem becomes evident, something needs to be done. Extremely high levels of phosphate or potassium (K) are the two most common causes of bitter tasting vegetables. But the soil already has too much of one or both of these long before a bitter taste in the produce becomes evident. This type of problem is not just on farms where growers use too much of some type of commercial fertilizer. It can also result where too much compost or manure is applied to the soil when that causes potassium or phosphate levels to rise excessively. For example, when over 7.5 percent of the soil’s nutrient holding capacity is saturated with potassium that excess begins to tie up available boron. Boron

December 2018/January 2019

in the form plants need is easily leached out of the soil. Most soils already measure low to deficient in boron. Even soils with 5.0 percent humus or better still tend to be low in boron if there is no program designed to measure and maintain it. Unless a sufficient amount is being added back to supply what plants need to grow properly whatever is grown there will be deficient in boron. When the soil saturation of potassium totals 7.5 percent or higher this just causes any boron deficiency to become worse. Plants need boron from the time they begin to grow in order to properly utilize nitrogen from the soil. This can adversely affect our food by reducing the protein value. Furthermore, boron takes the starch out of the leaf and places it in the seed. Without boron, the size of the seed is smaller and the boron content is lower. Boron is necessary to fight rust and fungus diseases in plants and inflammation in animals and humans. This lack is already the case long before the normally “good tasting” produce begins to take on a bitter taste. However, once the potassium saturation itself, or in combination with the sodium (Na) saturation totals 10 percent,

"Boron is necessary to fight rust and fungus diseases in plants and inflammation in animals and humans." there is an additional problem it will cause. Even when the soil tests good to excellent in manganese, the plants growing there will not be able to take up a sufficient amount. It is not correct to say that soils showing adequate manganese actually has it tied up or unavailable. Because when those levels are there and the potassium and/or sodium

Continued on Page 28

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December 2018/January 2019


Continued from Page 26 levels are not excessive the plants will take up sufficient amounts of manganese. It is the extreme excesses that are causing the problem. In such cases, the extreme saturations of K and Na are blocking manganese uptake. Solve that problem and the plants will no longer suffer from too little manganese where an adequate level has been attained. An excess of phosphate has an entirely different effect on plant growth. Excessive phosphate ties up zinc availability in the soil. Zinc is necessary for moisture absorption into the plants. When this happens, plants become more inefficient at taking up moisture, and it requires more water to grow the same tonnage of produce. Conversely, soils with extremely high zinc levels affect phosphate

availability. To balance the uptake of both for optimal nutritional values, soils should be built up by the same rate at the same time. When soils have barely enough phosphate, zinc levels should not be overdone and vice versa. This can happen at times when large amounts of bone meal has been used for organic fertilizer. In most cases it is an excess of phosphate rather than zinc that causes the greatest amount of problems. Using large amounts of manure or compost over a short period of time or moderate amounts of compost or manure over longer periods of time tend to be where the problems occur most. It is not unusual to find many organic gardens or fields with extremely excessive phosphate levels and deficient to very low zinc levels. Zinc deficiency takes its toll by being short already in many soils, but extremely high phosphate levels that are very common in many soils where vegetable and tree crops are grown make the problem even worse.

Atherosclerosis Atherosclerosis which causes atheromatous plaque to be deposited on the inner walls of large and medium-sized arteries is associated with zinc deficiency. A lack of zinc is also associated with slower growth, skin problems and prostate problems. An adequate level of zinc speeds up healing, increases immune system function, enables better taste, promotes sexual development and sustains male fertility. So when you consider what a lack of zinc in our diet can cause, and that problem can be caused by excessive phosphate in the soil, again, it is very important to be able to know what the levels of both should be in each soil.

Finding Balance Using potassium and phosphate as examples here helps to show what too many organic growers tend to ignore or never learn in the first place. When there is too much of any one element

Continued on Page 30


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December 2018/January 2019


Continued from Page 28 in the soil there will always be too little of something else. But the opposite is also true, when there is too little of any nutrient in the soil, there will always be too much of something else that is there as a detriment to the plant and those who consume those plants. Therefore, until the ability to measure and determine what those levels need to be can be defined, it is impossible to have balanced nutrients in any soil. This is the true meaning of balanced nutrition— when the soil where our food is grown has a sufficient amount of each nutrient so as to supply what is produced there with the nutrients we need for the best health, without restricting the availability of other nutrient requirements at the same time. When used to supply actual needs, compost is a great help, but if a compost has a significant amount of some nutrient the soil does not need, then that compost will eventually cause a problem. It may not hurt yield in the beginning, but adding what is not needed to a soil will restrict the uptake of other nutrients that are needed by the crop. So the use of compost alone cannot always accomplish supplying what a soil really needs to do its best. The same is true for cover crops or applying live microbes. The answers are not just considering the use of adequate amounts of certain humates or rock dusts. The truth is, the differences in fertility levels are so great from one soil to

Keeping the soil covered at all times provides multiple benefits for the soil.

another that there is likely nothing that when used alone will normally do all that is necessary to correct the nutritional needs of each individual soil. To supply the proper type of needed fertility, only soundly based testing and measured applications specifically provided to supply the needs and control the excesses in each different type of soil will work to grow the most nutritious crops.

You Can’t Manage What You Can’t Measure You cannot manage what you cannot measure. But with so many different

types of testing methods, how can it be determined whether or not the answers provided on the test are actually the right answers? And even with the most accurate soil test, someone has to interpret what the numbers mean. How is it possible to tell who knows what they are talking about and who does not? There are ways to determine which test or tests can be useful and the value of the information that is provided by those who strive to interpret those tests. For those who intend to grow highly nutritious, nutrient dense foods, these are crucial considerations that need to be correctly answered. Soil balancing is in reality both possible and needed, and by using the correct tools, each grower can prove the truth of it by actual personal experience. Neal Kinsey is owner and President of Kinsey Agricultural Services, a consulting firm that specializes in restoring and maintaining balanced soil fertility for attaining excellent yields while growing highly nutritious food and feed crops on the land. Call 573 683-3880 or see www. for more information.

Dense planting requires even larger amounts of nutrients to maintain soil balance.


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December 2018/January 2019


Maintaining Farm Tools and Equipment in Organic Production

By: Andy Pressman, Northeast Regional Director, National Center for Appropriate Technology

The more machinery you have on the farm, the more you have to maintain! All photos courtesy of Andy Pressman, NCAT.


s winter is quickly approaching for many parts of the country, organic farmers are not only hustling to get their tools and equipment stored away for the off-season, but we are also reminded of the importance of properly maintaining them and preparing them for the winter months. The cold and snow always seems to hit before we have fully prepared and properly winterized farm tools and equipment. Winterization not only helps in preserving the life of the tool, but also makes for less work in the spring. Once these tasks are achieved, farmers can spend time during the winter months evaluating current production systems and cross-referencing them against our equipment inventories. This allows us to see where the weak links are in our systems and gives us time to look at how utilizing new pieces of equipment can better help us in managing towards our farm goals.


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Keeping farm tools and equipment clean, sharp, and well maintained can extend the life of the tool. Well maintained tools can be used more effectively, efficiently, and safely, and in some cases, cause less wear on the user’s body. All these aspects can have an impact on a farm’s operating budget. Therefore, allocating labor hours in the farm’s budget for routine maintenance and weatherization should have a return on the investment and thus improve the farm’s bottom line. The importance of maintaining tools and equipment in organic farming cannot be underestimated, especially as it can impact a farm’s organic certification status. There are no explicit standards for cleaning and maintaining equipment written in the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. However, farmers’ must be aware of their cleaning, main-

Continued on Page 36

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Continued from Page 34 tenance, and storage protocols. Organic certifiers do pay attention to certain NOP standards for guidance on practices for maintaining farm equipment. The standards often followed by certifiers address commingling and contamination, recordkeeping, and the use of allowed substances, many of which have restrictions on their use so as to not come in contact with an organic product.

Keeping Hand Tools Clean and Sharp Increases Performance While many farmers are aware of the benefits of maintaining hand tools during and after each use in the field, improperly storing a hand tool for long periods of time can greatly reduce the life of the tool. Hosing off soil and debris from the tool after each use minimizes opportunities for rust to establish on the heads of steel tools. This is especially important for tools with keen edges as rust can eat away at the edge. As musician and farmer advocate Neil Young points out, “Rust Never Sleeps.” Cleaning tools after each use also helps prevent disease, fungi, pest eggs, and weed seeds from spreading throughout the farm. A hard bristle brush and a little elbow grease may be needed to remove moisture-filled soils that are not removed from the head when spraying the tool with a hose. The tool should be dry before being stored. Tools that have been washed and dried are still susceptible to oxidation. Applying a light coat of certain types of oils to steel heads can reduce rust from forming and even preserve a wood handle when applied. Boiled linseed oil is commonly used for tool preservation and while it is not actually boiled, A diamond hoe lays flat on the soil surface and cuts in both directions.


Organic Farmer

December 2018/January 2019

it is chemically modified to shorten the time it takes the oil to dry. As stated above, there are no specific NOP standards regulating the use of certain products for cleaning and maintaining tools, so it is best to check with your certifier prior to applying any oil to a tool to not jeopardize one’s certification. The organic certifier may require that the use of a product applied to a tool be listed in the organic system plan (OSP). Rust that forms on a tool can be removed through several techniques. For tools that are frequently used, contact with the soil alone may do the trick. Otherwise, using a sheet of course sandpaper or a wire brush can be adequate for removing rust. In more difficult situations, a drill fitted with a wire brush attachment can be used. Eye protection should always be worn when using any type of wire brush as rust particles fly off the tool during the removal process. After the rust is removed, then apply a coat of oil to protect the tool from further oxidation. The effectiveness of a high-quality tool is dependent upon the sharpness of the blade. In some cases, a dull edge can reduce production efficiency by up to 50 percent (Coleman 1995). For soil preparation and cultivation tools, such as spades and hoes, a mill file with a bastard cut or a stone can be used depending on the type of steel. I prefer using a sharpening stone on spring and chrome steel blades while forged steel blades tend to do well sharpened with a file. Keep in mind that the harder the steel, the more likely it is to keep its edge. When sharpening with a file, draw the cutting teeth up and over the edge so that no notches form. Sharpening with a stone also involves drawing in one direction across the tools beveled edge. The bevel on a hoe is an indication of the angle the blade is intended to be in relation to the soil surface.

Continued on Page 38 A sharpening stone (top) and a mill file with a bastard cut (bottom).


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Continued from Page 36 Battered tools that have seen their fair share of rocky soils may need to be grinded. In these circumstances, electric bench grinder’s work well in creating exact edges, but it is important to note that high-speed grinding heats up the steel. Overheating the steel can compromise the hardness of the steel so that the sharpness of the edge does not hold for very long. Keeping the steel “cool-tothe-touch” makes for a slow process, but it will prevent the surface from losing its temper (or hardness) which can also be aided by periodically immersing the blade in water while following with the rust prevention techniques mentioned above. If the steel is too hot when it is immersed in water, the molecular structure of the steel can be “locked in” to a softer state, which effectively ruins the tool. For some tools, such as certain stirrup and collinear hoes, the blades can be replaced if they are worn beyond repair.

one of the most expensive investments on the farm. Their performance and value depend upon regular and seasonal maintenance in order to prevent problems that can and will occur. Even if the problems that may arise are inexpensive to fix, they create an inconvenience, particularly during the critical time of need. Pre- and post-use maintenance results in energy efficiency, safety, and care for the investment. Additionally, it supports the more holistic approach that organic farmers work to cultivate.

Whether your equipment was purchased new or used, the importance of having a manual cannot be overstated. Manuals for older pieces of equipment can be found online, at farm equipment dealers, farm auctions, and numerous other places. Their purchase price may be shocking at first, but they will save you time and money immediately as they provide instructions for safely operating and maintaining each piece of equipment. For newer models, they will Properly storing a tool can prevent dam- also cover any warranty issues you may age to a sharpened edge and from rust have covered with the purchase. forming. Keeping tools under cover, off the ground, and hung upright not only Anyone on the farm who will be oppreserves the tool, but also makes things erating machinery should be familiar safer around the farm. with the manual and standard operating procedures. Additionally, each piece Machinery Maintenance of equipment should have a service and Storage checklist and log to account for its maintenance, cleaning, and use. This Tractors and farm machinery represent documentation adheres to the NOP

recordkeeping standard [§205.103(b) (4)] and demonstrates to the organic inspector that the requirements have been met. The checklists to the right are geared towards each individual use of a tractor. All other maintenance, such as lubrication and changing the oil and filter should be performed as specified in the manual. Implement performance can be affected by poorly lubricated bearings, dull blades, and loose drive belts. Implement maintenance varies depending on the implement, however, some general guidelines include: •Clean implement (especially ensuring the integrity of organic products in that residues from non-organic products and prohibited substances are removed) •Visually inspect implements •Check tire pressure (when applicable) •Check that moving parts are turning freely and adjusted properly •Check and tighten nuts and bolts •Replace worn blades (including disks, chisel points, shovels, sweeps, knives, etc.) •Level implement and adjust depth •Lubricate as per manufacturer's recommendations

Winter Preparation for Machinery

Properly hung tools helps to preserve the integrity of the tool while also making things safer around the farm. Photo: Heifer Ranch, AR.


Organic Farmer

December 2018/January 2019

Preparing your farm machinery for storage during the off-season will not only keep your equipment running longer, but it will also create less headaches for you come spring. This is particularly true if the equipment can be stored and protected from harsh weather conditions. The procedures that are followed for routine maintenance will also most likely be applied here, such as changing fluids and filters, but there are some additional considerations as well. They include the removal and proper storage of the battery; disengaging the clutch (by pushing the

Tractor Maintenance Checklist: Pre-Use ✓Visually inspect tractor for leaks and damage ✓Check fluid levels and top up as needed ✓Inspect air pressure in tires ✓Check attachment points and positioning of implements ✓Fasten seatbelt if tractor is equipped with a Rollover Protective Structure (ROPS) ✓Start tractor and disengage parking break

Tractor Maintenance Checklist: Post-Use ✓Turn off tractor and set parking break ✓Release hydraulic pressure by moving three-point hitch lever and loader joystick around a few times ✓Clean off tractor with blow gun on air compressor (including screens on cowling and radiator, radiator fins, and around oil and hy-tran dipsticks) ✓Fill fuel tank to prevent moisture build-up in the fuel tank ✓Visually inspect tractor for leaks and damage

clutch pedal in) to reduce moisture and rust from settling on the gear shafts; and even jacking the tires up off of the ground to prevent wheel rot. In addition, the fuel tank should either be drained or filled completely. If the fuel tank is filled, consider adding a fuel stabilizer to help with the combustibility of the fuel, especially if the engine is going to sit idle for long periods of time.

Tool and Equipment Evaluation and Looking Ahead Now that the soil is resting and your tools and equipment are stored properly for the winter, the off season is a good time to reflect on the past season and to explore potential changes that will improve your systems. This includes identifying where the weak links are within the system(s) as well as being honest as to whether or not a new tool on the farm is more of a need or a want.



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Some Key Considerations to Evaluate Include: •Does the investment fit within the context of your wholefarm and organic systems plan? •Is the tool being considered appropriate for your current scale of production as well as future growth? •How will a new tool or piece of equipment impact labor costs on your farm? Continued on Page 40

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Continued from Page 39 •What will it cost to own and operate? •Is it easy to find parts, maintain, and repair? •Is the tool ergonomically designed to fit the body or is the machinery safe to operate? •Who will be using it and how comfortable are you or your staff using it? •What are your other options? Doing research and talking with other farmers, especially if they have experience with the tool you are considering, is important. Be specific in learning about how well a tool works on your soils as well as any potential limitations it may have. Think about how often you will be using the tool and whether or not you need to own it. Some tools are very specialized and are used on a limited basis.

Summary How we treat our tools and equipment is often a reflection on how we operate our farms. Properly maintaining tools

The author teaching a beginning farmer on how to properly and safely operate a walk-behind tractor that she was considering for her farm. Photo: NCAT

and equipment can affect production performance as well as a farm’s financial well-being. Having a manual and standard operating procedures will provide the necessary information needed for safely operating and maintaining farm equipment and will help in preventing any issues that may jeopardize a farm’s organic certification.

This tractor could use a little TLC after use.

*Some portions of this article are adapted from the ATTRA Program’s publication Equipment and Tools for Small-Scale Intensive Crop Production, written by Andy Pressman. The publication is available at: https://attra.ncat. org/product/equipment-tools-for-smallscale-intensive-crop-production/ or by calling the ATTRA Hotline at (800) 346-9140. Andy Pressman is an Agriculture Specialist and Director of the Northeast Regional Office for the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and the ATTRA Program. He has a background in small-scale intensive farming systems and he works in the fields of organic crop production, tools and equipment for the small farm, and whole-farm planning. Andy lives in southern New Hampshire where he and his family also operate Foggy Hill Farm, a small, diversified farm and CSA.

Reference Coleman, Eliot. 1995. The New Organic Grower. 1995. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Comments about this article? We want to hear from you. Feel free to email us at


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December 2018/January 2019

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Organic Apple Production is on the Rise By: Cecilia Parsons |Associate Editor

Organic apples. Photo courtesy of Gowan Apples.


erfection in organically grown apples must be achieved on two fronts: in the orchard and in cold storage.

Holding organic apples in cold storage for short-term storage and in a controlled atmosphere for longer periods of time presents some challenges not found in conventionally grown fruit. In controlled atmosphere storage fruit ripening is slowed. The storage rooms are airtight and oxygen levels are reduced to 1-2 percent. With conventional production an ethylene blocking chemical known as MCP can maintain fruit quality in storage by preventing ethylene from binding to the ethylene receptors in the apples.

Cold Storage for Organic Apples Since MCP is not approved for use in an organic system, the organic apple industry has had to work on perfecting a cold storage system that uses close monitoring of oxygen levels in


Organic Farmer

the storage facility, management skills and choosing the right lots of apples for storage. Jim McFerson, director for Washington State University’s (WSU) Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center said controlled atmosphere storage for organically grown apples relies on a low oxygen levels and introduction of nitrogen to keep the fruit from transpiring, causing it to become soft and mealy over time. With good management, the proper storage facility and careful selection of the lot of apples to be stored, the nutritional value remains and the taste—‘is darn close to fresh.”

for storage, good orchard management is essential. Controlling post harvest fungal diseases including Pennicilium and botrytis will extend the storage of apples. Infections begin in the orchard, McFerson explained, and fungi growing on the apples will destroy a lot of fruit while in storage. Conventional growers use fungicides to suppress post harvest diseases. In organic production, sanitation is part of the control strategy in the orchard and at the packing house. Clean bins, liners and packing lines can help control the spread of pathogens that cause fruit to decay.

McFerson said organically grown fruit that is not quite mature physiologically is the best bet for cold storage. Some varieties are better suited to storage. Fuji, Cripps Pink and new WSU releases Cosmic Crisp and WA-2 are better suited for storage. WA-2, he said, improves with storage.


Orchard Management In addition to the cultivar suitability

December 2018/January 2019

At the packinghouse, organic apples are received after dump tanks and lines are cleaned. Biodegradable soaps are used and naturally derived citric and acetic acid may be used to remove calcium deposits on fruit. Waxes are not generally used. Mold-inhibiting products approved for organic production are allowed. David Granatstein, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, Emeritus at WSU

said the trend in organic apple production in Washington has been up strongly in the past two to three years, with 22,116 certified organic acres of apples at the end of 2017 and 5,244 acres in the three-year transition period. Granatstein said he expects the growth to level off going forward, continuing a pattern that has held over four cycles. Presently the two main varieties grown organically are Gala and Fuji. Honeycrisp is now third in popularity, Granatstein said, and acres are increasing rapidly. Apple varieties differ in conditions needed for storage. WSU researchers have been developing specific recommendations to preserve fruit quality and extend storage life. Honeycrisp is one example of the different needs as it has a higher starch level than other varieties and may need a preconditioning period prior to regular cold or controlled atmosphere storage.

Organic in the Orchard Organic apple production shares many of the same challenges as other organic systems in the field. Weed suppression and achieving optimum fertilization require attention and a system-wide strategy. McFerson said weed suppression in organic apple production in Washington is mainly done with mechanical cultivation. In high-density trellis systems cultivation equipment is used to remove weeds from along the tree row. Cover crops are commonly used in the drive rows. There are several choices in equipment used for mechanical cultivation, he said, but multiple passes are needed and the equipment can damage trees. Mulches for organic production can be used for weed suppression, but McFerson said they are difficult to obtain and can harbor rodent pests during the winter. Flame weeding or approved herbicides can work if weeds are small, but applications need to be repeated and may not be cost effective. Acording to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, apple trees are not heavy feeders and fertilizer

needs can often be met by decomposing mulches, compost applications and foliar feeding. McFerson warned that nitrogen could cause problems with excessive vegetative growth at the expense of fruit production. It can also make the trees more susceptible to fire blight— the chief disease issue in Washington organic apple production. Use of compost as a source of nitrogen and other necessary macronutrients is possible, McFerson said, but it is important to know the composition of the compost and make sure it is balanced.

Disease Challenges Fire blight and replant disease are two disease challenges in organic apple production in Washington. There are no organic treatments, Mcferson said, but research on anaerobic soil disinfestation continues. A common practice is to use a commercial fumigant on the ground before planting trees and transition to organic. Sulfur and copper-based fungicides and bactericides are used to control diseases, but they must be on plant surfaces and remain dry to have an effect. Cultural techniques for managing disease includes opening up trees with pruning to promote faster drying after rain events. Removal of infected wood can reduce the amount of inoculum in the orchard. Coddling moth (CM), the number one pest in organic apple production in Washington is being successfully controlled with mating disruption, McFerson said. A combination of mating disruption, application of CM viruses, oil and timing of sprays for coddling moth control helps preserve production and fruit quality.

California Production California is not a big apple producing state, but in the 2016 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey, reported that 177 farms produced 48,298,439 pounds of organically grown apples. Fuji and Gala varieties made up most of the state’s production.

December 2018/January 2019

One of those farms, Gowan’s, in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, is celebrating its 142nd year of apple harvest this year. Their fresh fruit sales are limited and local, but the heirloom ciders made from their apples, are known internationally. Their first orchards were certified organic in 2011 and currently about 25 percent of their orchards are organic. Don Gowan said they expect to more than double their organic production next year as more ground is transitioned. In an area where wine grapes predominate and apple production can’t compete price-wise, Gowan said the value of organic apples for cider is spurring their production. Organic apples are comanding double the price of conventionally produced apples at the processors, he said. Their biggest production question going forward will be supplying fertilizer needs for their organic production. Depending on growing conditions, apples are not heavy users of nitrogen fertilizer. Gowan said they will have to supply nutrient needs in the long term. Other cultural practices include mowing to control weeds in the orchards and use of mating disruption to control coddling moth. Gowan’s grow more than 84 varieties of apples including Sierra Beauty which was recognized as one of the top cider-producing apples in international cider competition. Their apples do not have to be perfect in appearance, but need to provide optimum flavor. The many varieties give them a longer harvest window. They were selected, Sharon Gowan said, for their suitability to growing conditions and flavor. “We find apples that like our dirt and microclimate,” she said. Comments about this article? We want to hear from you. Feel free to email us at




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Organic Farmer

December 2018/January 2019


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