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!
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.
It’s not generally possible to increase the soil organic matter by more than one percent. But even that one percent can markedly improve soil fertility. “Feed the soil to feed the plant” is the organic farmer’s adage, and organic matter is the go-to organic fertilizer option to do just that. Organic matter is also a significant source of micronutrients such as iron, copper and zinc. As organic matter is mineralized, it either becomes bound to soil minerals, or it becomes available for plant growth.
With vegetable crops, color, product size and uniformity are often as important for market share as yield. To obtain these attributes, nitrogen management is key.
But managing soil nitrogen levels with organic matter is tricky, according to Nick Andrews, Oregon State University (OSU) Organic extension agent. “Nitrogen is often the most limiting nutrient. It’s a little bit more complex,” Nick said. The label of an organic fertilizer gives the NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus) numbers, but those amounts won’t necessarily be available to the plants.
Through the process of mineralization, some of the nitrogen from organic matter is changed into plant-available minerals—ammonium and nitrate, for instance. The problem is this process doesn’t always coincide with crop growth. Several factors are at play:
1) Temperature. Mineralization in soil temperatures below 50 degrees is insignificant. It does, however, increase as soil warms.
2) Moisture. Soil moisture is important. Mineralization happens rapidly in moist soils, but slows considerably in extremely wet or extremely dry soils.
3) Tillage. Tilling creates a surge of microbial activity, but that burst doesn’t last long—it subsides within weeks or even days.
Some short season crops have low nitrogen requirements. Using the available nitrogen in soil organic matter, residues from cover crops and/or applications of compost, crops such as radishes and leafy greens may still produce well.
Crops with longer seasons and higher nitrogen needs will often need supplemental sidedressings of organic nitrogen fertilizers. Heavy feeders such as peppers and tomatoes will benefit greatly from additional nitrogen. Nitrogen fuels green, leafy growth, which helps plants photosynthesis, producing the food required to set and develop fruits and vegetables.
Here are some animal-based organic fertilizers to supply nitrogen quickly. These are good for cool season plantings:
Blood Meal, 13-0-0—Blood meal, made from dried cattle blood, is a good nitrogen source for early spring or fall plantings.
Chicken Manure, 1.0-0.8-0.5—Chicken and other poultry manures are a good choice if your crop needs a quick hit of nitrogen. Poultry manures release nitrogen rapidly—up to 75 percent is released into the soil the first year. Most other manures release only about a third of their nitrogen the first year. Nick cautions against using only manures for nitrogen. “If you’re using enough manure to supply your nitrogen, you’ll have more phosphorus and potassium than you need.”
Fish Meal, 9-4-1—Fish meal is made from ground-up fish. It’s an excellent nitrogen source for cool-season vegetables, especially for early spring plantings. Blood meal and fish meal may attract animals, including raccoons.
The following are organic fertilizers that supply nitrogen slower. These are good for later-season crops:
Feather Meal, 12-0-0—Feather meal, made from ground-up chicken feathers, is a good source of nitrogen for late-season growth. Good choice for tomato and pepper crops.
Barnyard Manures—these are well-balanced fertilizers, supplying small amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in an organic base. Well composted and cured manure should smell earthy. It shouldn’t smell strongly of ammonia.
Different crops have different nitrogen needs. Crops with low nitrogen needs include spinach, baby greens, arugula, collard greens, Swiss chard, kale and radishes, as well as parsnips, peas, beans and squash.
Crops with medium nitrogen needs include carrots, onions and garlic. Also with medium needs are lettuce, sweet corn, pumpkins, cucumbers, zucchini, rutabagas, potatoes, scallions and watermelon.
Crops with higher nitrogen needs include not only tomato and peppers, but cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage. High nitrogen is also needed by celery, kohlrabi, turnips, cantaloupe and honeydew, squash and eggplants, as well as cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.
Organic matter not only provides nitrogen, it also provides phosphorus, a macronutrient. Warm season vegetables require less phosphorus (20-25 parts per million in soil levels) than cool season vegetables (50-60 parts per million). Phosphorus is especially important early in the season because it stimulates early shoot and root growth.
Optimal crop yield calls for adequate levels of soil phosphorus, the second primary nutrient. Phosphorus helps plants store and move carbohydrates, or plant energy. It also promotes development of roots, flowers and fruits. Low phosphorus levels slow plant growth.
Only about one percent of the soil phosphorous is available to plants. But too much isn’t good, either. Excessive levels can create field run off into streams and rivers, which can cause algae bloom, resulting in oxygen depletion and fish kills. Phosphorus soil level is something to keep an eye on.
Potassium is the third primary nutrient. It helps plants with root growth and disease resistance. Potassium also improves a plant’s hardiness to cold and increases vegetable size.
Plants lacking in potassium are weak and grow slowly. The fruit is small, sometimes shriveled. Leaves show discoloration at the margins and tips. Like with phosphorus, only about one percent of the soil potassium is available to plants.
In Western Oregon’s Willamette Valley, “a lot of farms really don’t need more phosphorus or potassium,” Nick said.
Organic matter also helps with aggregate formation, which is the process of sand, silt and clay coming together to form larger-sized granules. Larger granules create nice, crumbly soil. Good soil structure allows water to easily penetrate the surface. Crumbly soil also creates better aeration, better water infiltration, and a better ability to retain water.
Well-aggregated soil improves root growth. It also provides a healthy habitat for soil organisms. In turn, the organisms create a favorable environment for plant growth.
Although low in nitrogen, hummus is the most mature soil component. In most soils, hummus makes up 70-80 percent of the organic matter. Increasing soil hummus improves both soil and crop growth. Adding hummus to the soil has long lasting effects. Not only does it feed the soil for the season, or even for the following season—it breaks down slowly and will continue to feed the soil for decades. Sometimes hummus can last for hundreds of years. Straw and cornstalks are high in carbon and low in nitrogen. Both decompose slowly and are efficient suppliers of hummus.
Cover crops—or green manure—build nutrient-rich organic matter in the soil. The plants collect the sun’s rays, which powers photosynthesis. The plants take in carbon dioxide from the air to produce food for the plant, and food for the microorganisms living in the root zone. Clean oxygen is released into the atmosphere during this same process.
Cover crops such as young legumes and cereals are high in nitrogen. They decompose quickly and produce less hummus than chopped straw or cornstalks.
A cover crop works to keep nutrients in place. So, in fields with high fertility levels, a cover crop could save farmers money in fertilizer costs. If farmers have a lot of phosphorous in their fields, cover crops are a good way to go—by adding nitrogen, Nick said, without adding more phosphorous.
Nick suggests sending a cover crop sample into a testing lab before incorporating it into the soil. The lab can analyze for dry matter and nitrogen content. Such a test can predict how much nitrogen will be released in that growing season.
OSU offers a free online organic fertilizer and cover crop fertilizer calculator, with a mineralization model. “It’s not the be all and end all, but it’s useable and grower friendly,” Nick said. This calculator is intended for growing conditions in Western Oregon and Western Washington.
Nick points out that farmers in different regions with different soil types and precipitation levels will need to check with their local extension agents, or land-grant university.
Annual soil tests are the best way to determine crop needs and monitor soil pH levels.
Earthworms are definitely the movers and shakers of the soil world. Ravenous creatures, even without teeth, earthworms can eat half their body weight every day. Since an adult night crawler, Lumbricus terrestris, may reach a weight of 0.39 ounces, that adds up to approximately four and a half pounds of soil consumed, digested and recycled by a single adult nightcrawler each year.
The number of earthworms per acre depends on the type of soil. The number could be a hundred, or might even number into the hundreds of thousands per acre. For the farmer, that equates to a whole lot of soil movement. The resulting worm feces – or, in more polite circles, worm castings – is a good thing. Once organic matter has worked its way through a worm, the nutrients in castings are much easier for plants to absorb and utilize.
Earthworms also help aerate the soil with their tunneling. Worms are most active during the spring and fall months, and live in various layers. Shallow-dwelling earthworms live in the top 12 inches of soil. They create random pathways as they feed. Deeper dwelling earthworms live in lower levels of soil – as deep as 6.5 feet. Their burrows are semi-permanent.
Shallow dwelling worms are the most beneficial to the top soil. Not only do their burrows allow the movement of air, but also the movement of water. In areas of compaction or overuse, such as land developed by urbanization, or heavily-farmed land, the worms’ movement through the soil is especially important.
Nightcrawlers are surface feeders, coming up from their burrows at night to feed. They also store snacks for later. They are the only earthworms known to pull bits of leaves and plant debris down into their burrows where it further decomposes before they ingest it.
Worm populations often increase under reduced tillage systems, according to results from tests conducted in Indiana and Illinois tilled and untilled corn and soybean fields.
Earthworms have no skeleton. The earthworm’s digestive system is a tube running from the mouth to the rear of the body. Consuming and digesting organic matter, such as fallen leaves, allows worms to move nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium from the surface down into the soil.
Worms have a simple nervous system – cutting a worm in half does not seem to unduly stress it out. However, contrary to popular belief, most worms chopped in two will not grow into two separate worms. If the head portion is long enough, it may grow a new tail and continue to live, but the tail portion will not grow a new head, or new internal organs, and will eventually die.
Earth worms have no lungs, instead they breathe through their skin. This process is known as diffusion. A worm’s skin must stay moist to keep diffusion working. Too much moisture, such as water saturated soil from heavy rainfall is also detrimental to worms. It doesn’t allow gases to diffuse across the worm’s skin. In such a case, if the worm doesn’t surface, it will suffocate. In Germany, night crawlers are known as “rain worms.”
An earthworm’s head is at the thicker, rounder end. It has no eyes or ears, but in addition to a toothless mouth it has a tiny lip-like appendage called a prostomium. This is a sensory organ used to navigate, or feel its way through the soil. Although an earthworm has no eyes, it can still sense light, especially with the head end. Extended exposure to UV light will paralyze a worm and cause it to die within a short span of time.
An earthworm’s body is made up a series of reddish-brown flexing segments. It uses the segments to propel itself. Each segment is covered with tiny bristles, called setae. These bristles act as traction devices to help the worm move. The setae also assist the worm in navigation.
Making Worm Babies
Earthworms have the best of both worlds. As hermaphrodites, worms are both male and female. Although unlike slugs and snails, they cannot self-fertilize. A worm has a pair of ovaries and two sperm receptacles. When the romantic mood strikes, a worm meets up with another at the surface. There they line up, join together and exchange sperm.
That distinguishing pink bump around an earthworm’s body is called a clitellum. Not only is it the defining feature of this class of worm, but it’s also part of the worm’s reproductive system. After fertilization, the clitellum forms a slime tube filled with albuminous fluid. Albumin is a water-soluble protein – the same protein found in milk, blood plasma and egg white.
The worm wriggles forward out of the tube. The tube first passes over the female pore, which deposits eggs. As the worm continues to crawl forward, the slime tube passes over a male opening. The eggs are fertilized with stored sperm from the other parent worm. The tube closes off to form a tiny, lemon-shaped egg case. This egg cocoon is deposited underground. A worm produces 3-80 cocoons per year. Each contains from 1-20 fertilized eggs.
The gestation period for worms is from 2-12 weeks, depending on factors such as soil type and temperature. Baby worms hatch and emerge tiny, but fully formed. They become mature enough to reproduce at 3-4 months. Night crawlers can grow to 14-15 inches and may live up to six years, although two years is more likely.
Night crawlers are not indigenous to North America. They originally came over from Europe, and are now spread throughout North America and Western Asia. It’s suspected they came over in soil used as ballast in the bottom of ships.
Still, there are many types of earthworms that are indigenous to the US. There are approximately 6,000 species of earthworms. Around 120 of those species are widely distributed around the world. Earthworms are generally considered beneficial to the soil, although there are times when the presence of earthworms has a negative effect.
After the glaciers retreated, the northern forests evolved. The resulting ecosystem does not benefit from earthworms. Invasive species of earthworms from the suborder Lumricina can have detrimental effects on temperate forests. These forests need thick layers of slowly decomposing duff – such as the layer of needles, bark and debris under pine or fir trees. When earthworms invade the forests, they consume and break up the organic matter and spread it down into the soil. This increases the cycling and leaching of nutrients. Native forest plants have adapted to the presence of thick layers of slowly decaying organic matter. With this thick layer broken up too quickly by worms, the young plants may face conditions in which they are not evolved to adapt.
The change in the forest has resulted in damages to some trees, such as sugar maples, and to forest-floor plants such as trout lilies, trilliums and some ferns. Earthworms are blamed for the invasion of Japanese barberry, and for buckthorn overrunning oak forests.
The disappearance of forest duff equates to the disappearance of insects and small creatures that depend on the duff layer for food and habitat. The loss of insects as a food source results in a population decline of other small creatures, such as frogs and salamanders.
While earthworm tunnels are beneficial to farmland and gardens with compacted soil, the burrows in forest land may speed the passage of water seeping through the forest floor, which can have a negative impact.
Eradicating earthworms from invaded forestland is virtually impossible without spraying pesticides, which would kill other species as well. But organic growers with cropland near forested ecosystems can take measures to help prevent the spread of earthworms. If you compost with the aide of earthworms, you can stop using worms. Although it may not be practical, freezing compost material for at least a week before spreading it will kill worms and their eggs.
When considering healthy soils and plants, the greatest need in terms of achieving vibrant plant health and lasting vigor is to consider “the trunk of the tree” instead of getting hung out on a limb and never tackling the core problem. To determine this certain basic questions and answers should first be considered and some of those may not always come that easily into view.
As a whole, in this entire world someone has responsibility over all the land. Someone is put in charge of it and generally has a say about what can or cannot be done to that land and too often not with a mind toward what would be best for the land or what is produced on it. The real bottom line is, when you give the soil what it actually requires, only then can it provide what is truly needed for optimum soil and plant health! Anything less and that much less is what you should expect in return!
Various short term for profit programs have allowed so many destructive actions and so much degradation to the land that there are now a host of programs that “make it better” and are touted as basic solutions to the problems the previous thinking of past and present generations have caused.
What works best? Is it when plants improve soil health or when soil improves plant health? In other words, can you best use plants to improve the soil and its fertility level, or the soil to improve the plants and their health and nutritive providing abilities? This is not like asking the question, “Which one came first, the chicken or the egg?” This question can be correctly answered. And in the process of answering such a question, what is best for soil biology – the true life of the soil – would need to be included.
So then what is the trunk of the tree for deriving the most benefit from agriculture? Is it making the most money, or making the greatest yields? Is it growing the best plants or the most nutritious foods? It should be the key to all of those packed into one logical program with the most economical approach being what can best be done to most help the soil and the crops that grow there.
The best answers to soil fertility, plant growth and feed or food quality are not geared to the philosophy of how much can growers get for the least amount they can give, whether that is money, fertility or the amount of effort being put forth.
However, most of the time the solutions that get adopted are because it can be shown that to do so means there is substantial profit to be made by the sale of something to the farmer. This is not meant to even imply that anything is wrong with increasing income from the added value of work being done. But if the bulk of the profit accrues to those who are devising the program at the expense of the soil and what grows there, is it really true profit? And are those programs being proposed the actual solutions needed or just another “band aid” as a stop-gap measure that helps only temporarily improve the situation in some way?
Dr. William Albrecht once described an experiment his team tried for extracting more nitrogen from the colloidal humus once they learned to isolate that humus from the soil. He said they tried every conceivable acid and many “reasonable” combinations, but could never find a formula that would do the job.
But conversely, by extracting exudates from plant roots and using an inordinately large amount as compared to the normal release from plants and crops, it was the secret key to unlock that N. Yet they were unable to duplicate that in the lab. So far as is now known, no one ever has. When science can’t even do that, it is hard to believe that even the best team of scientists would be wise enough to figure out all that a plant really needs.
That said, a slow steady feed of what is shown to be needed should generally be of most benefit to both plants and soils. However, in work with a company using that approach on a 20,000 acre almond operation for feeding nutrients through the drip, the program still only provides top results if the soil contains or receives what nutrients can be measured and supplied as needed first.
No matter how intelligent mankind may be considered, taking care of the soil to feed the total biological needs of the entire “team” – then striving to provide needs for the specific crop – works time after time. But too many want to skip building up soil fertility and just feed the crop. When that happens, could growers be robbing themselves of the greatest benefits in terms of both soil health and the highest yields and quality for whatever they are producing?
Most likely there is no one who really knows how to provide all of the exact nutrients each plant will thrive on to do its best. When anyone proposes to improve upon what life in the soil can do in that regard, even the best “guesstimate” will likely fall far short of properly feeding the soil- and thus will also rob the plant of its full potential – to grow the best yields and highest nutrition from the proper inputs.
So the question then becomes what is the purpose of constant plant feeding? If it is just to sell a product to feed the crop without regard to the measurement of the real needs and condition of the soil in that field, it is not necessarily going to be of the greatest benefit to the farmer or provide the best outcome for what he wants to grow based on the cost of return.
For many who claim to use the Albrecht system or some other type program it is just an excuse to sell a “feed the plant” fertility program. As a rule, a farmer is told he cannot afford to do anything more than feed the crop. Is that actually the truth, or just a sales pitch? Sometimes this may be true, but generally speaking, it is not the most productive approach.
For long-term solutions to soil fertility and to best supply actual plant needs sufficient time is needed to plan and take a meaningful and careful approach. When growers have a program that is the best they can plan out or afford, even though believing and choosing to follow that program, they should still choose at least one small field of average or better production and split it in half for a test. Follow the normally proposed fertility program on half of it. On the other half use a true soil building program such as the one developed by Dr. William A. Albrecht for use in organic production.
Spend the same amount of money for fertility on both. But when using a feed the soil approach use the most important nutrients to feed the soil as shown on the soil test by prioritizing the need for all nutrients. If the budget doesn’t cover it all, spend the money based on prioritizing the needed nutrients and put it where it makes the most difference. That will usually be quite different in approach as compared to a normal program that just strives to “feed the crop what it needs” and let the soil fend for itself.
For client after client using the correct guidance for testing this type of program, they now say they must feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant to be most productive and most profitable. Just about all of agriculture is not geared to think that way today under the guise that farmers and growers cannot afford the cost in terms of time and money. But how do you know if you have never tried it?
Even on organic farms, most growers still tend to try and cut corners with a program that requires minimal inputs in regard to time or money. Generally it becomes a question of how can I maximize production and still provide enough to do that with as little inputs as possible. When that is accomplished, too many are satisfied with conditions that can just help them remain where they are. This type of thinking should not be considered and will never correctly apply to those who want a program that provides true soil health.
Will the use of cover crops, crop rotations, compost applications, striving for the correct soil pH, and applying the fertilizer that has provided top yields in the past solve the real issues that are needed to provide excellent soil health? When used as needed any one or a combination of these measures may help improve soil health, but this is still not getting back to the trunk of the tree which is needed as the foundation to best provide real soil health. That is because under normal conditions even following all of these as accurately as possible still will not completely provide the real basic needs that are required for excellent soil health.
Think about this for a moment.
Consider someone growing livestock and trying to maximize profits, with a stocking rate of one cow per acre. How many will place their stock in a confined area and expect the animals to fend for themselves on whatever feed is left there and thrive to the point of providing top quality while doing so? Ridiculous, right? But how many expect that very thing from the life in the soil which by weight is equivalent to feeding at least one average sized cow per acre?
Based on the study of soil microbiology, the nutrients we apply to grow a crop are not in the form the plant needs to produce the best quality and yields possible. What we apply must first be converted by microbes to the form that can best be supplied to the plants. In fact, microbiologists who study the productivity of the soil maintain that the more life there is in the soil, the more fertile that soil becomes. They measure soil productivity by measuring the amount of soil life that is present there.
Plant roots move throughout the soil in search of moisture and nutrients, and yet farmers and growers are told to place the needed nutrients right up close to the plants. How does soil life and consequently the health of a soil thrive when so much of that soil life is “confined” to a very small area that provides at best very limited means of obtaining the nutrients they need that have been applied outside that confined area?
Broadcasting needed soil nutrients helps feed the entire population of living organisms in the soil. To achieve the utmost in terms of soil health benefits, the total area must have sufficient nutrition. Too little causes nutrient shortages and too much causes nutrient toxicities that results in other needed nutrients becoming unavailable for crop use.
The second law of thermodynamics states that life only comes from life. In the study of soil biology this should be a consideration since the more life found to be present in the soil, from earthworms to microbes, the more healthy and productive that soil proves to be. Once that can be measured, then the question must be asked and considered as to what are the basic needs for all life?
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 would go on the longest? Shelter would be the answer most of the time. Then between the three that are left, food would be the answer. Then water, with air being the most critical of all since we can only live a very short time without it.
The most critical need for sustaining our life is also the most critical to the soil for life. Now we are getting to the trunk of the tree. But how many consider that 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?
Most of those working in agriculture fail to recognize the significance of the need for just the right amount of air in the soil, let alone the keys that must be involved for correctly solving this problem. That is one of the big reasons it is not pointed out as the greatest problem affecting soil life and soil health.
Then when soil aeration is lacking, how can farmers and growers know that truly is the case? What provides the proper amount of aeration to the soil to best promote soil life and soil health? That will be the topic for Part II next time.
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.
A stretch of heavy clay fields that spread alongside McDowell Creek in Lebanon, Oregon was once home to a Holstein dairy farm, operated by Marty Bates’ granddad. Times have changed for the smaller-scale dairies. Competition with huge dairies, which can turn a profit with their sheer volume of cows and milk, elbowed aside smaller dairy farmers. After the black and white spotted cows were gone, the Bates family raised beef cattle and field corn for cattle feed. With only 121 acres, raising beef cattle also proved a challenging way to turn a profit.
From Cattle to Hemp
“CBD started growing,” Bates said about the hemp market. “My oldest son was working in a lab in Portland.”
The Bates family decided to say goodbye to cattle and hello to hemp.
Their first hemp crop was small – they planted only two acres. That was three years ago. “A learning experience,” Bates said about that first year.
The second year was also part of the learning curve. They didn’t buy good seed. Bates shakes his head thinking about it. Around 75% of the plants turned out to be male and were worthless. His family had about given up growing a crop that year, but they found a nearby grower with plants for sale and bought a few hundred. “So we tilled up a strip of dirt,” he said.
Marty’s most important message to other beginning hemp growers: “Buy good seed.”
Drying and Processing Facility
They turned the old milking barn into a hemp-processing facility.
Bates stopped in to talk with hemp growers Tyrel and Linda Rose at another family farm in Lebanon. Their crop is planted each year on Century Farm land that’s been in the family for years.
The Rose family was looking for a processor and wound up processing their hemp at the Bates. They all needed a drying facility, too. So, the Roses put in a dryer at the old Bates dairy, alongside the old milking barn.
Last year, the Bates did hemp processing for several other farms, too. “Kept us busy most of the year,” Bates said. This year is no different. “We’ll go right on into summer with what we’ve got.”
Fall 2018 was dry and clear into November. Not so for the 2019 harvest season. “It rained all through September, making the hemp fields a sticky, muddy mess. The harvest was a real challenge. Equipment got bogged in the mud. Bates drove the harvester, and his dad would pull him through the muddy fields with a CAT.
“Luckily, we had the dryer right here. That kinda saved our bacon a little bit,” Bates said.
Rain and Mud Issues
A cloudy day in early December, 2019, found Bates on a tractor in one of the still-muddy hemp fields, pulling up the used drip tape and cutting and pulling up black plastic. “Some guys use this plastic, some don’t,” Marty said. He uses the black plastic to retain soil moisture.
Normally, the Bates would work up the hemp fields after harvest and plant a cover crop. The plan was to plant crimson clover. But because of the mud they can’t do it this year.
The rain causes other problems besides mud. It also creates mold issues. “A lot of people got mold,” Bates said about the 2019 harvest season. Fortunately for the Bates, their varieties – KLR Farms #1 and #117 – are mold resistant. They made it through October and November mold free, but the weather was cold and plants didn’t mature. A week of freezing conditions down into the 20s in October compounded problems. “It just wasn’t gonna grow after that.” Bates said. Still, they couldn’t harvest it all at once, either. “Have to chop it as the dryer is ready,” Marty said. They harvested as fast as the dryer could do its job, but towards the end of harvest, still lost some of the plants to mold.
Chopping and Drying
Marty and his family use the old dairy equipment for the hemp. They harvest with a corn chopper and load it onto the dryer conveyor belt out of a feed wagon. It travels up into a pre-dryer that warms it up and gets it ready for the main dryer, which finishes the process.
The propane dryer is a model from a company out of Wisconsin. The original design was meant to dry sand used as cow bedding. The dryer can dry about 200 pounds of hemp an hour. After the chopped hemp comes out of the dryer, it’s kept under cover in silo storage bags.
In the Willamette Valley, there is too much moisture during fall harvest season in the way of rain, fog, mist and dew to cut and dry on the ground. Marty said in drier parts of the state they may be able to do that. Some hemp farmers hand cut and hang the plants from the rafters inside buildings to dry. There are two drawbacks to that for the Bates’ operation: It takes a lot of manual labor, and a lot of space under cover to hang dry hemp. Bates admits that hang drying does make a superior product. He tried hang drying some last year and got a better CBD oil yield out of it.
As of early December, the Bates had 60,000 pounds of dried hemp stored and waiting for processing. Bates said they can process 700-800 pounds of dried biomass per day.
The Bates use an ethanol extraction. Ethanol is a solvent that dissolves the oil in the plants. The ethanol and the dried plant biomass go into the stainless steel extractor, which holds 15 gallons. The extractor runs on a vacuum. It spends three minutes extracting, then nine minutes of spin-dry cycles. The liquid is filtered through a series of screens to get out any particles. The finest-mesh screen is one-micron.
The solvent is recovered and reused. The process “basically evaporates it and condenses it,” Bates said. What’s left is the CBD “crude oil,” which looks rather like black tar. The oil has to pass a solvent test, which is a check for residual solvents.
Marty’s son, Sterling, “learned a whole lot of different extractions,” Bates said. Sterling distills some of their crude oil, which further concentrates it. When that process is done, the oil looks more like honey than tar.
Steve Knurowski, who farms six acres of hemp in the Lebanon area, knows the ins and outs of the stainless steel processing equipment and helps the Bates with processing chores. Marty’s wife, Jenna does the books and the billing. “It’s a lot,” Bates said.
The crude oil is stored in plastic buckets with lids. “Ideally, we don’t store it for long,” before it’s sold, Marty said.
Most of Bates’ sales are of the crude oil, which is sold by the kilogram or liter to other labs, where it is further processed.
The Bates have several different customers. They deliver to some. Others pick up their orders at the farm.
• Mold is difficult to deal with in the
• Sometimes deer eat hemp plants.
• Last year they had some problem
with cucumber beetles.
• Bad seeds cause a real problem.
The Bates had very good results with seeds from KLR Farms out of Albany, Oregon. They planted 20,000 to 25,000 plants and only about a dozen turned out male. The Bates also planted a hemp field in Lacomb, which is an outlying rural area of Lebanon. They got no male plants at all in that field.
Buying good seed is key, Bates said. “Don’t go cheap on your seed.”
This article describes theproduction system and handling practices currently required to market poultry products–eggs and meat–as certified USDA organic. It also discusses the substantive overlap and continuum in goals and practices among “organic” and “pastured” and “humane” poultry production. It addresses the main commonalities and a few key distinctions between systems and practices in the growing field of poultry production. Finally, it highlights the need for transparency and integrity with respect to product representation, both within and beyond the organic label. Introduction
What image does the phrase “organic poultry production” conjure up in the mind of the American consumer? Many people are likely to imagine idealized happy hens on verdant pastures (like the pictures in this article). Perceptions of organic production system practices may overlap, and descriptions blur with less rigorous marketing terms, such as “cage-free,” “free-range,” and more rigorous “humane,” and “raised on pasture,” to name just a few. Many branding terms (paired with clever packaging and graphics) vie for customer attention in the marketing of poultry products. The complexity of terms and standards can confuse or even mislead the uniformed consumer.
This article reviews the main sections of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations for poultry production and discusses the different marketing terms used. Laws lead to creation of regulations that set standards for trade. Government standards, such as grading, food safety, and labeling are requirements that every producer must meet in order to sell their products. Beyond government requirements, many voluntary programs provide opportunities for producers to differentiate products in the marketplace, using terms with legal definitions, unregulated descriptors, or third-party certification programs. Some of these have minimum standards to qualify for certification; others provide levels or steps, and expectations for continual improvement (for details see sidebar on Page 6).
Producers can choose to pursue such voluntary certification options in response to the priorities of buyers, whether they are distributors or direct-market consumers. Assurance of clear standards and consistent enforcement of those standards boost consumer confidence and facilitate trade. Producer priorities and consumer values may include poultry health, production efficiency, whole farm productivity, environmental stewardship, animal welfare, food quality, product accessibility, and cost.
USDA Organic Regulations
While this article focuses on current USDA regulations which are qualitative and goal-oriented, it is appropriate and important to acknowledge that, in the words of USDA, “the variability in outdoor access practices among organic producers threatens consumer confidence in the organic label.” National Organic Program (NOP); Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices. More quantitative and prescriptive regulatory language in USDA organic regulations would help level the playing field with respect to outdoor access and would give consumers more confidence in the organic label. There is a significant contrast in practices between two main types of poultry operations that, at this point in time, may both be certified organic: those that use barn- or aviary-based production with enclosed porches and no direct contact with soil, and those whose understanding of the organic regulations and natural poultry behavior lead to free-range or pasture-based production.
Organic System Plan and Recordkeeping Requirements for Poultry Operations
Every certified organic operation needs to develop an Organic Production and Handling System Plan (OSP) that describes the operation. In general, an OSP needs to include a description of methods, materials, monitoring, and recordkeeping to demonstrate how the plan is being followed. For poultry operations, this includes the following:
• Source of birds (purchase receipts or brooding/hatching records)
• Feed (100% certified organic rations, fee sources, receipts and labels for certified organic feed, approved supplements and additives, and production or purchase of organic pasture, forage or other feed crops)
• Housing and living conditions
• Preventative health care practices
• Handling practices and materials (meat bird slaughter, packaging and sales; or egg collection, washing, candling, grading and packaging)
• Production and sales records
• Labeling to be used
• Recordkeeping (documentation of all of the above to show implementation of the producer’s OSP and compliance with the USDA organic regulations)
Egg Handling and Meat Processing
In order to sell eggs or poultry meat as organic, products must be processed (handled) in certified organic facilities. Washing organic eggs or processing poultry meats may take place on- or off-farm as long as practices and materials are described in your OSP. Materials used in egg handling may include cleaners, sanitizers, and egg-coatings. Materials frequently used for poultry meat processing may include cleaners and sanitizers used on scalders, evisceration tables, chill tanks, scales, or any other organic food-contact surfaces. Egg handling and meat processing methods materials must comply not only with organic regulations, but also other federal regulations, including but not limited to the USDA’s and Food Safety and Inspection Service, Egg Products Inspection Act, Egg Safety Rule, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s Food Code. Industry standards may also apply.
Selecting Your Poultry
USDA organic regulations require livestock producers to choose species and breeds that are well-adapted to the site and climate where they will be raised, and resistant to common diseases and parasites in that environment. Hatcheries provide breed descriptions and productivity data. The experience of other local producers can provide valuable input to guide your selection. Your buyers’ values, priorities, and preferences are practical considerations in designing your production system, and selecting breeds that thrive in that environment. Go to attra.ncat.org for a link to ATTRA publications on organic and pastured poultry production. Some customers value outdoor production, and seek birds they consider to be more flavorful. However, breeds that are well-adapted to outdoor production are better foragers in pasture-based production usually grow slower than more conventional meat breeds. Some buyers prefer the more familiar large-breasted breeds. Fast-growing birds tend to have more health and mobility problems, but reach marketable size several weeks faster on less feed. Design your production systems and select breeds with desirable characteristics to balance the health and productivity of the birds in your environment, and sustain farm profitability in varied markets.
Sourcing Birds / Hatcheries
Most poultry producers source their young stock from commercial hatcheries or specialized producer networks. Some breeds and circumstances call for sourcing eggs to brood on-farm (e.g. quail, whose small chicks are delicate to ship). According to USDA regulations, organic management of poultry must begin no later than the second day of life. Although the type of hatchery is not specified in organic regulations, poultry farm advisors recommend purchasing only from breeding flocks approved by the USDA National Poultry Improvement Program (NPIP), which certifies flocks to be free of certain diseases.
Vaccination against common diseases is allowed in organic poultry production, though vaccines must not be genetically modified. Vaccination of chicks, duckings, poults, or other avian stock by the hatchery can be requested at the time of ordering. Hatchery purchase records document animal origin and some preventive health. Other vaccinations may be done later on farm, and farm records kept for organic inspection and certification. Vaccines commonly used in the United States include those against Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease (whether this vaccination is recommended or not depends on the region), and infectious bronchitis. Other preventive health care strategies are discussed further in the health care section below.
Nutrition: Feed, Supplements and Additives
Poultry need quality feed to grow well. Good nutrition includes protein, amino acids, fatty acids, energy sources, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. All agricultural ingredients in organic poultry feed must be certified organic. Any non-agricultural ingredients used must be allowed by the USDA organic regulations. For example, oyster shell may be used as a calcium supplement to strengthen bones and eggshells. All feed rations, additives, and supplements must be listed in the producer’s OSP with their complete brand name, formulation, and manufacturer, and must be approved by the organic certifier prior to use.
Organic producers need to watch out for feed additives that are not allowed in organic production. For example, “medicated” chick starter includes a coccidiostat which is prohibited for use in organic production. Some non-organic rations include arsenic as a feed stimulant and protozoan parasite control. Arsenic cannot be fed to organic livestock and is also prohibited for organic crop production, so poultry manure that contains arsenic must not be applied to organic land.
Regulations specify that organic producers must not use feed quantities or feed supplements or additives beyond what is needed for adequate nutrition and health maintenance. Feeding mammalian or poultry slaughter by-products to mammals or poultry is prohibited. Organic and non-organic producers alike must not use any feed, feed additives, and feed supplements in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits the use of hormones in all poultry production operations regardless of organic status.
The requirement that organic poultry receive all-organic feed is the main distinction between certified organic and other non-conventional poultry production systems such as free-range, humane, or pastured. The cost of organic feed varies significantly depending on regional proximity to grain production and other factors. However, perhaps the biggest price difference is based on the quantities the producer purchases. Fifty-pound sacks from the feed store are considerably more expensive than one-ton totes or bulk delivery of truck-loads. Poultry producers using humane, outdoor, or pastured systems articulate how they weigh this decision point: the value of supporting organic production of feed crops vs. producing eggs or poultry meat that are economically accessible to more consumers. Feed costs range around 70% of poultry production costs; likely more in organic. Organic production costs are higher than non-organic production due, in large part, to the higher cost of organic feeds. To maintain a viable business, higher production costs must be offset by higher prices.
Organic products garner premium prices for their value as food, but also for their perceived contribution to the greater good, such as human health, social benefits, animal welfare, and environmental stewardship. Consumer trust in a label is necessary for consumers to be willing to pay a higher price for what they value. Significant controversy whirls amid discussion of the value of organic compared with other marketing claims. There are two main currents in the discussion. One has to do with the integrity of the organic label itself. To be most credible, USDA organic regulations provide a clear and universal standard, practiced by all organic producers, in alignment with consumer expectations, with consistent interpretation across accredited certifiers, and third-party verification of all producers seeking organic certification. The cross-current is the distinction between industrial type, house-based operations and producers who place a high priority on outdoor access and pasture-based systems. The pastured producer community eagerly shows–and customers recognize–the differences in quality–visual beauty, flavor, and texture of eggs and meat from birds raised on pasture. Research shows differences in nutrition, including higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in products when the animals’ diets include fresh, green forage.
Preventative Health Care
Organic regulations require preventative health care of birds. Selection of appropriate species/breeds and vaccination programs are discussed above. Poultry, like all livestock, benefit from a healthy environment to prevent diseases and minimize stress. Clean drinking water is required by organic regulations, and a mainstay of preventive health. Watering systems that keep water clean reduce diseases such as coccidiosis, a disease caused by a protozoan parasite. Because poultry eat in proportion to their drinking, poultry health, growth, and productivity depend on a reliable supply of fresh, clean water. In addition to vaccines, discussed above, probiotics, or beneficial microbes may be used to establish beneficial microflora. Good microorganisms work in the poultry’s gut, by competitive exclusion, to reduce disease-causing organisms like Salmonella and E. coli.
Physical alterations of organic livestock are not allowed unless they are necessary for the animals’ welfare. Most organic producers find alterations (such as beak trimming) to be unnecessary when their systems design and husbandry provide enough space, prevent crowding and competition, possibly include roosters to maintain social order, and use other strategies to provide a low-stress environment. The Organic Livestock and Poultry Program (OLPP) would add definitions to the regulations, and prohibit some alterations (See Sidebar on page 11 for more information about OLPP).
Although the land on which organic animals are raised must be certified organic, regulations do not require producers to provide pasture as a feed source for organic poultry. (Pasture is required for organic ruminants since they are natural grazers, and the regulations specify minimum time and dry matter consumption.) However, production of poultry on pasture or forage generally provides outdoor access and healthy living conditions–both of which are required by USDA organic regulations. To be certified organic, pasture-based systems must also use all organic feed, preventive health care, and avoid prohibited materials.
The quality and quantity of outdoor access is one of the main areas of debate that needs more consistent interpretation and verification by certifiers. Organic poultry must have access to the outdoors, exercise areas, shade, and direct sunlight, as appropriate to stage of life, climate, and environment.
Organic requirements prescribe a healthy, low-stress environment that is key to production. Good air quality is extremely important to birds’ health. Dust and high levels of ammonia can cause respiratory problems, Appropriate, clean, dry bedding, and regular cleaning of poultry housing contribute to healthy living conditions. Young birds–chicks, ducklings, poults, and other young birds need to be kept warm and safe from predators.
Poultry must be able to express their natural maintenance and comfort behaviors, such as roosting, scratching, and dustbathing. The OLPP and animal welfare programs specify minimum requirements for roost space, housing, and outdoor access and exercise areas, as well as limits on the size and density of flocks. Current organic regulations require outdoor access once birds have adequate feathering. The OLPP specifies quantitative timeframe requirements. Any confinement of poultry after this early stage of development must be documented and justified for inclement weather; stage of life; animal health, safety, or well-being; risk to soil or water quality; healthcare—illness or injury; sorting or shipping and sale; breeding; and for youth projects.
Supplemental lighting is commonly used in layer operations to diminish seasonal dips in rate of lay during winter months. Currently, producers describe proposed practices with respect to lighting in their Organic System Plan (OSP) which is subject to approval by the certifier. If/when the OLPP is implemented, it would provide specific 16-hour guidelines.
House-based systems can qualify for organic certification provided there is adequate access to the outdoors, direct sunlight, fresh air, and all other regulatory living condition requirements are fulfilled. The OLPP clarifies the requirement for soil and vegetation. With time and shared experience, producer capacity, consumer awareness, and policy clarification, each of these systems may become further developed, clearly defined, and transparently represented for the benefit of poultry producers, consumers, poultry themselves, and the environments in which they are raised.
Predator management is necessary for the survival, health, safety and well-being of both poultry and predators. In the interest of all creatures involved, predator management practices should prevent wildlife contact with livestock. Producers may “train” each type of potential predator NOT to perceive their poultry as food or prey. Wildlife is specifically listed in USDA organic regulations as one of the natural resources that organic operations must maintain or improve, so approaches should be non-lethal. Predator management strategies include a combination of physical barriers, (housing, fencing, daytime cover and night shelter); deterrents (“predator eyes” lights, motion sensor sprinklers), and management (regular presence of humans, and well-trained guard animals).
Organic poultry are required to have appropriate, clean, dry bedding, whether in housing or nest boxes. If the bedding material used is an agricultural crop that may be consumed, it must be certified organic. When forest products such as wood shavings are used, they need not be certified organic, but must consist only of plant products that are not treated with any prohibited materials.
Manure management is an important part of managing an organic livestock operation. Regulations state, “The producer of an organic livestock operation must manage manure in a manner that does not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water by plant nutrients, heavy metals, or pathogenic organisms and optimizes recycling of nutrients and must manage pastures and other outdoor access areas in a manner that does not put soil or water quality at risk.” While hydrated lime is allowed as an external pest control, it is not permitted for cauterizing or to deodorize animal wastes.
Each type of poultry production system can and should become more transparently represented for the benefit of poultry producers, consumers, poultry themselves, and the environments in which they are raised. This process takes time, persistence, producer capacity, consumer awareness, political will, and clear legal definitions for marketing terms. NCAT is working, together with our project partners and many farmers from whom we continue to gain key insights, to develop reliable information and make it accessible.
The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is a private nonprofit organization founded in 1976. Its programs deal with sustainable and renewable energy, energy conservation, resource-efficient housing, sustainable community development, and sustainable agriculture. ATTRA is a program developed and managed by NCAT. The majority of funding for ATTRA is through a cooperative agreement with the USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service. We are committed to providing high value, practical science-based information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, Extension agents, educators, and others involved in organic and sustainable agriculture in the United States.
For more information on organic poultry practices and other sustainable agriculture resources visit attra.ncat.org.
Imagine taking a math test, solving a really difficult problem, then discovering that your solution answered the next two questions as well.
That’s essentially what happened to Oregon State University (OSU) plant pathologist, Jennifer Parke. She set out to solve one problem—treating a specific disease in container nurseries.
When that research was successful, Parke then received a Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program grant to expand her research to new systems and solve other problems for other growers.
Now, if her research keeps bearing fruit, organic vegetable growers may finally have an economical way to manage weeds other than slow and costly hand weeding.
Parke’s solution is soil solarization—trapping the sun’s energy under a layer of plastic to heat the soil enough to kill pathogens and weeds. It’s a technique proven effective in hotter climates like California and Israel, but one that didn’t work in the cooler Pacific Northwest.
“But a few years ago, for the greenhouse industry, manufacturers introduced horticultural films with anti-condensation properties,” Parke explained. “They reduced the constant drip-drip-drip inside greenhouses.”
She envisioned a different application.
“Condensed water droplets reduce the amount of solar radiation able to pass through the plastic, and reduces soil heating,” she said. “So we wondered if these new films would work for soil solarization.”
With funding from Western SARE and the Western IPM Center, Parke tested the idea and got the answer. Yes, the new plastic works. In 42 different nursery sites from Southern California to Northern Washington, the non-condensing film heated the ground about 10 degrees Celsius higher compared to non-solarized plots.
Problem One: Sudden Oak Death
Parke’s initial idea for using the technique was to combat Phytophthora ramorum, the plant pathogen that causes sudden oak death and ramorum blight. A couple of dozen container nurseries in the West had become infested by the pathogen. They couldn’t ship plants to non-infested areas, and had no way to kill the pathogen’s soilborne phase.
“They couldn’t use fumigants in most cases because of their proximity to buildings and roads and homes,” she explained.
But solarization did work. Parke and her team showed the technique heated up the soil enough to kill the pathogen, but not the beneficial microorganisms that help make soil fertile.
“It’s not sterilizing the soil,” she said. “The pathogen has a lower heat tolerance threshold than other types of microorganisms.”
Parke’s team then leveraged the resources of the uspest.org website, a weather-based decision-support tool that the Western Integrated Pest Management Center has funded for several years. Oregon State University postdoctoral scientist Fumiaki Funahashi and professor Leonard Coop of the university’s Integrated Plant Protection Center built an online model that shows any nursery grower how long they need to solarize their ground to know it’s disease free. Problem one was solved.
Problem Two: Field Nurseries
Oregon’s greenhouse and nursery industry is the state’s top agricultural moneymaker, bringing in more than $900 million in 2016. So that’s where Parke turned her attention next.
“We thought, ‘Why limit it to container nurseries? Why not try it in field production nurseries?’” she said.
Those nurseries are a sight to see. They grow hundreds of different species of trees and shrubs, often from seed on raised beds. Parke’s target in those nurseries wasn’t necessarily Phytophthora species, but other soilborne diseases.
“And then lo and behold,” she said, “it was very effective at suppressing weeds.”
The J. Frank Schmidt and Son, Co. nursery in Boring, Oregon was one of the first field nurseries to test the technique.
“We started working with solarization in about 2014 after a few really wet springs and an abundant crop of weeds and problems with diseases,” explained Production Horticulturalist Sam Doane.
The results of the first trials were dramatic.
“There was basically a line in the field between solarized and non-solarized,” Doane said. “We had weeds and no weeds.”
Not only did the solarized blocks have far fewer weeds, the plants were taller and healthier and the stands were thicker. That was a surprise.
“It’s pretty clear we were reducing the amount of fungal and bacterial pathogens as well,” Doane said. “Before, when we had bad years and smaller-than-desired crops, we assumed it was due to weather. We can see now there’s more than just weather happening here.”
After seeing the results of just a few trials, J. Frank Schmidt and Son went straight to full scale implementation. The company is able to solarize about 70 percent of its production land each season.
“We knew things were going right when our field foreman said to the manager, ‘What are we going to do all summer? There’s no more weeds,’” Doane said.
The weed suppression continues for months after treatment, and Oregon State University weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith found a dramatic reduction in weeds in solarized areas well into the following year. Problem two was solved.
Problem Three: Organic Vegetables
For many organic growers, weed control is their most difficult challenge.
Without chemical herbicides to suppress weeds, growers are forced to use a lot of labor to hand weed their crops, which is expensive, or till their ground frequently, which is hard on the soil.
Solarization offers an alternative—if it can be shown to work in that production system.
Parke’s team is now testing solarization with and without a cover crop, and testing the minimum amount of time needed to successfully solarize fields in the Pacific Northwest. They’ve tested three, six and nine weeks, and are doing more trials to see if two weeks of solarization is enough.
“At two weeks, a lot more people will be able to solarize because it won’t cut into the growing season as much,” she said. “I think it could work after an early spring crop, like peas. Then you solarize in mid-summer before fall planting. Because we see weed suppression carry over into the next year, presumably you could even solarize one year and plant the next spring and still see reduced weed emergence.”
The team is expanding the online tool it built for nursery growers so that anyone who wants to solarize can use it. The model would link to local weather stations and tell growers how long to solarize to kill specific weeds and pathogens. Soil physicists Maria Dragila and Maziar Kandelous are providing input, and extension specialist Lloyd Nackley and Coop are incorporating grower feedback to make the website easier to use.
While solarizing a field in the summer takes that land out of production temporarily, Parke is hopeful that it can be successfully incorporated into organic growers’ rotations.
“The film is approved for organic use, and it can really reduce the labor costs of weeding,” she said. “We’re very excited about this and think it has a lot of potential, particularly if we can reduce the amount of time required for solarization.”
Problem three, then, gets partial credit as a work very much in progress.
More information: projects.sare.org/sare_project/sw16-070/
Meridian Orchards, in Aurora, Oregon is the longest-running certified organic hazelnut orchard in the USA. It was there that a panel of experts shared their inspiring business stories of marketing success during the lunch break of the 2019 Summer Farm Tour. The common threads binding the tales together were organic produce, organic product lines, and hazelnuts.
A group of around 75 people—mostly hazelnut growers—first toured a new organic hazelnut orchard at Skydance Farm in Sherwood, Oregon. Everyone then traveled from Washington County to Marion County. A catered lunch awaited the group at Jim Birkemeier, his daughter Mary Birkemeier-Stehman and son-in-law David Stehman’s Meridian Orchards.
Organic Produce Distribution
Tom Lively, a founding member of the Organically Grown Company, was the keynote speaker. Organically Grown is a distributor of certified organic produce based out of Eugene, Oregon. They deliver to restaurants and retailers throughout the Pacific Northwest. The lunch-hour program was the mid-point of the farm tour in August, organized by the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative, and sponsored in part by West Coast Nut magazine.
Tom shared his experiences of starting out in the late 1970s with “A few gardeners, small-scale farmers, hippies, environmental activists and dreamers living near Eugene.” He also shared how the co-op has grown and evolved over the decades.
In 1978, the group of farmers formed a nonprofit organic produce co-operative. In 1980, some of the members wanted to coordinate which farmers would grow which crop. That way they’d be able to market a more diversified product line as a unified group, instead of everyone growing the same few crops—tomatoes, corn and lettuce, for example. Divvying up the crop-growing assignments was not always smooth sailing. There were many arguments, some quite heated. But the coordinating paid off. In 1982, the group formed a growers’ marketing cooperative.
They opened their first distribution facility in Eugene in 1983. It had a truck-loading dock, which opened up bigger possibilities for loading, unloading and shipping. In 1994, the co-op opened their first Portland facility. The company in 2008 became an employee stock ownership program (ESOP). They expanded their delivery route into Idaho and Montana in 2015. “We’re shipping out of the Pacific Northwest anything that grows especially well here,” Tom said. Among many other produce items, such as blueberries, tomatoes, potatoes, squash, and purple sprouting broccoli, his company now also distributes 30,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year. In 2018, the Organically Grown Company transitioned ownership to the Sustainable Food & Agriculture Perpetual Purpose Trust.
Tom talked about the power behind cooperatives. He encouraged the hazelnut growers to collaborate, so they can set a pre-determined price point for their organic nuts. Organic growers face the challenge of competing with Turkish hazelnuts, which sell for around $4 a pound. Ideally, organic US growers would like to have a base price of $5.50 per pound for organic hazelnuts, around $5.85 a pound for organic walnuts and $6-$6.50 a pound for organic almonds.
After Tom spoke, a panel of business owners who sell, and/or incorporate hazelnuts into their product lines, shared their experiences with marketing, as well as their current and projected future hazelnut needs.
Vegan Ice Cream
Kate Campbell, of Coconut Bliss, based out of Eugene, talked about a hazelnut fudge ice cream flavor that her company offers, which they recently renamed Chocolate Hazelnut Decadence. They use roasted and diced organic hazelnuts. She said they buy 12,000-14,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year. “Double that poundage in shell,” she said.
Coconut Bliss is growing their brand by expanding to sales in more countries. It’s getting harder for her to find a good, steady supply of coconuts, so she’s mulling over the idea of phasing into using hazelnut milk in place of coconut milk in her vegan ice cream.
Of the hazelnut industry, Kate said, “I think the future’s bright and we’re happy to be a part of it and support that.”
Trail Mix and Granola
Patricia Wiskow, of Wildtime Foods, uses whole-kernel hazelnuts in her Grizzlies brand of handmade organic cereal, trail mix, granola and other products. Her company buys 10,000-12,000 pounds of hazelnuts a year. “We use anywhere from fifty to fifteen-hundred pounds in a day,” she said.
Wildtime Foods, also of Eugene, started out in 1981, delivering locally on bicycles. They’ve since outgrown the bikes and now deliver by motorized vehicles to local, natural food stores. You’re likely to find their products in the bulk-food section. They also have an online store.
Vegan and Gluten-Free Bulk Sales
Herman Bojwani, of Earthly Gourmet Distribution, is looking for bulk, food-service-friendly items. Ninety percent of his sales are to restaurants, 10 percent is sold retail. Hazelnuts are one of the ingredients in the company’s Ethiopian sauces. Herman said a small part of his business is hazelnut butter and hazelnut cookies.
Earthly Gourmet is based out of Portland. They deliver vegan and gluten-free foods to restaurants, bakeries, food processors and natural food stores along the I-5 corridor in Oregon and Washington State. Herman would like to use local and organic hazelnuts, but the bottom line price is important to him, so he tends to buy Turkish nuts for less cost. He did admit that he wants local businesses to support him, so he knows he needs to support local markets in return.
Wholesale Seeds, Nuts, Legumes and Honey
Hummingbird Wholesale, based in Eugene, is a family-owned business. They sell pumpkin seeds, legumes, dried fruit, honey and hazelnuts. Charlie Tilt wants to expand the company’s marketing outreach. “We have to think outside our micro circle,” he said.
The Tilts have great respect for organic growers. “Organic farming is an art form,” Julie Tilt said. “It’s experimentation and research and creativity. Organic farming is a lifestyle. You’re choosing to live your life with certain values.”
The Tilts appreciate the Birkemeier and Stehman’s dedication to producing hazelnuts organically. “Ninety-nine percent of (USA) hazelnuts are grown in Oregon,” Tilt said, “but only one-percent are certified organic.” For the past 20 years, the Tilts have bought their hazelnuts from Meridian Orchards.
As far as pricing, Charlie said he doesn’t mind paying $0.25-$0.50 more per pound for organic, “but two to four dollars per pound more is harder for retail in-store consumers,” he said.
“Value added” are buzz words among some farmers and growers. In the case of Meridian Orchard, Mary Birkemeier-Stehman takes some of their hazelnuts and adds her special touches—different roasts and various nut butters, all with attractive labels—to add value. The consumer is willing to pay more for these nicely presented, specialized products. Birkemeier-Stehman also sells organic fruit.
Birkemeier-Stehman calls her value-added side business Squirrely Jane’s. She set up her marketing display for the hazelnut growers to peruse during the farm tour. She uses the canopy, banners, tables and signs to sell her products at Portland-area farmers markets. She sells one and two pound bags of nuts—lightly salted, roasted and raw. She offers two types of roast. “Some people like the dark roast and some like the light roast,” she said. The smallest kernels are turned into hazelnut butter, which she grinds in an antique peanut grinder in her certified kitchen on the family farm. She makes chocolate, lightly salted, and straight hazelnut butter.
Birkemeier-Stehman enjoys getting the nut products ready for the public, and educating and interacting with customers.
“It’s my jam,” Birkemeier-Stehman said about the value-added piece of the business. “I like it. And that’s important.”
Linda Perrine of Honor Earth Farm, in Eugene, was the moderator of the lunch-hour program. Perrine said she got calls this year from Korean and Chinese buyers for organic hazelnuts. In past years, she’s had calls from Japanese buyers as well.
Perrine takes her nuts to Miller Dehydrator Company to be washed and dried. Miller is located in Eugene. It’s an organic handler certified through Oregon Tilth. She uses Denali Nut Company, of Salem for shelling.
Perrine is a founding member of Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative (OOHC), which got its start in 2017. Currently, she is a Member Director. In 2018, she leased her 32-acre orchard of Casina and Willamette hazelnuts to My Brothers Farm, another co-op member, so she can spend a year focusing on growing OOHC and assisting other members.
OOHC Vice President Taylor Larson thanked everyone for attending, saying it was wonderful to have so many people attend the event.
“Looking at the whole eco-system globally and how Oregon fits into that, there are lots of opportunities for people to make a really good living,” Larson said about organic hazelnut growers.
“What we need are more members.” He echoed what Tom Lively had said at the beginning of the program: “We need to find a way to steer all of our ships in the same direction and collaborate.” Those interested in joining OOHC can find a membership form on their website.
Larson offered a special than you to West Coast Nut magazine for their sponsorship, which was greeted with a warm round of applause.
Is using an electrostatic air sprayer better for the environment than using a conventional airblast sprayer?
“It’s more controlled,” which reduces drift and runoff, said Willie Hartman. Hartman is the president of On Target Spray Systems, out of Mt. Angel, Oregon. Electrostatic sprayers are also less wasteful, according to Hartman. They use less horsepower (hp)—only half as much, which cuts diesel fuel usage by half. Less spray is wasted, and it takes less tank fills, which saves labor.
How does an electrostatic sprayer compare to a conventional airblast sprayer?
“It uses less water. Has electrostatic wrap around. It’s still the newest next generation. Others electrostatic sprayers are from the 50s,” Hartman said.
The concept is simple. Think in terms of metal bits drawn to a magnet, dog hair to clothes or dust to venetian blinds. It’s the same concept that draws the spray and water droplets to surround and cling to all the parts of a plant.
The basic idea has been around for a while, and is widely used by cleaning businesses. The electrostatic technology works well with antiseptic cleaners to sterilize hard-to-reach corners and crevasses.
Electrostatic sprayers are a three-part system: air, liquid and electrical. “We use compressed air and atomize the drops,” Hartman said. The drops break down into 58-billion droplets per gallon of water.
“Trees are grounded” said Don Hatai, On Target customer service support engineer. Hatai gave an electrostatic sprayer demonstration during an organic hazelnut farm tour at Skydance Farm in Sherwood, Oregon. “Charged droplets repel each other and are attracted to the grounded tree,” Hatai explained from the orchard. So, the electrostatic sprayer can get full, uniform coverage—around an apple, for example, or around a strawberry or a hazelnut. It will also coat the underside of leaves, which is often where insect pests hang out.
Can you use all fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide sprays through the unit? “Wetable powder and oils can go through the sprayer,” said Hatai.
Someone attending the farm tour asked about sulphur. “Sulphurs are harder,” Hatai said. “Have to water it way down.”
After Hatai’s demonstration with plain water, several of the orchard tour goers checked the top and bottom of leaves on both sides of the trees to see if the electrostatic sprayer had, indeed, wet the entire surface on both sides of the aisle. It had.
In science, when “like” electrical charges repel and opposite charges attract, it’s known as Coulomb’s Law. (a coulomb is a unit of electric charge). It’s also known as the law of attraction, or powder coating.
A spray droplet from a conventional airblast sprayer is around 250 microns. With an electrostatic sprayer, the spray droplets are atomized down to 50 to 80 microns. Right before the mist exits the nozzle, it’s given a positive charge.
The electrically-charged droplets are attracted to the plant, which is grounded. The droplets of mist—in theory, anyway—stick to the plant and don’t runoff onto the ground the way a bigger, 250-micron droplet would be more prone to do.
Cost Savings for the Farm and Orchard
Sprays: The average spray use needed with an electrostatic sprayer is 50 gallons to an acre in mature orchards, and 5-25 gallons an acre on young orchards, which adds up to approximately a 25 percent savings in spray costs.
Because of the lower horsepower needed for an electrostatic sprayer, compared to a conventional airblast sprayer, diesel usage is cut in half. Growers can utilize less expensive tractors.
Cost per Unit
The cost per spray unit is $15,000 to $65,000, depending on the size of the sprayer from On Target Spray Systems. A 400-gallon rig will spray 13 acres per tank, and costs approximately $40,000.
If you have a large operation then naturally you’ll see more cost-savings benefits. Several things to factor in to cost versus savings: How many acres are you spraying? What do you spray? Do you have to pay for farm labor, or does labor come mostly from you and family members? That latter question begs to ask this one: What value do you put on your time, and on your family’s time?
Small farm operations would, of course, take longer to realize financial benefits from an electrostatic spray unit.
Electrostatic spray manifolds
Adjustable for all tree sizes. The adjustable towers are low profile. Taller towers are available for fruit trees.
Can adjust to spray from ground level to horizontal up to 30 feet.
12-15 pounds of air pressure.
10-15 pounds of liquid pressure.
The units are PTO operated and need only 45 PTO hp.
A 400-gallon sprayer will cover around 13 acres per tank. A 600-gallon sprayer will cover approximately 20 acres per tank.
There’s a rate controller on all models. It gives an exact, precise application for growers, and makes it easy for the operator and manager. “It’s kind of expensive,” Hartman said, “but we put it on every single sprayer.”
For example, if the operator sets the rate controller at 50 gallons per acre, whether the driver goes fast, goes slow, or pauses, the rate controller will adjust accordingly.
“And that’s a big deal,” Hartman said. Conventional sprayers might cover three to four acres per tank. “Spray for twenty minutes and run back and fill again.” With an electrostatic sprayer, an operator might fill the tank in the morning and not have to go back to fill again until lunch.
Maintenance is simple, according to Hatai. Flush the system when you’re done, then run the air system to get rid of any moisture.
There’s a switch on the control panel to go from chemical spray to rinse water, Hartman said. “Don’t even have to leave your tractor.”
Farmers might say: Okay, all this is great news. What’s the part I need to pay attention to?
Hartman’s answer in three words: “Keep it clean.” If you do that you will be very happy.
On Target started out doing a lot of work with wine grapes, blueberries and strawberries. Electrostatic sprayers were especially useful with strawberries. The plants are so low, and with the leaves touching the ground it’s hard to get spray to the underside of the leaves.
The company is branching out into fruits and nuts.
On Target has been working in conjunction with Washington State University (WSU), according to Hartman. They’ve been doing some trials in cherry orchards with liquid pollination. A research scientist at WSU has discovered a way to keep cherry pollen alive in liquid. Electrostatic liquid pollen application is replacing dry pollen application due to better results.
Now On Target is doing work with almonds and pistachios in California. Last year they started their first initial trials with hazelnut pollination in Oregon.
“What I see is airblast sprayers have served the industry well for fifty or sixty years,” Hartman said. Since there are environmental concerns with spray drift and runoff, “The industry is looking for a solution to these concerns.”