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Private Grant Will Support New UC California Organic Institute

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A $1 million endowment will establish the University of California’s first institute for organic research and education within the UC’s Agriculture and Natural Resources division (UC ANR), expanding the UC Cooperative Extension’s research and outreach capacity to target organic growers in California.

The California Organic Institute will accelerate the development and adoption of effective tools and practices for organic farmers and those transitioning to organic by building on the capabilities of UC ANR’s Cooperative Extension and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Although organic is the fastest growing sector of the food economy, funding for research has lagged far behind support for conventional agriculture, according to a recent UC release on the announcement. Farmers interested in transitioning to organic or improving performance of their organic systems often lack the guidance they need to succeed.

Funding comes from a $500,000 endowment gift from Clif Bar & Company and $500,000 in matching funds from UC President Janet Napolitano. Recruitment for an institute director will begin in early 2020, with a search committee including industry representatives and partners. The director will work with a permanent advisory committee, Clif Bar, and UC ANR to launch the institute and recruit additional like-minded partners to support its long-term success. Once the director is selected a decision will be made on the location of the Organic Institute.

“California’s organic farmers already benefit from UC ANR’s pest management, irrigation and crop production research, and this partnership with Clif Bar will give UC more capacity to focus on challenges specific to organic farming,” said Glenda Humiston, UC vice president of agriculture and natural resources. “UC Cooperative Extension advisors work directly with farmers throughout the state so new organic farming techniques can be applied quickly.”

The California Organic Institute is Clif Bar’s third organic research endowment and the first in its home state of California, where the company sources several key organic ingredients. California has the most organic farms in the country. California’s nearly 3,000 certified organic farms grow crops on land that represents one-fifth of all U.S. certified organic land.

“The California Organic Institute will serve many of the organic producers we depend on for ingredients like almonds and figs, as well as farmers outside our supply chain,” said Lynn Ineson, vice president of Sustainable Sourcing for Clif Bar. “We recognize that the future of our food company depends on the ecological and economic success of organic and transitioning farmers.”

Ultimately, with the support of UC ANR and a constellation of partners, the California Organic Institute will be in a strong position to increase the performance of organic farming for improved stewardship of natural resources, the economic well-being of rural communities, and greater stability for the next generation of California farmers.

UC Agriculture and Natural Resources brings the power of UC research in agriculture, natural resources, nutrition and youth development to local communities to improve the lives of all Californians. UC ANR is a statewide network of UC researchers and educators who create, develop and extend knowledge on agricultural and natural resource management, youth development, family and consumer sciences, community and economic development, STEM and more. UC ANR collaborates with private and public stakeholders in all 58 counties. Clif Bar & Company is California-based manufacturer of organic foods and drinks, including CLIF® Bar energy bar and related family of products.

UC Davis Students Breed New Bean Varieties for Organic Farming

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Graduate students at the University of California, Davis are making very rare commodity available to organic growers: high-yield, disease-resistant bean varieties that can thrive on organic farms.

A half-dozen new dry bean varieties that were bred at the University of California, Davis to be disease-resistant, hearty and high-yielding are now or soon to be available for commercial production. And, because they were developed through traditional breeding techniques, they are suitable for organic production.

“Most crops—about 95 percent—have been bred for conventional farming and can be difficult to grow in organic systems,” said Travis Parker, a doctoral student in plant biology who is leading the project. “These new bean varieties could make a big difference in performance and profitability of organic legumes like pinto, black and kidney beans, as well as heirloom-like varieties with high culinary quality.”

There are five new bean varieties being released now, and one that is going to get an additional year of testing. All have resistance to bean common mosaic virus and improved yields. They have been in field trials the past two years in growing regions throughout California should be well adapted to conditions across the Western U.S., Parker said.

UC Davis doctoral candidate Travis Parker
leads a student-run project to breed beans for
organic production.

“Bean common mosaic virus slows down a plant’s growth rate in general and causes a lot of problems that growers sometimes attribute to other pressures, like insect pests,” Parker said. “And the virus is more prevalent than people may realize. Many growers have it and may not know it.”

In addition, many of the varieties have shorter growing seasons than currently available varieties, some as low as 85 days instead of the more typical 110.

Here are the new varieties and the yield increases the UC Davis team measured over currently available varieties:

  • UC Sunrise, similar to Zuni Gold and Anasazi, 56% yield increase
  • UC Southwest Red, similar to Anasazi, 87% yield increase
  • UC Tiger’s Eye, similar to Tiger’s Eye, 55% yield increase
  • UC Rio Zape, similar to Rio Zape, 16% yield increase
  • UC Southwest Gold, similar to Zuni Gold, 47% yield increase

Parker’s team received a $25,000 grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Parker has been working with a team of student breeders under the guidance of Professor Paul Gepts, a bean geneticist with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. The bean project is part of a larger plant-breeding effort to develop new varieties of tomatoes, peppers, beans and other vegetable crops that can flourish in both organic and conventional systems.

Varieties to Combat Virus and Weed Pressures

Legumes are nutritious and especially important to sustainable agriculture. They contain symbiotic bacteria in their roots that produce nitrogen compounds, which feed the crop and enrich the soil even after harvest.

“That’s why beans are so useful in rotation with other crops,” Parker said. “Plus, dry beans have a long shelf life so farmers can store them and sell them according to market conditions.”

But conventionally bred beans can present a challenge for organic farmers. With limited use of herbicides, organic farmers have trouble controlling the weeds that battle young crops for water, sun and food.

To address that, Parker and his team are breeding fast-growing plants that can outcompete weeds. The new varieties grow tall enough to shade out weeds without tipping over to make it easier for organic and conventional farmers to use tractors to mechanically control weeds.

Funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the UC Davis Plant Breeding Center project is working with the Organic Seed Alliance and organic growers in California to set priorities and develop new crop varieties. Students are leading the project as part of the center’s innovative efforts to train a new generation of plant breeders.

“We want to give our plant-breeding students experience with real cultivar development that results in products that growers and seed producers want,” said Professor Charlie Brummer, director of the UC Davis Plant Breeding Center. “This project lets us put those pieces together in a very meaningful and exciting way.”

Sample seed for the five new varieties has been distributed at grower meetings. Commercial quantities are available through the UC Davis Foundation Seed Program.

National Organic Producer Surveys Released

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The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) released two national surveys in February—one for certified organic producers and the other for producers transitioning to organic certification. This collaborative effort is part of a USDA-funded project seeking to learn more about the challenges and research priorities of organic farmers and ranchers, as well as farmers and ranchers transitioning land to certified organic production.

OFRF, OSA, and a broad coalition of organic champions were instrumental in securing an increase in federal funding for organic research from $20M to $50M in the 2018 Farm Bill. These funds will dramatically expand competitive grants through USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), ensuring organic farmers and ranchers have the tools and technology to meet their unique challenges and the growing demand for organic products—leading to a more resilient and sustainable agricultural system that values healthy environments and healthy people.

Strong farmer participation in these surveys is critical to informing that investment. Survey results will be published in updated versions of OFRF’s National Organic Research Agenda (NORA) report (https://ofrf.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/NORA_2016_final9_28.pdf) and OSA’s State of Organic Seed (SOS) report, (stateoforganicseed.org) both of which serve as invaluable resources for ensuring research funding is relevant and responsive to the needs of organic producers, while also identifying gaps where additional investment is necessary. By collaborating on these surveys, OFRF and OSA hope to reduce survey fatigue and increase grower participation.

OFRF’s NORA report is a frequently cited resource that has helped ensure research funding is relevant and responsive to the needs of organic producers, while also identifying gaps where additional investment is necessary.

“With demand for organic products continuing to outpace domestic production,” said Brise Tencer, OFRF’s Executive Director, “the organic industry needs more research that helps existing organic farmers scale up, diversify, and increase profitability, and also encourages more farmers and ranchers to transition to sustainable organic practices that are better for the environment and people.”

OSA’s State of Organic Seed (SOS) project (stateoforganicseedorg) is an ongoing project that monitors the status of organic seed in the U.S. and provides a roadmap for increasing the diversity, quality, and integrity of organic seed available to farmers. “Organic farmers produce food differently, and that means they need different seed for the crops they grow—seed developed to thrive without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and adapted to their local climate and soil conditions,” said Kiki Hubbard, OSA’s Director of Advocacy & Communications.

“Understanding the research needs of organic farmers, including in the area of seed and plant breeding, is critical to the ongoing growth and success of organic agriculture,” Hubbard added. “OSA is privileged to have the opportunity to partner with OFRF on this critical project with strong support from the USDA’s OREI program.”

Organic Survey Deadline: June 1st, 2020

If you are a Certified Organic Farmer/Rancher, please respond to this survey:
www.opinion.wsu.edu/organicproduction

If you are a Farmer/Rancher transitioning to Certified Organic production (this means no land currently certified organic), please take this transitioning producer survey:
www.opinion.wsu.edu/transitionproducers

The survey is being administered by Washington State University and all responses will be kept confidential. If you have any questions about this survey, please contact Lauren Scott at lauren.n.scott@wsu.edu or call 1-800-833-0867. This study has been certified as exempt from the need for review by the Washington State University Institutional Review Board.

The project is supported by the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) grant no. 2019-51300-30249 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) is a non-profit foundation that works to foster the improvement and widespread adoption of organic farming systems. OFRF cultivates organic research, education, and federal policies that bring more farmers and acreage into organic production. All OFRF research results and educational materials are available to download for free at ofrf.org.

Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) is a non-profit that works nationally to advance ethical seed solutions to meet food and farming needs in a changing world. Through research, education, and advocacy, OSA fosters organic seed systems that are democratic and just, support human and environmental health, and deliver genetically diverse and regionally adapted seed to farmers everywhere.

The Key to Optimum Soil and Plant Health: Giving Life to the Soil

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Those who study life in the soil point out that the population of beneficial living organisms that grow and thrive there determines to what extent that soil will grow and produce abundant, healthy crops.  The life in the soil and the health of the soil are intertwined.  To determine what promotes the greatest amount of life in the soil will also then provide the greatest support for soil health.

Time after time, the healthiest soils are found to be those with the most active living organisms.  Soil life is a major factor in determining soil health.  The most critical needs for sustaining all life are also the most critical to life in the soil.  Assuring the correct amount of life’s most critical requirements is the real “trunk of the tree” in regard to building better soil health.

There are four basic needs for life – shelter, food, water and air.  Which one of these on average can more likely be missing and life could go on the longest?  First would probably be shelter, then food, then water, then air. Air is the most critical of all since we can only live a very short amount of time without it.

Air in the Soil

When considering clay soils, much like the human body, insufficient air is considered one of the most significant problems. This is usually caused by too much water in the soil, which prevents the air from reaching to the proper depth causing interference in microbial activity.  Far too many individuals working in agriculture fail to recognize the significance of the correct amount of air needed in the soil, let alone the methods that must be involved for correctly solving this problem when having sufficient air is not the case.  That may be one of the reasons it is not pointed out as the greatest problem affecting soil life and soil health.

Just how important is air for soil health?  It is a major key for humus formation.  Humus is formed within the soil’s aerobic zone. The aerobic zone is the depth of soil to which air remains sufficiently available for the most beneficial microbial activity and good plant health in each different type of soil.

Due to the abundance of air, microbiologists say that on average 70 percent of all humus is formed in the top two inches of soil.  Ninety-five percent of humus is formed in the top five inches, and 100 percent is formed within the depth of each soils’ aerobic zone.

One good measurement to determine each soils’ aerobic zone (how deep the microbes that depend on air can get enough to live and function) is to remember that it as deep as a fencepost will rot in each particular soil.  This is generally between 6.5 to 8 inches deep.

How many people who advocate for building better soil health even consider providing an adequate amount of air to the soil as the most critical step to building excellent soil health?  And even so, if the soil lacks aeration, is there anything that can be universally done to change or correct that lack?

Changing Soil Structure

Air is needed to keep a healthy set of microbes to supply plant nutrients and build humus in our soils.  But what can be used to determine if the correct amount of air – not too little and not too much – is present?

This is an important question that too few can answer.  When soil aeration is lacking, how can farmers and growers detect that actually is the case?   What provides the proper amount of aeration to the soil to best promote soil life and soil health?  There is a way to determine this answer that many in agriculture reject because it does not translate into immediate sales and profits, though it is very profitable for the farmer and the land in terms of soil health.

That answer has to do with measuring and correcting the physical structure of each different soil.  The physical structure of a soil (how well it works up, takes in water and provides the needs for plant roots) determines the amount of air and water that is present in relation to the soils’ mineral content.  The ideal soil has a specific physical structure.  That is 25 percent air, 25 percent water, and 50 percent mineral content – of which 5 percent or more of that mineral content would ideally be humus (see related pie chart.)

Textbooks on soil science illustrate the physical structure of an ideal soil as 50 percent solids and 50 percent pore space.  However, none of those books go on to provide what changes are needed in order to enable soils that are lacking such qualities reach that correct physical structure.

Achieving the ideal physical structure for each soil – the proper amount of air in relation to water in each soil – can only be correctly determined by measuring the percentage of saturation of the elements that have a major influence on pore space in that soil.  To correctly understand and farm the soil, those elements are calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium.

In order to bring the physical structure of a soil into alignment with the textbook definition of an ideal soil; first measure and adjust the base saturation percentages of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium to match the correct percentages needed for the total exchange capacity (TEC) of that particular soil.  The pie chart in this article shows those needed relationships.

Making any needed corrections will help promote the proper nutrient uptake, the proper physical structure, and the ideal biological environment for the soil and the crop.

In other words, to optimize needed soil aeration the correct relationship between specific elements, namely calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium must be achieved.  When there is too much of any one of these, there will usually be too little of one or more of the others.  Until any excesses or deficiencies of any of these four elements are corrected, the soil will not have the ideal amount of air in relation to water.

Since calcium and magnesium are by far the most needed and thus provide the most influence of the four elements involved for building the proper soil structure, always consider correcting them first.  This is the place to begin if soils do not already have the ideal physical structure and thus the ideal amount of air to provide for optimum biological activity.

Balancing Calcium and Magnesium

Before correcting calcium and magnesium levels, there are three basic points that need to be understood.

First, the base saturation percentage of calcium plus magnesium always needs to equal 80 percent in order to achieve the correct physical relationship between air and water in the soil.  In other words, the proper relationship between calcium and magnesium ultimately determines the friability of each soil – whether it is too tight or too loose or works up as it properly should.  This relationship applies to every soil with a TEC of 4.16 or higher.  (Lower TEC soils must be treated differently and require a separate course to explain all the differences to consider.)

The second point is concerned with the reaction of calcium and magnesium to one another in terms of changes in the soil’s base saturation.  The change is generally expected to be 1:1.  This means that for every 1-percent increase in calcium, the magnesium will decrease by 1 percent.  And also, for every 1 percent magnesium goes up without adding more calcium to counteract it, the calcium will decrease by 1 percent.  (But watch higher TEC soils.  Some have magnesium trapped between the layers of clay, while others may have an abnormally high pH, or percentage of potassium or sodium that affects magnesium availability.)

This brings up the third point which is, the principle of nutrient balance involves correcting the obvious deficiencies in order to help control any excesses.

Here is the basic foundational key to excellent soil health: Work to supply each soil with the proper amount of needed air and that soil will be most equipped to perform at its best.  And only a detailed soil analysis will provide the necessary information to show what is needed to promote the needed air in each soil.

Cover crops, compost, adding carbon and nutrients can all help contribute to soil health, but until there is enough air in the soil, that most critical component will still slow the way to excellent soil health.

Once the required percentages of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are met, then the soil chemistry is working at its best and providing the proper physical structure for air and water to function as they should due to well aerated soil.  Will it always be perfect?  No.  Too much rain can reduce aeration, not enough water can cause problems as well.  But once the soil nutrients are there in the correct proportions, only then does the soil have the best means of re-adjusting to the most ideal conditions in the shortest period of time.  Until the conditions are met for proper aeration in each soil, there is no chance of achieving what is needed for an ideal in terms of soil fertility and plant health.

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.  Please call (573) 683-3880 or see www.kinseyag.com for more information.

Roadmap to an Organic California

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How can we use organic farming to solve the biggest problems of our time? A first-of-its kind research project from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the Roadmap to an Organic California (www.ccof.org/roadmap-organic-california) investigates how organic is a solution to today’s toughest challenges from climate change to economic insecurity and health threats.

The urgency of addressing these challenges demands building on what already works. As a first step, CCOF asked: what does the science say about organic? The Roadmap to an Organic California: Benefits Report, the first installation of the project, examines three decades of peer-reviewed science on organic food and farming. The science is clear: Organic farming, with its tremendous capacity to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in soils and its unique ability to stimulate the economy while feeding the world’s population with nutritious foods, is a proven and practical solution to stabilize our climate and communities.

Based on these findings, CCOF developed nearly 40 policy solutions laid out in the Roadmap to an Organic California: Policy Report that serve as a blueprint for putting organic to work. The Policy Report provides actionable next steps for legislators, business leaders, and community organizers to use organic to build climate resilience, foster strong communities, and protect the health of all Americans.

Organic is a Climate Solution

Organic farmers have pioneered many of today’s climate-smart farming practices that reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and make farms better adapted to extreme weather. Long-term comparison studies demonstrate that organic soils are healthier, enabling them to draw down 14 times more carbon than conventional soils. With the world’s soils capturing 25 percent of annual fossil fuel emissions, organic agriculture is in a unique position to maximize the amount of carbon stored in soils in order to stabilize our climate and food supply.

Despite the proven ability of organic to help solve the climate crisis, organic is not integrated into California’s climate strategy. The Policy Report details next steps that we can take to use organic to foster climate resilience by advancing climate-smart agriculture programs, conserving organic farmland to maximize carbon sequestration, and investing in organic research in order to build on the resilience of organic farms and refine the practices that help farmers producer higher yields in a changing climate.

Organic is an Economic Solution

The organic market stimulates the economy by creating business opportunities, growing jobs, and reinvesting dollars in local communities. Organic sales are growing faster than all other food sales and generating diverse careers and entrepreneurial opportunities in urban and rural communities alike, from organic seed farms, to organic snacks, to meal kit delivery companies. By keeping food dollars local, studies demonstrate that organic businesses can increase household incomes and alleviate poverty as much as federal nutrition assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Though organic is a proven economic stimulus, barriers to the expansion of organic agriculture prevent many communities from benefiting from increased local investment and job growth. Communities can benefit from stronger local economies if we support policies that bolster farm viability, invest in a workforce that sustains the organic sector’s job growth, prioritize farmland transition to foster the next generation of organic farmers, and develop urban organic agriculture as a tool for community development.

Organic is a Health Solution

Organic food protects people and the planet. Hundreds of crop comparison studies show higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in organic foods. However, human health is determined not only by the nutritional quality of the food we eat, but also by how our food made it onto the plate. In addition to being highly nutritious, organic safeguards our drinking water and combats the health impacts of climate change. Organic promotes overall health for all Americans and for future generations.

While many Americans choose organic to keep their families healthy, too few communities have access to the health benefits of organic. The report outlines strategies to protect water quality by supporting organic farms, expanding access to organic foods for frontline communities, providing organic food choices in school meals and hospitals, expanding organic meat availability to prevent antibiotic resistance, and encouraging “food is medicine” initiatives to improve patient health and lower healthcare expenses.

Laetitia Benador is a food systems researcher, writer, and farmer. As the CCOF Research Fellow, Benador spearheads the Roadmap to an Organic California project, which is a first-of-its kind research project that investigates how organic is a solution to California’s toughest challenges (photo courtesy of L. Benador.)

Organic is Integral to our Future

Concerned consumers around the country have turned to organic as a solution. Today, eight out of 10 Americans buy organic food, driving the expansion of the organic sector from $3 billion to $53 billion in two decades. However, despite the booming market, only 1 percent of America’s farmland is farmed organically.

Expanding proven solutions like organic requires all hands and boots on deck. Organic is a holistic approach to growing our food that impacts every aspect of our lives, from the water we drink and soils in which we grow our food to the economy and our community’s resilience in the face of climate change.

This message is what brought organic farmers to the California State Capitol on Feb. 19 together with business leaders, schoolteachers, healthcare professionals, scientists, and climate advocates. With the Roadmap to an Organic California in hand, this unlikely group of allies embarked on the road toward a healthier and more secure future. By continuing to work together we will cultivate an organic future for all—will you join us?

Biological Control of Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

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Research in the Pacific Northwest is focused on finding biological and softer alternatives to control brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB.) The BMSB is an invasive species from Asia that first appeared in the U.S. in 2010 and has since spread and become a significant problem in Oregon.

The samurai wasp, Trissolcus japonicas, is a natural predator of BMSP that followed its host from Asia to the United States. In Asia, the wasp takes care of 60 to 90 percent of BMSB eggs.

“We found the wasp in downtown Portland; we started moving it around,” said Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Orchard Specialist Nik Wiman.

Populations of the samurai wasp have shown up in other states, including Washington, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and Washington DC. The populations are not genetically related to the others, so each is showing up on its own, not simply breeding and migrating.

Parasitized Eggs

Since the wasps are so tiny – approximately the size of the period at the end of this paragraph – the easiest way to check for their presence is by monitoring BMSB egg masses on the underside of leaves. Egg masses are green to blue-green, barrel-shaped clusters. Because of their color, they are hard to see. When the eggs are parasitized by the samurai wasp, they turn black and should be left alone. Blackened eggs are also easier for the human eye to spot. The wasp larvae feed on the BMSB larvae, killing the stink bugs before they hatch.

Wiman and other scientists have collected and analyzed wild, fresh and frozen BMSB egg masses. The researchers are seeing an increase in parasitism from the samurai wasp. In 2018, they saw a 22.4 percent rate of parasitism. In 2019, that number increased to 26.8 percent.

Raising and Releasing Wasps

The researchers are raising the samurai wasps in an OSU lab to target-release in specialty-crop areas.

“When we go out to release, we look for natural areas that don’t have insecticides,” Wiman said.

He said the 1- to 2-millimeter stingerless wasps has spread about six miles per year and researchers are hopeful that with continued lab work and research they can strike a healthy samurai wasp/BMSB balance.

BMSB Detection and Spread

The brown marmorated stink bug – marmorated means marbled or streaked – was first detected in the US in 1998 in Pennsylvania. It has since become a serious pest in apple, pear, stone fruit and hazelnut orchards in the Pacific Northwest. It feeds on about 100 different varieties of plants, including many agricultural crops, such as grapes, peppers, tomatoes, corn, squash and soybeans. BMSB also causes issues with some shade trees, such as maples.

Dimpling on pear and internal rot caused by BMSB (photos courtesy N. Wiman.)

The BMSB has been a problem in hazelnuts since 2004, according to Wiman. Researchers, growers and processors have seen 5-15% BMSB damage in hazelnuts over the past four-year period.

OSU Statewide Organic Vegetable Extension Agent Nick Andrews said he’s seen BMSB damage, “intermittently in vegetables.”

The BMSB probably arrived in the US aboard international shipping crates. After its arrival, the stink bug quickly began expanding its territory, spreading across the states. In 2010, the pest caused 37 million dollars in lost apple crops in the Mid-Atlantic States. Also that year, more than 90 percent of some stone-fruit growers’ crops were lost. By the end of 2010 and into 2011, the BMSB had become a serious pest in orchards along the Eastern states. This stink bug variety has now spread and established itself in many parts of North America – 42 states from California to Maine. In Oregon, the BMSB is a severe problem. It’s also causing agricultural issues and is considered a nuisance in California and Washington State.

A female samurai wasp Trissolcus japonicus parasitizing eggs of the brown marmorated stink bug (photo courtesy of W. Wong.)
An adult brown marmorated stink bug (photo courtesy of W. Wong.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeding Damage From Nymphs and Adults

“The nymphs are a huge part of the problem,” Wiman said.

A true bug, both the BMSB nymphs and adults use their tubular mouthpiece to pierce developing fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. They inject saliva inside, making a sort of slurry, which they then suck up through their straw-like mouths. The insect damage creates unsightly brown spots inside the kernels of hazelnuts. Damaged fruit shows a dimpled appearance on the skin. Inside are brown areas of rot.

BMSB are speckled grey and brown, with white bands on their antennae and a triangle shape on their back called a scutellum. They are a fairly large bug, broad-bodied and up to 1-inch in length. BMSB cannot sting or bite, but they stink if disturbed or squashed. Stink bugs spray a noxious odor from their abdomen as a defense mechanism.  They live for 6-8 months. Females can lay up to 400 eggs during their lifetime.

Other OSU Research Discoveries

  • BMSB show a disconnect between feeding and responding to pheromone traps.
  • Early season response to traps is poor.
  • Warning: Bringing pheromones into the orchard can cause damage in the trap vicinity. Aggregation pheromone attracts all the insects. Keep them out along the border.
  • Traps are useful for detection, but they don’t take the place of scouting.
  • Exploiting pheromones to attract-and-kill, or for mass-kill sites needs more research.

Control is Elusive for BMSB

Insecticides which are effective for BMSB are nearly all broad spectrum and restricted use, Wiman said.

Tests have been done with baited sheets of netting treated with pyrethroid. There have also been experiments done using light as a way to attract BMSB to such a kill site. The problem? Getting the BMSB to land on the netting and stay there long enough for the pesticide to do its job.

“Get BMSB to land for about one minute on the netting and it will die,” Wiman said.

Growers can use pyrethroids and pyrethrin, but he says they aren’t all that effective on BMSB. Also, by using insecticides, growers risk killing the beneficial samurai wasp.

“We found the samurai wasp is really sensitive to pesticides. Entrust™ was one of the most toxic,” Wiman said. “It affects the diamids, which is the softest materials of the wasp.”

For smaller organic farms, exclusion is likely the best way to keep stink bugs at bay with the use of particle films, tunnel row covers and other barriers. Kaolin clay, or Surround, also helps discourage insects. The spray-on clay coating won’t kill the insects, but it irritates them, and they don’t like it, Wiman said.

Unfortunately, BMSB is nearly impossible to control.

“You don’t have control,” Wiman said. “It’s coming from the environment. You can be the best manager, but you still can’t control the BMSB.”

Plant Wasp Habitat

“Urban areas put out a lot of stink bugs,” he said, as do riparian zones and forests. So, farms near those areas are bound to experience issues with stink bugs. If allowed to flourish, the wasps will likely show up in these areas as well.

Researchers are looking at what plants attract the wasps. Samurai wasps that were fed honey water in the lab tended to grow faster and show signs of better health.

“They probably enjoy floral resources,” Wiman said.

That steers the organic grower toward planting flowers, either within the orchards or along the borders. He said the flowering plants don’t necessarily have to be native to attract the wasps.

One Grower’s Experience with BMSB

Joe Beaudoin, of Joe’s Place Farms in Vancouver, Washington said BMSB arrived on his property 4 to 5 years ago. Beaudoin said he was the first farmer in Southwest Washington affected by the stink bugs.

“Oregon State University and Washington State University were out at our place for four years,” Beaudoin said.

The first thing the BMSB hit was his peppers. Then they moved on to other fruits and vegetables.

“They sting with their proboscis,” Beaudoin said. “One sting in a pumpkin or squash pretty much destroys them. There’s no repairing the damage.”

The stink bugs also hit his cherries, berry crops and peaches. He noticed the BMSB were variety specific in what they attacked. He has PF 23 (Flamin’ Fury) peaches and Suncrest peaches growing next to each other. Both are yellow, freestone varieties.

“The PF 23 was 100-percent ruined,” he said, but the Suncrests – a hardy variety bred in Fresno, California – were virtually untouched. Beaudoin grows 15 different varieties of peaches all together. “The PF 23 – they liked it the best.”

Brown marmorated stink bugs on a pear (photo courtesy N. Wiman.)

He noticed that the BMSB had preferences in his pear crops, too, preferring the russet (brownish) pears rather than green pears.

“It’s kind of strange,” Beaudoin said.

Then, for the most part, the stink bugs moved on.

“They moved into apple country,” Beaudoin said. “They went east into the valley. They’re moving out and spreading out.”

The amount of damage to produce crops at Joe’s Place Farms has recently diminished.

“We have not had that much damage,” he said of last growing season.

As for the reason the stink bugs hit his farm first? Beaudoin figures it’s because he is located close to an airport.

The Pacific Northwest has not been as hard hit by BMSB as the East and the Midwest, according to Beaudoin.  He heard the story of one farmer in the Midwest who drove his tractor for the day through his fields. At the end of the day, “He got a five-gallon bucket full of brown marmorated stink bugs out of his air filters.”

Managing Soil Fertility with Organic Amendments

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By definition, anything that was or is alive is considered organic matter because it contains carbon-based compounds. This article covers some of the considerations around using organic soil amendments. The most common types of soil organic amendments are manure, compost, and crop residue (including cover crops).

Why We Care About Carbon

Soil carbon is important in all farming systems because of the role it plays in building and maintaining soil microbial communities. Soil microbes are critical for nutrient cycling and building soil structure because soil aggregates are held together by organic compounds produced by microbes, by fungal hyphae, and by plant roots. In addition, soil microbes are responsible for many parts of the N cycle, like converting ammonium to nitrate, the form of nitrogen most commonly taken up by plants. Even if there is sufficient total N in the soil, microbial processes will be slowed by reduced activity due to low soil carbon, cold soil temperatures, or inadequate soil moisture.

The amount of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) affects microbial breakdown of organic amendments, and thus potential nitrogen (N) release. Like us, microbes have dietary needs that have to be met. The ideal diet for microbes has a C:N ratio between approximately 20:1 and 25:1. Nitrogen is present in the soil and in soil water. When microbes consume material with a higher C:N ratio than their ideal diet, they will “mine” N from the soil profile for their own use, making it unavailable (sometimes called “tied up”) for crop uptake. It is not permanently lost from the system as with N leaching or volatilization. Rather, it is unavailable in the short term until the microbes die. When microbes consume materials with a lower C:N ratio than their ideal diet, they release the N that is in excess of their dietary needs that is immediately available for crop uptake.

Considerations for Organic Amendment Selection

Material Efficiency: The C:N ratio of the material affects both the amount of N that will released for plant uptake, and the time in which the N will become plant available.  Materials with a lower C:N ratio are broken down more rapidly and a larger proportion of the N will become available during the growing season. Materials with a higher C:N ratio are broken down more slowly and a lower proportion of the N becomes available. These materials need to be applied in larger quantities and earlier in the season to meet crop N demand during peak uptake. In contrast, the nitrogen in materials with a very low C:N ratio, such as feather meal, guano, or some liquid products, becomes available very quickly. These products provide the opportunity for in-season applications through fertigation or side dressing, similar to synthetic fertilizers.

Material Costs: With organic amendments that are high enough in N to be used as an N source, cost per unit available N is more relevant than cost per unit weight. However, this may not be the only consideration. How much the material costs to transport and spread can eat into your bottom line quickly. Watch for percent moisture because this affects nutrient calculations (which should be based on dry weight) and it’s expensive to move water.

Calculate the true cost of organic amendments when deciding what material to use, including percent moisture. This includes product versus management costs to estimate how much a pound of N actually costs with each product for the growing season. In the short term, the goal may be to meet the demand of your current crop. In the long term, the goal is to build soil structure and fertility.

Management Considerations: Fresh manures can contain a large proportion of ammonium-N and can lose a substantial amount of N to the atmosphere if they are not tilled in soon after application. Manures can also be a source of weed seeds.

A Focus on Compost

Compost is any product that results from the decomposition of organic material. Since the material that goes into compost can vary widely from food and yard waste to wood chips to animal manure, the fertility and benefit to agronomic productivity is also quite variable.  Not all compost is the same and the expected performance of a compost on a farm is related to the starting material and properties of the finished product.

While all composts will have the benefit of adding organic matter and increasing soil carbon, the benefits of which are outlined above, not all will be suitable to meet the nutrient needs of a crop. Manure-based composts are higher in fertility than green waste (i.e. yard trimmings) and it would be very difficult to meet crop nutrient needs with green waste compost. For example, while a typical chicken manure compost has a nutrient content of 44 lb nitrogen, 26 lb phosphorus, and 33 lb potassium per ton, a typical yard debris compost only has 18 lb nitrogen, 3 lb phosphorous, and 8 lb potassium per ton. Not only is the nitrogen content lower in yard debris compost, but a smaller proportion of it will become available during the next growing season.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using compost over fresh materials. The volume of composted versus fresh material generally decreases by 30 to 60 percent and compost is easier to spread. Compost has a lower risk of containing weed seeds or pathogens and is less likely to degrade water quality. Since compost has already been decomposed, it contains more stable carbon and less carbon is lost to microbial decomposition. This means that less nitrogen will be tied up for a high C:N ratio of composted material than when applying the fresh form of the same material. However, this also means that compost can also be very slow to release nutrients. Compost can improve the physical, biological, and chemical properties of a soil including reducing erosion, increasing water holding capacity, and moderating soil temperature. For these reasons, compost can be an excellent soil builder and can lead to improved soil function, but it is important to evaluate the properties of the compost before application and know what you are using it for.

Matching Crop Need to Application of Manure or Manure-Based Composts

When applying manure or manure-based compost to meet crop N needs, there may be over application of other nutrients. This is because:

  • These materials contain micro and macro nutrients other than N.
  • They are lower in percent N (and other essential nutrients) than synthetic fertilizer and require higher application rates to achieve crop nutrient needs.
  • Organic N needs to be mineralized in order to be plant available and not all the N will become available for the current crop.

Consider the following example. If you are planting corn and plan to apply composted chicken manure to meet crop N demand, you can expect approximately 35 percent of the N to be mineralized in year one and available for plant uptake. While nutrient concentrations can vary due to bedding material and maturity of the compost, typical chicken manure compost (sometimes referred to as broiler chicken litter) has a nutrient content of 44 pounds N, 26 pounds phosphorus (P), and 33 pounds potassium (K) per ton.

Based on the California fertilization guidelines, recommended total N application rates for high-yielding corn are generally 200 to 275 pounds N per acre. Let’s assume our goal is 225 pounds N per acre for the calculation below. Given that only 35 percent of the N will be mineralized in year one, you will have to apply a higher amount of compost to ensure enough is available for your crop in that year.

225 lb. N required ÷ 0.35 = 643 lb. N/A needed to apply to meet corn demand.

Given the amount of N in each ton of compost, you will need to apply:
643 lb. N/A ÷ 44 lb. N/ton = 14.5 tons/A of compost (29,000 pounds of material).

How much phosphorous will be in that compost application?
14.5 tons x 26 lb. P/ton = 377 lbs. of P/A (this is 867 lb. P2O5)

According to California fertilization guidelines, P should be applied based on crop removal and 60 to 80 pounds of P2O5 are removed when corn grains are harvested from the field and 60 to 100 pounds with silage corn.

This means, that you are applying 8 to 14 times more P in one year than your crop needs! Consider the nutrient loading that will occur if these elevated manure levels are applied year after year to meet the crop N demand. While it is unlikely that anyone would apply this amount of material to a field in one growing season, this example can serve to highlight the considerations for managing fertility organic amendments.

It can be challenging to balance nutrients with organic materials and, when possible, consider other sources of amendments with different levels of NPK. While there is no inherent risk in having too much P to your crop, P contaminates waterways when soil moves off the field through erosion or runoff and is one of the main drivers of eutrophication.  In addition, some organic amendments can be high in salts and can lead to salt build up in time. Efficient application of organic amendments is important. In certified organic systems, consider incorporating legume cover crops into your rotation to ensure adequate soil N levels while reducing the risk of overloading other nutrients. Non-legume cover crops can also improve nutrient cycling and reduce the risk of nitrate leaching.

If organic amendments are added consistently year after year, the soil structure is improved, which reduces the risk of soil erosion. In addition, N cycles can become tighter. The 65% of N that wasn’t mineralized in year one in the example above may become available in future years although this is hard to account for in N budgeting. Organic amendments can build microbial activity, soil structure, soil fertility, and soil health.  However, it can be more challenging to manage them to meet annual crop N demand than with synthetic N fertilizer.

Choosing Hemp Varieties

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As larger commercial growing operations move into hemp as a rotational crop, breeder James Knox of KLR Farms offers some advice to boutique growers for selecting the right variety and competing in an increasingly crowded field.

KLR Farms has hemp hybridizing, research and development facilities, and hemp-seed production farms in several locations in Oregon, and more recently, a collaboration on a six-acre indoor grow facility in Illinois. It recently partnered with a distributor in Tennessee.

Choosing Varieties

Knox said the first step is to select the right variety. He said growers should consider the following when selecting a variety:

  • Understand your region and your growing season. Instead of picking the prettiest varieties, choose varieties suited for your location.
  • If you tend to have a wet fall in your region, choose mold-resistant strains.
  • You want a variety that will survive the end of the season, whatever that means weather-wise in your region. In California, harvest is in November, or even later. In Oregon and parts of Washington, harvest is generally in October – affectionately called “croptober.” It’s often an October harvest even for plants labeled as early flowering. Knox said.

In 2019, Knox harvested his personal research and development, a 25-acre in-ground plot, from Oct. 18 through Nov. 11. He said his plants were still putting on mass and girth through October.

Knox sold seed for 200 to 300 acres of hemp to California farmers.

“They have more light, more heat and a longer growing season, especially in SoCal. They were literally harvesting into December,” Knox said.

Plant genetics are studied in depth at Knox’s operation. He has a PhD plant geneticist on staff. Feminized-seed plants are not genetically modified, Knox pointed out.

In 2019, KLR Farms launched its offerings of hemp seed to the open market – nationally and internationally. They offer four different Sativa-dominant hybrids and five different Indica-dominant hybrids. One of the Indica varieties is an auto flowering/auto hemp. This year they are also releasing three different Sativa hybrids that are dual-use fiber/oil varieties.

Sativa

Tall plants with smaller, thinner, finger-like leaves. Takes longer to flower than Indica, generally 60-90 days outdoors. Use drip tubes or tape to water. Originated in Africa, Central America, Southeast and some parts of Western Asia.

Indica

Dense, bushy plant with wide leaves. Shorter time to flower, usually 45-60 days. Good choice for indoor growing, but can also be grown outdoors. Use drip tubes or tape for watering. Originated in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Turkey.

Auto flowering

KLR is collaborating with Sovereign Fields, located in Southern Oregon, on their offering of this variety. This  type of hemp is day neutral and flowers without shorter daylight.

Fiber/Oil Dual-use Hemp

This is something new on the market.  In 2020, KLR Farms is introducing three new varieties. Plant at high density. Knox recommends planting 5,000-20,000 seeds per acre, typically drilled into the row. Overhead water, such as cannons or pivots works with this type. These plants grow 9-14 feet tall. Harvest at 4-6 weeks into flowering by combining the top 3-4 feet, which is basically one big flower head. Cut the rest of the plant and lay in windrows.

Use the top for oil and the rest for fiber. Some uses to consider for the fiber is dried and chopped for animal bedding, garden mulch, or use as green manure. Bag and sell it, or use it on your own farm.

Hemp plants grown from cuttings.

Hemp Compounds and Components

There is more to hemp than CBD. There are many other compounds and chemicals to consider when choosing varietal strains.

THC Is the main psychoactive compound that produces a “high.” Hemp grown for CBD oil is tested before harvest to make sure THC is .3 percent or less.

CBD  The non-psychoactive known for reducing pain, nausea, easing migraine headaches and preventing seizures.

CBN Cannabinol is touted to ease symptoms of neurological conditions and muscle stiffness.

THCA Tetrahydrocannabinol acid is similar to THC, but without the psychoactive effects. THCA may relieve inflammation from autoimmune diseases and arthritis. It may also reduce the symptoms of ALS and Parkinson’s disease.

CBG Cannabigerol may help with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This compound is beginning to get more attention, but the market is not yet mature, Knox said. If CBG is something you want to shoot for producing, Knox suggests planting no more than 30 percent of your acreage in CBG-rich varieties.

Terpenes are another natural compound found in cannabis. They affect the way the plant smells.

KLR Farms best-known variety is KLR #1, or CherryLimeadeHemp, named for its “pungent and complex sweet cherry, with strong essence of lime and skunky pine.” It’s a Sativa-dominant hybrid and one of KLR’s best all-around field producers. An aggressive grower, it’s got strong stems and stocks to hold up well outdoors in wind and weather, but also grows well under lights. It’s a bit later to flower than some of KLR’s other varieties, but flower biomass is heavy at end of season. If bud rot is a problem in your region, with wet fall weather or high humidity, this is a very mold-resistant variety. Raw flower biomass consistently tests at a 16-22 percent total CBD value.

James Knox of KLR Farms in one of his hemp
propagation houses.

Advice on Growing Hemp

“Go vertical,” Knox said.

That means buying and using your own equipment to plant and harvest. Have your own dryer, storage facility and oil extractor, or be prepared to ship it out to a processor. Plan ahead for labor needs and costs. Have your fertilizer plan lined up. In addition, he offered the following suggestions:

  • Know the origin of your seed. Buy good feminized seed.
  • Test plant tissue throughout the season to monitor the chemical values.
  • Try to be in control of the crop and process from start to finish, without outsourcing if possible.

Big farmers are perched and ready to enter the hemp industry, Knox predicted.

“They’ll use hemp as a crop rotation. They’ll treat and sell it as a large commodity for companies looking to add CBD to their product line,” Knox said.

If Knox’s prediction proves correct, that will leave smaller, craft farmers scrambling to find their own value-added market niche. Knox points to the success of Oregon micro-breweries as a business model to emulate.

Knox points to the callous forming on a hemp cutting.

To help the industry, Knox said, “We have to increase the CBD amount per volume and bring the price down.”

Feminized seed is the best investment. Open-pollinated seed will contain males. Males produce pollen. Pollen blows on the wind and can make other growers’ hemp seed out, which ruins the crop.

“Sixty-six percent of the chemical (CBD) is taken away because of that seed,” Knox said. “You do not want a seeded-out hemp crop, ever. Feminized seed is the most reasonable and responsible.”

Be a good farmer. Know, or learn how to manipulate water and fertilizer. You may need to coax plants into early flowering if the season is looking questionable, weather-wise.

Spend the few dollars on a current copy of the Farmer’s Almanac. Read it, especially the seasonal weather forecast.

“It’s as accurate as any forecast out there,” Knox said.

Pay attention to what grows well during the years that hemp doesn’t grow well. For example, 2019 was a bumper crop for grapes, but not such a great crop year for many hemp growers. This year is forecast as another good grape year. That means history is pointing towards another potentially challenging year for hemp farmers.

“It’s always important to look at past years’ historical crop date. Look at the past three years,” Knox said. “Pay attention to all of those commercial crops grown in your region. Kind of gage your year off of it.”

What is feminized seed?
James Knox hesitates to use the word “male” at all when describing the process of feminizing seed, but, in simple terms, he explains it this way: “You take a female and turn it into a she-male.”

To create feminized seeds, the plants that produce the pollen, and the seed-bearing plants are both female.  To create this pollen-producing “she-male” (which isn’t really a male at all, but a female coaxed into creating male flowers,) the plant breeder takes a female pollen donor plant and sprays it with a hormone-inducing solution. A popular solution with hemp breeders is colloidal silver – a suspension of pure silver particles, or ions, in distilled water. The breeder sprays the plant at the onset of flowering. KLR does it this way, but Knox noted there are many ways to achieve reversals. Some hemp varieties can take up to three weeks to start producing male flowers, or pollen sacs.

The hemp breeder then uses the pollen that the hormone-induced female donor produces to fertilize the flowers of female receiver plants. The receivers don’t get the hormone treatment. The seeds the receivers produce have no male chromosome, so all plants grown from such seed are female – or at least they are 99 percent of the time. There is always a chance of a hermaphrodite cropping up in feminized seed, but when the seed is produced correctly, it’s very rare, Knox said.

Green Rush

The green rush is on!  With a lot of people attempting to get into the hemp market right now, the pace is fast and furious.  Unfortunately, the horror stories are starting to emerge in the mix of the big gains.  It seemed many people just jumped in with both feet without truly thinking it out.  Some blocks were smaller than an acre, up to a 900 acre facility we visited in the desert this year.  Many “green thumbers” and green house farmers attempted to grow outdoors and found out there is more to farming than just planting and watering, in a bit more hostile environment.  For a few brave souls, the draw of bigger returns compelled them to go the extra mile and grow hemp for feminized seed.

As most of you know, growing hemp for seed has its own rules and parameters.  You have to have a clean field, proper spacing, great timing, no neighbors with male plants (at least 3 miles away!), and flipped females to males timed for pollen production to match the flower.  And then the fun begins.  Continual testing for low THC levels, the threat of mites, gophers and root issues, early rains, dehydration, combining, sorting, grading, germination and certification caused many sleepless nights.  No big deal right?  Right.

There are quite a few things to consider if you are attempting to grow hemp for feminized seed.  Here are a few of our most important items to consider:

Plan your field accordingly.  If you have the potential for gopher issues, you can border up and flood your field to eliminate most of them from the get go.  Get your field level, not only for initial flood, but deviations in elevation, especially at your perimeter make for tough turns with a cultivator in tow.  We witnessed quite a few people try to plant every available inch by stretching their borders to the limits, only to have major frustration with future tractor work.  Have an irrigation designer plan your system.  New technology and monitoring will help dial in your water, pressure, movement and soil moisture levels.  Knowing exactly how deep and wide your water moves over time will allow you to control your inputs with more perfection.  Spread your soil amendments before bedding up to blend them into the beds with more uniformity.   If you are planting your field on 60” beds with a five row planter, leave skips on every fifth row to eventually plant your males when flowering progresses.  It’ll make planting the males from pots much more efficient.  On our personal fields, we had to run additional surface drip lines to accommodate potted male plants in season, and it made for some extra logistical hurdles.  If you aren’t growing and flipping your own male plants, contract with a reputable transplant company and/or greenhouse to ensure a timely delivery.  Getting plants late can have a dramatic effect on a good pollination window.  It is important to start early with that process as well.  Placing male plants at 1 foot tall into a field with 4 foot females can greatly reduce the even spread of pollen.    After pollination, be prepared to leave the plants in the field until the seeds are ready.  Early harvest due to weather can greatly diminish the yield of your higher quality seeds.  Plan to have a dehydrator in place in case weather eliminates the ability to dry in the field.  Your plants have to be crispy if you are planning on using a combine to extract seeds.  When the weather came this year, many growers had to leave their plants on drainable tarps in the field and cover them with plastic in wet weather.  Removing the plastic and letting them air dry in the sun after rains is labor intensive and a thought many won’t consider on their budget. Having a dehydrator ready can eliminate much of this extra effort.

It is important to consider the effects of weather, genetics and nutrition on THC production.  Pouring thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars into a project only to have to disc it under does not fit anyone’s profitability plan.  As seed production ramps up, we have seen THC levels drop in the flower, which can help if growing plants for seed.  But at any point, government officials stepped in this year and demanded field destruction for many farmers.  Good genetics and happy, unstressed plants seemed to weather the cycles much better this year.  Do your homework.

Last but not least, have a security plan in place.  The expense of security, or lack thereof, and consequential reduction in yield due to theft is a significant line item.  Unfortunately, many of our growers were not prepared for this and lost as much as 5 acres to thieves thinking it was traditional cannabis.  Think about that; five acres, thousands of plants, gone overnight!  “No THC, Industrial Hemp” signs posted around your property do not dissuade thieves, as once they can smell it, they think its cannabis and the signs are just a farmer’s masked deterrent.  Hiring 24 hour security a month or two before seed harvest is going to be the norm.  You have to prepare for that in your budget and scheduling.

The numbers are real.  Variations from $0.05 per seed to over $1.00 per seed were realized in 2019.  2020 should be no different as the market continues to expand.  The demand seems to still be in effect for quality seeds.  Tens of thousands of seeds per pound and several pounds per acre can definitely happen.  But you have to be diligent, and more importantly, prepared for all contingencies to be successful with seed production.  We witnessed too many operations this year that planted too late, too hot, too dense, too close to other farms, in areas with significant early frost potential, with no plan for processing, etc…. Don’t get caught unprepared.  The green rush is real and he gains may last another year or more, but so will the pitfalls.  Hedge your bet with preparation for the contingencies and the green your field will be the green in your return.  All your hard work and diligence will have your friends green with envy!

Rockey Farms Builds a Tradition of Sustainability

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Back in 1982, The Fixx had a hit with the song “One Thing Leads to Another.”

In south-central Colorado’s high desert, Rockey Farms has followed that path. Beginning with integrated pest management, the multi-generational family farm has experimented and implemented one new farming practice after another, steadily increasing their sustainability, profitability, soil health and crop quality.

And it began with IPM.

“My grandfather started the farm in 1938, raising potatoes and he had some pasture for sheep,” recalled Brendon Rockey, who runs the farm now with his brother Sheldon. “But the first shift for us as far as being more sustainable came 25, 30 years ago when my uncle wanted to really avoid toxic chemicals. He didn’t like being personally exposed to them, didn’t think they were good for our soil and didn’t really think they were going to be good for our consumers as well.”

So the farm started eliminating chemical pesticides. It wasn’t a big success.

“We had such a dysfunctional system at the time,” Rockey said. “We had poor soil health and a real lack of diversity on the farm. We really didn’t have a system created that could handle getting rid of the chemicals.”

But instead of going backward, Rockey Farms pressed on. They’d been rotating barley as a cash crop with their potatoes, but a drought in the already water-limited area made that rotation impossible. They planted a cover crop. Year one it was all sorghum. But Brendon Rockey was already seeing the benefits of diversity and in year two, the cover crop was a seven-species mix.

“Watching these plants grow together, it just made so much sense to me,” he said. “I could see them interacting with each other. Diversity became a foundation for us.”

Except for the potatoes. That was still a monoculture, and that bothered Rockey.

“Then one day I was out in the potatoes and came across a patch of field peas that was growing volunteer,” he said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Well, I don’t think those peas are doing any harm.’”

So the next year, he pushed forward again. Despite having about six inches of rainfall annually to work with, Rockey intentionally planted peas with some of his potatoes. It worked.

“I was just so pleased with how well the two plants interacted with each other,” he said. “They weren’t creating competition, but were actually collaborating with each other. We didn’t end up using any more water, and we had a slightly higher yield in the intercropped blocks. I was always taught that any plant out there that isn’t your cash crop is creating competition, and that wasn’t the case.”

The next year, Rockey Farms pushed forward again, planting diverse companion crops in their potato fields, mostly legumes. Then seeing an increase in insect diversity, they added buckwheat and flower strips and companion flowering crops.

“I started discovering all of these things were stacking on top of each other and all the benefits I was getting from these practices,” he said. “It was amazing to me how many problems just disappeared by simply bringing diversity into the rotation.”

Higher quality – and profits – followed.

“I think a lot of times we get stuck in this dynamic that we always think that we have to grow more crops in order to make more money,” he said. “We decided to do a higher quality crop and really became more efficient with our inputs. The way we’re farming now, we feel like we’ve really eliminated a lot of expenses of growing the crops. Every time we spend the money now the focus is on investing in the soil.”

And Rockey doesn’t see these stacked benefits ending at the farm boundary. He believes one thing will continue to lead to another.

“For a while, we were stuck in this real linear mindset that whenever we had a problem we’d go out and try to kill the problem off,” he said. “Adding living components to our farm are now controlling those insect populations. We’re growing a crop to feed other people, so it’s all about life. It was really confusing to me that with all this life, we were trying to solve our problems with death.”

“So instead, now we want this dynamic living system that functions properly and in the end we end up with a good crop,” he said. “And it’s helping create healthier human beings as well. It’s all about this positive life.”

Brendon Rockey was interviewed for an upcoming podcast series by Western SARE. Please visit westernsare.org to listen to the podcast.

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