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Veterans Grow New Careers in Agriculture

Sara Creech, an Air Force veteran, has been farming in Indiana since 2012, and says she knew from the beginning that she wanted her farm to be certified organic. She’s one of more than 350,000 veteran or active-duty service members involved in farming in the U.S. (2017 USDA Ag Census). She’s also one of the hundreds of farmer veterans who have completed the Armed to Farm training program developed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT).

 

NCAT’s Armed to Farm

Armed to Farm is a sustainable agriculture training program for military veterans. NCAT, a national nonprofit organization based in Butte, Mont., arranged the first Armed to Farm training through a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Project with the University of Arkansas. The program has expanded over the past eight years with support from a cooperative agreement with USDA-Rural Development.

Since launching the program in 2013, our guiding goals have been:

  • To train veterans and their partners to operate sustainable crop and livestock enterprises.
  • To create a network of veterans and their families who are starting careers in sustainable agriculture.
  • To provide technical assistance to participants as they start and improve their farming operations.

Over the past eight years, Armed to Farm has supported more than 800 veterans from 45 states with hands-on and classroom learning opportunities. Farmer veterans learn how to make a business plan and market their products, set business goals and develop lasting mentorships with seasoned farmers. Participants meet representatives from USDA agencies, including the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Centers. They learn how to access farm programs for help with business development and improving farm infrastructure.

 

Tours and Training

The training also features farm tours and hands-on activities at a variety of successful farms, some of which are veteran-owned. Participants learn from seasoned farmers and gain direct experience on livestock, vegetable, fruit and agritourism operations.
Armed to Farm now offers three training series:

  • Flagship, weeklong hands-on and classroom training for new farmer veterans.
  • Armed to Urban Farm’s weeklong training focuses on veterans who are new farmers in urban areas.
  • Armed to Farm 2.0 is advanced sustainable agriculture training designed for farmer veterans who have completed a previous weeklong session. This training provides in-depth curriculum on business planning, financial management, marketing and scaling-up production. We tailor hands-on activities at area farms to participants’ needs and focus on more advanced production, marketing and entrepreneurship techniques.

Farmer veterans who complete one of the training series stay connected to their peers and often develop close ties to other farmers. The Armed to Farm program also provides opportunities for in-person and virtual veteran networking events as well as limited scholarships for veterans to attend agricultural conferences and trainings presented by other organizations.

Armed to Farm educational opportunities continue after the weeklong trainings with webinars, podcasts and other online resources provided through NCAT’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program. The ATTRA program has built a trusted knowledge base over the last 30 years on everything from livestock, horticulture and agronomy to marketing and farm energy.

Sara Creech, left, leads an Armed to Farm training group on a tour of her Indiana farm in 2019 (photo by R. Metzger.)

The ATTRA website hosts more than 500 farmer-friendly publications on agricultural production and marketing, plus webinars, tutorials, videos, podcast episodes and more. The website includes an extensive section on organic farming. This multimedia knowledge base is available free online, and our staff members are always available to provide one-on-one technical assistance. To contact our agriculture specialists, farmers can:

Call ATTRA at 800-346-9140 (English) or 800-411-3222 (Spanish)

Email or text questions to askanag@ncat.org

Submit questions through our website chat box at ATTRA.NCAT.ORG

Why Veterans Choose Agriculture

Over the years, we’ve learned that veterans are drawn to farming for many reasons. They find satisfaction in problem-solving and overcoming the challenges of farming, being their own boss and providing support and employment for other veterans. Many veterans also are drawn to farming because working outside with plants or animals, and feeding healthy food to their families and communities, helps them deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other effects of being deployed.

As Creech said recently, “Farming can be a way to use nature as therapy.”

Studies and anecdotal evidence show farming has proven therapeutic value. Another Armed to Farm alumna, an Air Force veteran, farmer and doctor at Walter Reed Hospital, prescribes gardening and farming to her patients and has seen positive results.

Veterans make great farmers because they are not afraid of hard work or setbacks. They’re not deterred when things go wrong, and in farming, things always go wrong! But when veterans encounter an obstacle, they quickly reassess, formulate a new plan and follow through. The mission mindset they honed during military service is a great asset for farming. They also have an entrepreneurial spirit. Many veterans pursue not just one or two farming enterprises, but also produce value-added products and have creative farm business ideas.

 

One Veteran’s Story

Although Creech had no farming experience when she moved to her place back in 2012, you would never guess it seeing her farm today. NCAT’s Armed to Farm Program Director Margo Hale and I had the privilege of visiting Sara’s operation two years ago, Blue Yonder Organic Farm. With help from Creech, along with the Farmer Veteran Coalition, Indiana and AgrAbility, we hosted an Armed to Farm training in Crawfordsville, Ind. in 2019. We spent a sunny May afternoon with a group of around 20 veterans touring Creech’s farm and learning from her experiences.

Blue Yonder Organic Farm is a picturesque 43-acre diversified farm about an hour west of Indianapolis. Creech produces certified organic chicken, beef and lamb as well as certified organic vegetables. In addition, she sells eggs, honey, mushrooms and maple syrup. She sells her products through farmer’s markets and some contract growing.

In a recent podcast interview with Margo, Creech shared that the staff from her local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) service center have been key allies in her farm’s transformation. Although they had never worked with an organic producer before, they were excited to help her build the farm. Through the NRCS EQIP program, Creech has constructed two high tunnels that help protect her crops and extend the growing season. She also has participated in NRCS fencing and large-acre pollinator planting programs. Creech credits the USDA Organic Certification Cost Share Program with helping make certifying her farm more affordable.

It is inspiring to have watched Creech progress from a beginning farmer in 2013 when she attended our very first Armed to Farm training in Fayetteville, Ark. to a successful farmer and seasoned mentor teaching a new cohort of farmer veterans. And Creech is just one of many Armed to Farm alumni finding and sharing their passion and purpose in farming. As agriculture educators, we really couldn’t ask for more.

 

Additional Information

Learn more about Armed to Farm at ARMEDTOFARM.ORG; there, you can join our listserv, sign up for email alerts or follow our Facebook page to keep in touch and learn about Armed to Farm news, events and resources.

ATTRA Podcasts featuring Armed to Farm alumni: Forty Years Later, Mr. Burch is Back on the Farm; Veterans Discuss USDA Programs; Veteran Tells Dusty Hound Story; Veteran Helps Veterans Learn to Farm; From “Shovel and Rototiller” to Conservation Champ; and Camaraderie at Armed to Farm. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG

NCAT Northeast Regional Director Andy Pressman, left, leads a group exercise on whole-farm planning during the 2019 Armed to Urban Farm in Cleveland, Ohio (photo by M. Hale.)

Organic Produce Sales Continue Strong Showing

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Year-over-year organic produce sales continued with a strong showing in quarter two of 2021, overcoming the reopening of restaurants, which drove down conventional produce sales from the same period a year ago, to post a 4% increase, according to a report from the Organic Produce Network.

“I think it is encouraging that even though consumer purchases of conventional produce were lower than quarter two of 2020, organic produce continued to generate growth,” said Steve Lutz, senior vice president of Insights and Innovation at Category Partners, which compiled the quarterly report for the Organic Produce Network.

The report compared sales from quarter two of 2020, when the shuttering of restaurants due to COVID-19 drove up retail produce sales, to sales from quarter two of 2021, when restaurants were starting to reopen, contributing to more normal consumer purchase behavior.

“Bottom line, we are going to start returning to a little more normalcy as we go forward,” said Matt Seeley, CEO of Organic Produce Network. “The numbers now reflect us coming out of last year’s pantry loading when people were doing more cooking at home.”

The quarter two report comes after a sensational year-over-year growth rate of 9% in organic produce sales in quarter one of 2021. But those numbers were heavily skewed by COVID-19, according to Lutz, who said the absence of competition from restaurant sales drove up the retail numbers.

“I think the takeaway [from the quarterly reports] is that the growth of organic produce retail over 10 years has consistently been at a higher rate than conventional. And that was true during the pandemic and it remains true coming out of the pandemic for the last two reports,” Lutz said.

 

Consumer Preference

At the heart of the steady increase, sources said, is ongoing consumer preference for organic produce, a preference amplified during the pandemic and in its aftermath, when health concerns continue to drive consumer food purchase decisions.

“During this time, peoples’ health is at top of mind,” Seeley said. “It is very front-and-center, and organic fresh produce has some tremendous attributes as it relates to providing consumers and mothers who are trying to feed their kids and their families healthy, nutritious food options. Organic fits that bill very nicely.”

“I think eating habits changed as a result of what we experienced last year, and some of those habits are persisting into this year,” said Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, which provides organic certifications to farms, handlers and distributors across the U.S. “More people are cooking at home, starting with fresh ingredients and kind of rediscovering the joy of cooking with fresh flavors.”

In the quarterly reports, the Organic Produce Network and Category Partners analyze retail sales at the supermarket level. The reports don’t capture farmers’ market sales, community supported agriculture sales, or other farm-direct sales.

The quarter two report showed U.S. sales for all organic produce sectors totaled just under $2.3 billion, up 4.1% in dollars and 0.2% in volume from the same quarter a year ago. Meanwhile, conventional produce saw dollar sales decrease by 3.3% in quarter two and saw volume fall by 8.6% compared to the same period a year ago.

One interesting nugget in the quarter two report is that for the first time, berries overtook packaged salads as the number-one organic category in dollar sales. Year-over-year berry sales increased by 19% in the second quarter, with volume up 16% during the same time frame. Total organic berry sales topped $435 million for the quarter.

The top ten organic produce categories showed mixed results, according to the report, with berries, apples, lettuce, bananas and citrus making sales gains, while packaged salads, herbs, carrots, tomatoes and potatoes showed modest declines.

Organic produce sales showed significant year-over-year gains in both the first and second quarter of 2021. Here, workers at Gathering Together Farms in Philomath, Ore. harvest melons (photo courtesy Oregon Tilth.)

 

Promising Outlook

Looking forward, Lutz sees no reason for organic sales to stop their growth and believes they will continue to increase at a higher rate than conventional sales.

“I think they will for a couple of reasons,” he said. “One is the cost differential continues to come down. Producers continue to get better and more competitive, and so, what we are continuing to see is the price gap, the premium that organic carries over conventional, is narrowing. And as that price premium narrows, more and more consumers will make that jump.

“And the second piece is continuity of supply,” Lutz continued. “Retail stores can’t live with sporadic supplies. They have to have the same product at the same price and the same quality and run it, maybe not for 52 weeks because of seasonality, but they have to run it consistently. They just can’t deal with variations in supply and variations in pricing.

“So, what we are seeing is that as organic becomes more prevalent and it is more widely available, the consistency-of-supply issue gets solved, the price premium comes down, and both of those make the produce more attractive to the retailer for an ongoing item to slot in their store that they can permanently give space to on a retail shelf,” Lutz said.

Schreiner said Oregon Tilth has seen a significant uptick in organic certifications as of late, a reflection of the increased popularity of organic produce. So far into the 2021 certification season, the organic certifier is averaging about 35 new applicants per month, he said. During last year’s certification season, Oregon Tilth was averaging about 25 applicants per month.

“This is a long-term trend in the area of growth in the food market,” Schreiner said. “I think there is a growing awareness of healthy food as preventative health care. And I think, secondly, there is this kind of larger sense of community and environmental health that is helping drive sales.

“So, I think it is a combination of both of those factors that is motivating peoples’ choices,” he continued. “And I think as more food operations get into organics, that will drive public investment and public resources into figuring out how to make this food system work as well as possible.”

“If you look at consumer research, what you see consistently is that organic is perceived to be superior to conventional by the majority of consumers in almost every way except one, and that is cost.” Lutz said. “And that higher cost remains a barrier.

“For the majority of consumers, if they could switch to organic and the cost barrier is not insurmountable, they will make the switch,” he continued. “That is what the long-term trend has shown is that consumers are looking for ways to make that switch, and it is really just a question of is the price premium too high, or is the product in some way different from the conventional alternative that they are used to buying.

“So, the quality has got to be consistent. The package size has to be consistent. The varieties have to be consistent,” Lutz said. “But if you equal all of those out, consumers are making the switch.”

Drought Affects Urban Farmers in California

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As California suffers from yet another period of extreme drought, it can be easy to forget how urban farmers are also affected in the larger scope of agriculture.

Urban farmers can suffer from many of the same consequences of drought as large-scale farmers. Issues that urban farmers encounter during drought (and even when drought is not severe) include water rationing, drought surcharges, and access to water infrastructure such as lines or meters. Many of these issues can be attributed to California’s uneven water landscape and decentralized water system as it pertains to municipal supply.

 

Uneven Water Landscape

A number of factors interact to create an uneven water landscape for urban farmers and gardeners, according to UCCE Urban Agriculture and Food Systems Advisor Lucy Diekmann, and these factors become even more complicated during drought.

Diekmann said a key factor of California’s uneven water landscape is its decentralized water system, noting that most water for urban agriculture comes from municipal sources and is frequently more expensive than other non-potable sources of irrigation water. “During drought, urban water restrictions are likely to apply to farms and gardens using municipal water,” she said. “These could have a large impact on urban farms’ operations if they have to ration water or limit watering to certain days and times.”

A case study led by Diekmann published in 2017 looked at how urban agriculture in Santa Clara County was affected by drought. An important finding of the study, which can be found at tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13549839.2017.1351426?journalCode=cloe20, showed that some urban farmers connected to non-municipal water supplies, such as wells, experienced water shortages.

“One farm’s well ran dry, forcing them to end their season early,” Diekmann said.

Farms that were connected to the municipal supply had more reliable water, she said, but were concerned about their ability to afford much higher water bills if water rationing or drought surcharges took effect.

In Santa Clara County, there are 13 different water retailers providing water across 15 cities. Each water retailer, Diekmann said, adopts their own price structure and water rates and is responsible for creating and implementing their own drought management plan.

“Depending on where a farm is located, farmers can pay very different amounts for water and need to adopt different drought-related measures,” she said. “In Santa Clara County, water retailers also have the option to offer a discounted rate for agricultural water use. During the last drought, however, less than a third of retailers offered this rate to their customers, so, again, an urban farm’s ability to take advantage of this discount is highly dependent on location.”

This is only one example of the unevenness in urban water landscapes. Other examples center on inconsistent water costs varying with agencies hosting urban farms, whether parks, school or utility districts, faith-based institutions or other organizations, and details of their land use agreement(s).

Diekmann also said that many urban farms and gardens are supported by city and county departments, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and others who help them access both land and water. These supporters, she said, can have a big impact on a farm’s operation depending on whether they choose to absorb or pass on conservation requirements and extra water costs in a drought.

“This is also where opportunities for innovative policies among urban food systems policy makers remain,” said UCCE Urban Ag & Food Systems Advisor Rob Bennaton. “If urban growers cultivating crops beyond their own personal and family needs are managing lands in ways that preserve soil and water resources while increasing food security and environmental quality, should those costs for growing crops be at municipal or residential water rates?”

Indeed, water is becoming more expensive. “Some may be better able to manage changes, at least over the short-term, while others may not have the necessary resources to tide them over,” Diekmann said.

Many issues that urban farmers encounter during drought (and even when drought is not severe) can be attributed to California’s uneven water landscape and decentralized water system as it pertains to municipal supply (photo courtesy Rachel Surls, UCCE.)

 

Cooperative Solutions

In order to change the uneven water landscape for urban farming in metropolitan cities and improve water access during periods of drought, organizations, local governments and urban farmers must all contribute.

Diekmann suggested offering a discounted water rate for urban agricultural uses as one way local governments can help to improve access to water for urban farms. Bennaton agreed with supporting discounted or reduced rates, given the proven social and environmental benefits of urban farming.

Another way to improve access, according to Diekmann, is to offset the cost of installing needed water infrastructure, such as water lines or meters, at urban farm and garden sites.
“On sites that do not already have water lines or a water meter, paying to have them installed can cost thousands of dollars,” Diekmann said, noting that the city of San Francisco has several model programs in this area while also providing tools for calculating a water budget and encouraging training on efficient irrigation. Additional information about the program can be found at sfpuc.org/programs/grants.

 

Improving Efficiency

Educational opportunities abound to learn practices for conserving water, including workshops and webinars by UCCE Master Gardener Program, and also the Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) training program for professionals. Over the long-term, municipalities could consider opportunities to develop or extend alternative water sources, like recycled water, to urban agricultural users, she said.

As for what urban farmers can do to mitigate the effects of drought and reduce water usage, practicing efficient irrigation management is key. Soil health practices, such as applying compost or mulch, can increase the soil’s water holding capacity, and using drip irrigation can also save water for plant growth.

Bennaton added, “Mulch and drip irrigation can also minimize soil upsplash onto undersides of leafy green vegetables, helping keep food safe when growing crops in variable urban soils.”

Diekmann noted that many urban farmers, including the ones in the Santa Clara County case study, already emphasize water conservation whether there is a drought or not. “In our study, 100% of farmers were already using drip irrigation,” she said.

Growing Blueberries in Western Regions

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Blueberries can add another market niche to your operation if proper steps are taken before and after planting. For starters, the growing site needs to be chosen with care. Other considerations are soil type, access to irrigation and quick and easy road access to cooling and packing facilities or fresh markets.

Since blueberry bushes can live for 50 years, it pays to put in the research and effort to situate them well and get the plants off to a vigorous and productive start.

Blueberries are considered a specialty crop along the California coastline and in Southern California, but they can still produce well if care is taken to address the plants’ needs.

 

Choosing a Planting Site

Mark Gaskell, retired UCCE small farm and specialty crops advisor, wrote the guide, ‘Blueberry Production in Coastal and Southern California.’ In the guide, he said that if California growers are aiming for early season blueberry production, requirements include a mild winter climate together with low-chill varieties and frost protection.

“The site will ideally be frost-free or have a threat of frost only rarely and for short periods,” according to Gaskell.

Hillsides are helpful when planting new blueberries. Not only do hillsides assist with drainage, “Planting on a hillside will also allow cold air to drain away from the crop on clear, cold nights with the potential for frosts,” Gaskell wrote. “Sites with good air circulation will also enable mixing of cold air near the surface with warmer air higher off the ground.”
Hillsides facing the winter sun are beneficial because such sites allow for earlier warming. Growers can add additional frost protection with fans to mix cold air with warm, or by using overhead sprinklers.

Blueberry growers may want to consider the use of high tunnels. Tunnels create temperature gain, but they will also help protect against frost and wind. High winds are damaging to berry plants and developing fruit. Heavy winds stress the plants, Gaskell noted. The berries can develop scratches and blisters from leaves and branches blowing and rubbing against them. One drawback to growing under tunnels is an increased issue with thrips. If tunnels aren’t practical or affordable, growers can add windbreaks.

“Plants in windy areas will not reach the same levels of vigor and productivity as plants in calmer areas or plants protected by windbreaks,” according to Gaskell.

In 2007, blueberries were planted on a sawdust mound to improve aeration and drainage.

 

Soil and Amendments

Blueberries will grow in a variety of soil types in the above mentioned California regions, although heavy clay soils create drainage issues and sandy soils drain too quickly. To slow down drainage in sandy soils, incorporate organic matter. Spread five tons of compost or well-aged manure per acre in three- to four-foot bands over the rows. With a rotovator or disk, incorporate the compost or manure to a depth of 6 to 8 inches, Gaskell advised.

Test soil before planting. Blueberries require a pH level of 4.5 to 5.5 to thrive. Growers can add elemental sulfur and work it in at the same time as the compost to acidify the soil, if needed. Adding sulfur as early as possible will help make it available to roots at planting time.

“When elemental sulfur is mixed with moist soil, soil bacteria convert the sulfur to sulfuric acid,” according to Gaskell. “The sulfur products that have shown good results in California are Tiger Sulfur 90® and Disper-Sul®, both of which are finely ground sulfurs formed into pellets with bentonite clay for ease of application. The clay expands as it absorbs moisture and breaks apart to disperse the fine sulfur particles.”

Even with organic amendments, sandy soils will still require more frequent irrigating than heavier soils.

To grow blueberries in clay or heavy soils, build mounded beds on top of compost-amended soil with copious amounts of sawdust, wood chips or rice hulls. These high beds will improve aeriation as well as drainage. Most soils do best with this treatment. After planting, mulch the entire surface around plants to help control weeds.

 

Pacific Northwest

As with California regions, soil pH should be tested before planting. According to Washington State University Spokane County Extension, blueberries are better suited to the environment found in Western Washington as opposed to the eastern part of the state. Later blooming varieties are better than early blooming varieties for the inland northwest since later bloomers are not as likely to suffer damage from a late spring frost.

According to Oregon State University, Washington State University and University of Idaho, the same holds true with western and eastern Oregon. Most commercial blueberry production in Oregon is west of the Cascades, although Northern highbush blueberries can be grown successfully not only in Eastern Washington, but also in Eastern Oregon and some areas of Idaho.

Amy and Jesse Berkey grow five acres of blueberries in Lebanon, Ore. Their operation, Berkey’s Blueberries, is certified organic with Oregon Tilth. They grow six highbush varieties (7,600 plants) on five acres.

Before planting in 2007, the Berkeys incorporated sawdust into the soil and built up a bed of sawdust to plant the berry bushes on. The Berkeys test their soil every two to three years for organic matter, pH levels and nutrient concentration. They add more sawdust around the plants annually.

Of the six varieties they grow, Duke is Amy’s favorite. She likes it for the fairly large size and the “tangy-sweet” flavor. Jesse said he doesn’t have a favorite. By the time berry season is over, he’s had enough blueberries to last him awhile.

“I won’t eat another berry until Christmas,” he said.

What is the biggest issue the Berkeys have growing blueberries in Oregon?

“This year, it was the heat stress,” Jesse said.

The Berkeys offer u-pick and have a farm stand with pre-picked berries for sale, along with value-added products, including syrup, jam and dog treats. The family sells at six different farmer’s markets in the Willamette Valley and at the Oregon coast. They also have an online store.

Amy and Jesse Berkey grow five acres of blueberries in Lebanon, Ore.

Determining the Best Organic Fertility for Trees:Part 2

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In Part I of Organic Fertility for Trees in the previous issue of Organic Farmer, we focused on considering the soil first. The article was primarily directed toward establishing the proper environment to encourage the greatest response from tree roots and all the biological life that is needed to correctly serve those roots and the trees that will be grown there. This article will consider what would be necessary to build the natural fertility of each different soil and how to determine what is required for the trees and the supporting biology to thrive accordingly.

We have tested soils from over 75 countries and all 50 states here in the U.S. Numerous countries and many different states have provided thousands of samples from the worst to the best soils, with soils from tree crops being one of the greatest sources. Speaking comparatively, very few soils have all the nutrients in sufficient amounts to provide for ideal performance. And even those that do can soon be depleted if not properly cared for to determine and maintain those ideal levels.

Too many assume that once a soil is corrected with the right nutrients it will remain in that condition. Once corrected, it will now be better than it would have been, but as the potential of the soil to produce goes higher, the removal of nutrients needed by the trees to do their best will be used up more quickly (some sandy soils have gone from best to worst in five years or less due to neglecting to maintain even the basic needed nutrients for the best fertility and consequently the best quality and yield.)

With few exceptions, growers will admit that those soils which are found to be closest to the established optimum nutrient needs will grow their best trees. Most of those properties have never been personally visited, but the evaluation is made possible by using the soil testing methods developed and used by Dr. William Albrecht to determine when this is true.

There are always exceptions! A grower who is still an ardent supporter of the program, whose principal crops were almonds and walnuts, sent samples for analysis and fertilizer recommendations. When what should have been the best field was pointed out, he said that in fact it was his very worst field. Despite all the data we had, it was not enough to provide the full picture. Cobalt and molybdenum, which are optional tests due to cost and so often not being considered as a limiting factor, were not requested for analysis on the samples by the grower. In this case, once the soil was analyzed for molybdenum, it was so deficient that it was the only reason this field was not a top performer. Once the molybdenum was supplied, it turned the field from the worst to one of the best.

When what is seen to happen time and again, over and over, in all parts of the world for some reason does not seem to work, there should be a good reason why. It just requires additional effort to find that reason.

 

Building Fertility

What is needed for any basic fertility program for growing trees? As explained in the previous article, it is using soil chemistry to measure and supply the basic needs of each soil. Once accomplished, that provides a long-term workable solution for maintaining the proper soil structure, or the proper amount of pore space needed for balancing air and water needs of each soil. This in turn helps build and maintain the necessary environment for the needed biological activity for growing the best trees in that soil.

Still, the place to begin must be producing enough of a crop to stay in business. That is best accomplished by providing adequate amounts of four major nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur) for growing new young trees or producing the next crop. Then for long-term soil fertility and to maintain the proper soil structure, measure and correct the needed levels of calcium and magnesium. After those levels have been determined and any established needs have been met, plan to build the essential micronutrients to reach at least the minimum requirements before emphasizing those that specific tree crops respond to best.

This is the real foundation on which to build soil fertility for growing any type of tree or plant. The only problem is that too often growers just assume they are meeting those requirements with a “hit-and-miss” program. Here is a good gauge to use as an organic grower to evaluate your fertility program. If your land has the proper fertility, then the organically produced crops should yield well above that of the average conventional grower. If it is not, then try to learn why because there is no good reason for any organic program that claims they are growing nutrient-dense foods to lag from the average conventional program. When that happens, the trees are being robbed of specifically needed nutrients that should be and can be supplied naturally.

Some growers use the excuse that conventional growers are forcing the soil and that is why the yields are so much higher. That is a possibility at times when pushing for extremely high yields. However, truly trying to force a soil is when more than is ordinarily required to produce the soil’s true yield potential is applied. That can happen with organic growers, too. It is the overuse of more than the trees show to be needing that causes harm. For example, when the soil is low in some needed nutrient and extra “organic” nitrogen from compost is applied instead of that nutrient to try and squeeze by and get a little more of it from the decomposition of soil humus, that is forcing the ground. When adding the needed nutrients to help the trees achieve their natural yield potential, that is not forcing the crop; rather, that is providing good crop nutrition as what is needed for growing the most nutritious crops. And what determines true crop potential? Correcting the soil to the very basic levels that are required to grow any plants properly suited for that area in terms of climatic conditions.

 

Inadequate Fertility

In working with organic growers, inadequate fertility is often their greatest limiting factor in terms of both quality and yield. For example, supplying enough nitrogen just to feed the trees what they need is often a big problem. For far too many growers, when they are not able to supply the needed amount of N from legumes, compost and foliar applications, the crop is just allowed to suffer. When a soil analysis shows to have an adequate amount of other needed nutrients, it is often possible to trace the lack of yield for organic fruit or nut trees right back to the insufficient use of nitrogen for the trees.

A good guide to differentiate between a real need and using nitrogen even in an organic program to “force” production is to find out how much is required to produce the proven yield average for each orchard or grove. Adequate use of nitrogen is not the enemy in organic production; rather, it is the excessive use of nitrogen that causes the problems. And so long as it is possible to increase the yield without having to go above average N requirements serves as a good guide for the most conservative approach to nitrogen needs in tree crops. This does not assure maximum performance once the basic needs of the soil have been met. Then, applying what is needed for the average proven yield plus 10% extra over the next three to five years using slow-release N sources will show whether the top potential for that soil has been reached. Sufficient nitrogen is often the most limiting factor for better production on many types of organically grown crops, including all types of organic tree crops.

Growers will often admit that their trees could use more N, but it is the availability of enough material or cost of that extra need that stops the process. Far too many organic growers rely heavily on compost to supply most of the needed nitrogen. When that is the case, one of two things are quite commonly a problem that must be faced. The first is a lack of enough material to supply the needed N, then the crop and the trees suffer from the problems caused by nitrogen deficiency. The second is when there is plenty to use and the assumption is if you need the nitrogen, because it is compost, and you can “never” apply too much, just put on all you can.

Too much certified organic compost is just as bad as too much of anything else. Every time a soil builds up too much of one nutrient, it will reduce the availability of something else. Phosphate and sulfur are two nutrients that can serve as examples of possible unintended consequences to consider on soils growing organic tree crops. Both nutrients are required in sufficient amounts for top performance. Adequate phosphorus results in larger leaves. Adequate sulfur results in larger root systems and growing more wood. But excessive use of phosphate is antagonistic to sulfur uptake (more often seen in the organic fertility programs used in the eastern U.S.) and excessive sulfur applications are antagonistic to phosphate availability (more often seen in the western U.S.)

For example, on soils that barely have enough phosphate, the amount of sulfur in a ton of gypsum can interfere with P uptake. But when large amounts of compost that normally contain very little sulfur are applied until it results in pushing P to excessive levels, that can not only cause problems with zinc deficiency (which then interferes with adequate moisture uptake), but also results in less sulfur uptake, which restricts wood growth. Soils with excellent phosphate levels (500 pounds per acre of P2O5 or 100 to 110 ppm of elemental P) will respond best to excellent sulfur levels. For example, when this level of P is present, then sulfate as expressed in ppm of sulfur should be 50 ppm. This will result in 25% more trunk growth by caliper measurement and up to 1/3 more leaf on young trees. But adding needed sulfur without correcting low phosphate levels can result in reduced leaf size and other related problems caused by P deficiency.

Another related problem that becomes a possibility here is breakage from weak wood due to any combination of potassium, manganese and/or copper deficiency, which increasing limb and leaf growth from adding sulfur can exacerbate. After basic soil fertility requirements have been properly determined and correctly supplied based on reliable guidelines of an accurate soil analysis, consider the special needs for growing trees that set them apart from other crops.

Begin this portion of the program by increasing potassium saturation in the topsoil to 7% to 7.5%, sulfur to 50 to 100 ppm for optimum growth and wood strength, and phosphate to 100 to 150 ppm for larger leaves. Be sure any problems with too little or too much calcium or magnesium receive sufficient attention since those are the two major keys to building and maintaining the correct physical structure of each soil. Next, consider and emphasize the micronutrients that make the most difference for each type of tree. For example, once the minimum levels for all measured nutrients have been achieved, boron would deserve extra attention on olives, sweet cherries, avocados, citrus and macadamias, but even more so on figs, mangoes and pistachios. Consider higher manganese for soils growing walnuts and macadamias, and zinc on pecans. Higher copper levels provide extra resilience so limbs can bend and not break when there is sufficient potassium and manganese. Copper is also necessary for skin to stretch and not crack on the more perishable forms of fruit crops.

To be specific about all of these needs requires a reliable soil test that is based on measured values that are directly applicable to the orchards and groves where the trees are growing. Generalities about what trees need for a particular yield or trying to guess what the plant needs to grow each crop will not solve specific problems or top-level requirements that relate directly to the needs of each tree crop from soil to soil. For long-term solutions, first use a soil analysis that can accurately determine what is already there. Next find a consultant that can explain the levels and which are giving positive and negative results. Then, consider an effective building program by supplying what nutrients are most limiting.

 

Growing Young Trees

Where possible, for tree and vine crops, start building the fertility at least three years before planting. Some growers adopt the erroneous philosophy that so much has been spent to get the trees in the ground that no more should be spent on fertility until the trees begin producing a crop. The exact opposite is true. The more fertile the soil when the trees begin bearing, the greater the health and production of the trees. It requires up to three years to acquire the best results from certain materials the trees need. Liming materials and several micronutrients are in that category.

Correcting the nutrient needs for each soil is not usually accomplished in a year or so. How many years have needed nutrients been removed by crops without being properly measured and replaced? Results from adding some missing elements in needed amounts all at once can cause a problem rather than help the trees. Even when it is possible, the cost to try and do everything at once can be prohibitive. It can take years to re-build soils for peak performance in terms of efficiency and yield. Yet those who persist at building and maintaining specific fertility requirements for each different soil will have a solid foundation on which to build healthier and more productive trees.

Soil compaction can be a serious limitation in such cases. Soil fertility needs can be measured and supplied, but keep in mind that correcting soils via proper nutrient applications can only give the best results when there are no limitations from compaction.

Compaction problems and what to do about them are extremely important for tree crops, and the same major issues and principles apply for growing all types of crops. The problems caused by soil compaction and how to deal with them requires an entire article or more to consider and explain. Keep in mind that even for solving soil compaction problems, supplying the correct nutrients needed for good structure in that soil is a preliminary and basic requirement.

Start tree crops on the soils with the most optimum fertility possible to optimize the health of the trees and maximize production for whatever those trees are selected to provide. Optimum fertility is when each soil has what it needs to grow the crop and provide the environment to allow the proper amount of air and water (needed soil porosity) to best encourage the plant roots and all the biological activity that serves to provide the trees what they need for doing their best. When the fertility is correctly provided (the right organically added soil nutrients, which constitutes using true soil chemistry), only then will the ideal pore space for needed air and water be present (the soil’s natural physical structure), which then provides the biological life that is present for the environment they need to thrive, not just struggle to survive.

Neal Kinsey is owner and President of Kinsey Agricultural Services, a consulting firm that specializes in restoring and maintaining balanced soil fertility for attaining excellent yields while growing highly nutritious food and feed crops on the land. Call (573) 683-3880 or see www.kinseyag.com for more information.

Transitioning to Organic Olives

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Dr. Javier Fernandez Salvador is the executive director of the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute Olive Center. For more than 20 years before his current position, he worked extensively in organic production of various specialty crops and served on an organic review committee, worked in organic certification and conducted organic research. When asked to compare organic olives to other organic crops, he had a wealth of experience to rely on.

Compared to some crops that are more delicate or have more pest and disease pressure, olives can face fewer problems with organic production, Salvador said. Still, there are some threats to olives that can be difficult to manage organically. Among them, the fungal disease olive knot.

 

Olive Knot

“Olive knot comes after pruning, which is normally in the winter here,” Salvador said. “If your neighbor has a lot of it, or if you’re sharing labor or pruning crews with your neighbor, you might bring in olive knot.”

Olive knot can be difficult even for conventional growers to manage. If infections occur on the trunks of young trees, it can kill them. On older trees, it can lower productivity and cause the fruit to have an off flavor. Management is primarily preventative. One method is to prune during the dry months of summer to prevent fungal growth. Preventive bactericide applications are also advised. Salvador said there are some organic options, such as applying copper after pruning.

“But it’s much easier and better if your system and location is geared for organic production from the get-go,” he said. That would include maintaining a high level of orchard sanitization geared toward preventing the spread of such crop diseases. Salvador has seen practices such as shoe covers or full body suits used to prevent cross-contamination used in organic crops in other countries, but it hasn’t become common practice here.
“It would be good to do,” he said.

 

Yield Disparity

Another consideration for organic producers, especially those converting from conventional to organic acreage, is the difference in yield.

“When you talk about conversion, I think one of the important things to consider is what is your goal regarding yield,” he explained. “For example, there’s a couple of very large producers here in California who work with thousands and thousands of acres who are now exploring and starting to transition some acreage to organic. In their system, trying to reach the same yield that they reach in conventional could be challenging because of how intensive it could be for that type of super high-density plant. We really don’t have a lot of data on super high-density planting when it comes to organic production.”

He said a lot depends on the grower’s goals.

“If your goal is to continue to obtain a lower yield but to focus on quality, then you can probably convert or establish an orchard with organic practices that is not extremely risky or cumbersome to do,” he said. “You have to account for that when you’re talking about high quality and low input. That comes with the philosophy and the mentality that you understand from the beginning that your goal won’t be to produce an incredible tonnage per acre but to focus on obtaining a high-quality crop that can be managed organically.”

Compared to some crops that are more delicate or have more pest and disease pressure, olives can face fewer problems with organic production.

 

Organics at McEvoy Ranch

A focus on quality is the goal at McEvoy Ranch.

“For us, the core of our organic farming is tending the soil and having healthy soil as the basis of our farming operation,” said Samantha Dorsey, president of McEvoy Ranch, a family-owned farm in Petaluma, Calif. that produces organic olive oil as well as wine, jams and several other products. “That includes having soil that’s alive, active and full of microorganisms and nutrients. And I think for most organic farmers, that’s the heart and soul of their organic farming, ensuring that their soil has excellent conditions so they can produce an excellent crop.”

Dorsey said the main differences she has found between organic and conventional crops are in weed control and fertilizer availability.

“We end up investing more in our weed control and our fertilization program just because we have a different toolbox that we can use,” she said.

Another factor for all farmers in California is the availability of water, or lack thereof. When it comes to drought, Dorsey expects there to be a long-term effect on the crop.

“I think it’s going to be that we will likely see fewer tons per acre, or as some farms measure it, gallons per acre that they’re able to get out of the final product. I think we’re going to see a decrease in tons per acre as the trees stabilize and learn to live with less water,” Dorsey said. “But it’s going to depend on the water source. Our ranch here in Petaluma, we’re 100% dependent upon surface water runoff and surface irrigation ponds. We don’t pull any groundwater. Whereas there are many farmers who are working off well water whose water supply is going to last longer than someone like us. We’re really suffering this year because our ponds never filled.”

She said they were missing about two-thirds of the water that they usually get in winter. The low water supply also inhibits the uptake of nutrients by the trees. Trees need water to carry the nutrients from the soil into the roots. To help the trees get some of the nutrients they need, the ranch used organic nitrogen pellets throughout the orchards. However, the area didn’t get the rain it needed to fully work those pellets into the soil.

“The nutrients are there, they’re just not available to the trees,” she said. The ranch is focusing its water resources on the two orchards that have the highest crop set.

The trees at McEvoy were imported from Italy and have been producing olives since the ranch was founded in 1990. Despite the extra challenges and costs that come with organic farming, Dorsey said McEvoy Ranch will stay organic.

“The McEvoy family has remained 100% committed to that throughout the life of the company. And that’s part of the joy of working for a family company,” she said. She has worked for the McEvoy’s for 20 years.

“Part of why I’ve stayed and worked for them for so long is that commitment to sustainability and to the organic production.”

One consideration for organic olive producers, especially those converting from conventional to organic acreage, is the difference in yield.

Hemp Research Takes a Closer Look at Plant Responses to Nitrogen

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With industrial hemp becoming a crop option in California, there is still much to learn about growing it. For instance, how much nitrogen do hemp plants need for optimal growth and optimal production of essential oils such as CBD? And how much nitrogen is too much, possibly causing harm to the environment?

Researchers at UC Davis and at the UC ANR West Side Research and Extension Center (WSREC) are taking a closer look at this nitrogen balancing act. The research team, headed by UCCE specialists Bob Hutmacher and Dan Putnam, has launched a hemp nitrogen fertilizer project this year. UC colleagues involved in the studies include Sarah Light, Geoffrey Koch, Daniel Geisseler, Nicholas Clark, Maya Hotz and Jorge Angeles. Although these UC researchers have been doing hemp irrigation trials for multiple years, this is the first trial specifically for assessing plant responses to nitrogen levels. The nitrogen management trial will continue for three years.

 

Fertilizer, Yield and CBD

“Part of what we’re attempting to do is come up with basic information on impacts of applied nitrogen fertilizer levels on cola (bud cluster) yields and production of CBD and essential oils in our region,” said Hutmacher, director of UC’s West Side Research and Extension Center. “Part of the work is to look at crop efficiency in nitrogen use.”

Josh Schneider, CEO of Cultivaris Hemp, said, “The most important aspect of the study is looking at the link between nitrogen levels and cannabinoid (CBD).”

Cultivaris Hemp donated transplants used in evaluating responses of full-season types of cultivars. They are one of four companies donating goods or services to the hemp nitrogen project.

Schneider said when hemp was legalized in the 2018 farm bill it caught states such as California flat-footed. While California, along with most other states, was scrambling to catch up, the “green rush” was on.

“Farmers were already ordering seeds and plants. But most didn’t have the know-how or the research behind the crop. The number of people who understood it well were limited. There wasn’t a lot of hard agronomic information for growers,” Schneider said. “That’s why there’s not much of this research that has been done, and why we have to do more of it.”

Christopher E. Hohm, Ph.D., agrees that the nitrogen project is important. Hohn is the Director of Research and Development at Kayagene, LLC. Kayagene donated hemp seed of one of their varieties to the project.

“Research, like that which is being done at UC Davis, will help farmers make essential decisions about best practices for growing hemp and help advance the hemp industry as a whole. The more knowledge that a farmer has at their disposal, the more likely they are to be successful,” Hohn said.

“Universities like UC Davis are an essential component to bringing reliable data and science-based information to farmers,” he continued. “As a part of the industry, Kayagene believes it is also the responsibility of private companies to support this type of research to do our part in contributing to the community.”

Auto flower N trial with fertilizer injectors, west side REC.

 

Double Test Plots

The trials are being run as four different tests in two separate field trial locations; one at UC Davis and one at the WSREC located in Fresno County on the westside of the San Joaquin Valley. At both locations, researchers planted two nitrogen trials of approximately 0.75 acres each, one planted to shorter growing season, smaller “auto flower” varieties, and the other planted to longer growing season, larger “full-season” varieties.

“We decided to set up the auto-flower versus full-season field trials as fully separate trials based on differences in photoperiod responses, and large differences in size of plants and time to maturity,” Hutmacher said.

Auto flowering varieties, Cannabis ruderalis, don’t require a specific photoperiod of light to dark ratio hours. They automatically begin to flower without regard to light cycle changes. Full-term (full-season) varieties, Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa, switch to flowering stage after the light cycle they receive drops below a certain duration of daylight. In the central California region, that would typically occur mid-summer.

“In each of the nitrogen experiments, there are five different treatment levels,” Hutmacher said. “The peak amount we are applying in the auto flower cultivar treatments is about half the nitrogen applied in the full-season plants.”

At the starting point of the study, researchers applied base applications of phosphorus and potassium. The range of treatment fertilizer N applications goes from about 0 to 120 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre with the auto flower cultivars, versus 0 to 220 pounds of nitrogen per acre for full-season cultivars.

“Typically, in such a study, we are looking for where there is optimal response in terms of high yields combined with acceptable concentrations of essential oils,” Hutmacher said. “You don’t want to over-apply. We’re looking for the plants’ best yield and best quality. For example, perhaps the best response for auto flower cultivars might peak out at 90 pounds N per acre rather than at 120 pounds per acre.”

 

Spoon Feed Nitrogen

Hutmacher said the study is similar to what people have tried to do with most crops under the nitrogen management plan restrictions of California. “We’re looking for acceptable yield with acceptable quality.”

As for irrigating the trial plots, “We made a choice in managing all these trials to use drip irrigation. The reason is we pretty much figured with these higher-value crops, there is a higher level of probability that you would use a tighter control of water and fertilizer,” Hutmacher said.

“One of the options for improved nitrogen can be to actually spoon-feed plants in small doses over the course of the season, so you’re not putting on any massive applications at any time,” Hutmacher said. “Using subsurface drip puts out small amounts at a time [when fertigating]. If you’re careful, you can exert a high level of control over where applied water and fertilizer is distributed, making sure more stays within reach of the root system.”

Subsurface drip irrigation is a low-pressure but efficient irrigation system. Using buried drip tape or drip tubes, it can save water and improve yields while still meeting crop water needs, according to Colorado State Extension.

 

What about Organic Practices?

Although this study is not focused on organic nitrogen sources, such as fish emulsion, organic growers can still gain insight from the trials.

Are there UC Davis organic hemp nutrition trials in the future?

“Yeah, I think so, if the market starts pointing towards more organic product, that is something that might be researched later,” Hutmacher said, adding that from a pest management standpoint, availability of synthetic pesticide materials for industrial hemp is currently near non-existent levels for California producers.

“Future decisions on which markets intend to use the harvestable products will have a strong influence on choice of organic production versus production involving synthetic chemicals,” Hutmacher said.

Hutmacher pointed out that with hemp, growers have a lot of different options as far as types and uses. To use nitrogen fertilizer efficiently, the type of hemp a grower produces comes into play.

“If you’re producing a crop solely for biomass, such as for fiber or even grain/seed production, the optimal amount of fertilizer N needed would likely differ considerably from what might be optimal for essential oil production,” Hutmacher said. “For this particular study, we’re not looking at grain and fiber plant types.”

How long will it be until growers can access information gathered from the trials?
“We’ll have some data out next year, but more complete information will start coming after the 2022 growing season,” Hutmacher said.

The three-year nitrogen management trial is supported by the California Department of Food and Agriculture Fertilizer Research Education Program (CDFA-FREP). Besides Cultivaris Hemp of Encinitas, Calif. and Kayagene, LLC of Hollister, Calif., Phylos Biosciences of Portland, Ore. also donated seeds, starts or cuttings (clones). The project will also include THC and CBD analysis. Alkemist Labs of Garden Grove, Calif. is donating its crop sample analyzing services.

“These are incredibly valuable donations to assist with this project, certainly in excess of $50,000 in donated materials and services from each of those companies,” Hutmacher said. “We wouldn’t be able to do the study without the help. The donations have been super important, and the industry people have just been so full of information.”

Auto flower N trial, west side REC field. Auto flower cultivars received between 0 and 120 pounds N per acre.

Benefits to Using Barn Owls for Rodent Control

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Barn owls are rodent-killing machines,” said Sara Kross, a lecturer at Columbia University, “They are natural predators of gophers and voles, which can be really horrible pests for agriculture.”

For farmers, ranchers and/or land managers facing serious rodent problems, encouraging native barn owls to nest on their land can provide effective, ongoing biocontrol. The Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has funded multiple research projects, such as one by Kross, looking at how to incorporate barn owls into a broader integrated pest management system. From this research, the program has developed a four-page “How To Guide” with tips for welcoming in barn owls to provide rodent control.

 

The Research

Barn owls are effective biocontrol against rodents, but like any biocontrol option, they won’t drive pest populations to zero and may need to be augmented with rodenticides occasionally.

Kross’ study looked at the frequency and level owls on farms are being exposed to rodenticides through analysis of their pellets, droppings and blood. The team looked for the effects of that rodenticide exposure on the owls.

One farm where the team has been conducting its research is Matchbook Wine Company’s vineyards in the Dunnigan Hills north of Sacramento.

“My family’s been growing wine grapes here since the 1970s, and controlling rodents is a big part of our integrated pest management program,” said Matchbook’s Greg Giguiere.

“We have 40 owl boxes on the farm. The rodent control is what we’re after, and it’s part of having an integrated system of biodiversity and biological controls to complement the chemical options we have for controlling these types of things.”

Another aspect of the project is tracking where the owls hunt. For that, adults were fitted with little GPS backpacks that recorded their movements for up to two weeks at a time before the backpacks were transferred to a different bird to record more data.

“Barn owls are an excellent study species because they come back to sleep in these boxes during the day, so we can safely recapture them,” says Ryan Bourbour, a Ph.D. student at UC Davis who is tracking the owls.

The study data is helping growers place barn owl boxes in the locations that will do them the most good and place rodenticide bait stations in the periods and places that cause the owls the least harm.

And that is very attractive to Giguiere.

“A big part of farming is being connected to the land,” he said. “So, a lot of what we do goes to that. I’ve been very interested in reducing chemical inputs into our system and moving away from a monoculture and having more biodiversity. So, it’s a very exciting program and we’re definitely on board and moving forward, and want to do even more habitats for hawks and other predators.”

Providing barn owls with artificial nest boxes on your farm and ranch helps them because natural nest sites are often a limiting factor for barn owl populations.

 

Are Barn Owls Right for Your Operation?

Barn owls can help keep rodent populations under control and deter rodent damage to fields, irrigation lines and equipment. As night-hunters, they’re effective at controlling mice, gophers and voles. Their boxes can also serve as hunting platforms for day-hunters like hawks, kestrels and eagles, which can help control and deter ground squirrel populations. In addition, there’s often great satisfaction knowing you’re hosting and helping these gorgeous natural predators.

If you have a serious rodent problem in your fields, barn owls can help. Providing barn owls with artificial nest boxes on your farm and ranch helps them because natural nest sites are often a limiting factor for barn owl populations.

During the mating and nesting season, barn owls are looking for a safe place to raise their young and a lot of rodents to feed them. If you already have the rodents, you just need to add owl boxes to house the barn owls.

For even better rodent control, also install raptor perches when you install barn owl boxes. Mount a wooden cross brace to a 10- to 15-foot-high pole. Hawks and kestrels will use them while hunting during the day, and barn owls use them at night.

Developed from this research, Western SARE’s free How-To Guide (western.sare.org/resources/welcome-in-barn-owls-to-provide-rodent-control/) takes you through decision-making, provides tips on how to provide nest boxes and describes how to site and maintain the boxes as well as how to determine if they are working.
Western SARE has developed multiple research-based How-To Guides for farmers and ranchers that can be downloaded for free at western.sare.org/learning-and-resources/how-to-quick-guides/.

For farmers, ranchers and/or land managers facing serious rodent problems, encouraging native barn owls to nest on their land can provide effective, ongoing biocontrol.

 

Creating Habitat for Pollinators: What to Know and What to Consider

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It’s one of the last warm fall days and bumblebees are actively foraging on the remaining flowers in our pollinator habitat, and scraggly California poppies and asters are some of the last holdouts. Creating pollinator habitat is quite easy. If you build it, they will come. Pollinators face many issues, but one of the biggest is habitat loss. It is estimated that more than 1,300 types of plants are grown around the world for food, beverages, medicines, condiments, spices and even fabric. Of these, about 75% are pollinated by animals.

More than one of every three bites of food we eat or beverages we drink are directly because of pollinators. Aside from pollinator services, they are also a major part of the food web and are an important source of food for birds, especially for when they are rearing their young. Installing pollinator habitat also benefits soil health by having a diverse set of plants that support soil microbes. Additionally, having a perennial habitat means less tillage, living roots throughout the year, and the pollinator habitat covers the soil.

Planting a wildflower seed mix is a great way to create habitat for native pollinators, beneficial insects and honeybees. However, choosing which seed mix to buy can be a daunting task as there are many different mixes available on the market. The USDA NRCS Corvallis Plant Materials Center spent four years studying pollinator mixes to determine the most important factors to consider:

  1. Establishing season-long bloom is important for sustaining pollen and nectar resources throughout the growing season.
  2. At least three different species flowering at any given time.
  3. For perennial habitat, mixes that have about 25% annuals and 75% perennials seem to create a balanced bloom over the lifespan of the habitat.
  4. Grasses are good to include in small amounts and only use bunchgrasses (not rhizomatous grasses.)

Season-long Bloom

Season-long bloom can be achieved by focusing on early blooming and late blooming species, and most mixes will have plenty of “mid-season” blooming plants. Overwintering pollinators such as bumblebees heavily rely on early blooming plants as primary resources to re-grow their colony. Providing late blooming plants is also very important for pollinators because there are less plants blooming in late summer and fall.

In unirrigated systems, finding late blooming plants can be challenging, but asters tend to grow well without irrigating and bloom until winter shuts them down. Some annuals, such as California poppies, bloom well into fall. When looking over the species list for a particular mix, be sure to understand when each species blooms and make sure to select mixes with early and late blooming species.

A brochure that has a bloom calendar on page 4 which covers some of the more common species used in pollinator mixes in western Oregon and Washington can be found on the NRCS website at nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/orpmcbr13465.pdf.
A similar brochure that has a bloom calendar on page 4 which includes species more common in Montana and Wyoming can be found at nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/mtpmcbr13642.pdf.

This patch of wildflowers has been blooming since March when first warm days of spring brought the bumblebee queens out of hibernation.

Multiple Species

Having multiple species blooming at any given time provides a varied diet for generalist pollinators and can also host a variety of specialist pollinators who might be attracted to a certain color of flower or can only access a certain shaped flower. In other words, floral diversity is also as important as floral abundance.

Annuals vs Perennials

Annuals are the easiest way to provide floral abundance. Annuals also fit very well into many farming systems and can be used as “season extenders” as they are often some of the first species to bloom and can be grown later in the season to fill the late-season gap. Most wildflower mixes are a blend of annual and perennial species because most people are looking for a habitat that they do not have to re-install every growing season.

Most farms have some areas that can be set aside and dedicated to pollinator habitat. Mixes that include perennial and annual species are the best way to create permanent habitat. The annuals provide first-year bloom and cover while the perennials are becoming established, but the annuals usually disappear over time. Short-lived perennials bloom heavily in the second year and usually re-seed themselves. Long-lived perennials will continue to bloom every year and expand over time.

Pollinators evolved with native plants, so they seem like the best choice for the bulk of the pollinator plants we should use. The biochemistry of native plant pollen and nectar is the best match for the biochemical needs of native pollinators. However, many pollinators are generalists and will use non-native plants. Native plants are adapted to your area, and if you are in an area with summer drought, native plants should bloom and thrive with low inputs and no irrigation.

 

Best Practices

Installing a pollinator seed mix is similar to seeding a lawn. All existing vegetation needs to be killed and the soil needs to be loosened so the seeds can have good soil contact. Wildflower seeds are very small and should not be covered by more than 0.25 inches of soil. In temperate climates, fall seeding is best as native plants will grow in the fall and winter. In areas with cold winters, spring seeding may be more successful depending on the species you are using. Usually, the vendor will provide information about when it’s best to seed their mix.

Weeds tend to be the most challenging aspect. If establishing pollinator plants from seed, you need bare ground. This involves killing some if not all of the existing plant community and can be done by smothering, solarizing, tilling or chemicals. And in most soils, there is a massive bank of weed seeds waiting to germinate as soon as the soil is bare. So if the weed seed bank can be reduced, your seeds will have less competition. Many “weeds” are beneficial to pollinators but are intolerable in farming systems. Therefore, it is up to each farmer to decide if the weed pressure is acceptable.

Creating pollinator habitat is simple and easy to do in all types of farming systems. For more information, refer to our Pollinator Plants for Oregon Tech Note at nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/orpmstn7451.pdf.

There are Plant Material Centers in every region of the country; visit our National website for more information about the center that serves your area at nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/plantmaterials/pmc/. For NRCS financial assistance or technical assistance in creating pollinator habitats, find your local USDA Service Center at offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app.

Annual pollinator mix used as a field border. Mix contains crimson clover, lacy phacelia, meadowfoam, dwarf clarkia and California poppies.

California Tree Nut Conference

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West Coast Nut magazine is offering California tree nut growers a rare opportunity to network across the industry at the second annual California Tree Nut Conference in Tulare Nov. 3. In addition to the usual continuing education seminars and industry trade show, growers attending this year’s free event will hear from California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, who will discuss priorities for the California Department of Food and Agriculture and how the agency will support nut growers in meeting those priorities.

In addition, growers will interact with commodity board leaders for the state’s top nut crops in a leadership panel titled “Where Are We Heading?” Panelists will include Michelle Connelly, executive director and CEO of the California Walnut Board and Commission, Richard Waycott, CEO of the Almond Board of California, Richard Matoian, CEO of American Pistachio Growers, and Mark Hendrixson, director of the California Pecan Growers Association.

“Given the many challenges nut growers have faced over the last year, we are using our conference to address big-
picture issues that impact the bottom line for nut growers in California,” said Jason Scott, Publisher of West Coast Nut magazine. “At the same time, we understand that continuing education and networking opportunities with industry suppliers are also important, and we have plenty of that as well.”

A morning panel on “Irrigation Technology and Automating Monitoring Systems in Tree Nut Crops” will feature UC Davis irrigation experts Ken Shackel and Isaya Kisekka, as well as industry suppliers, growers and consultants. They will discuss existing and emerging technologies to determine soil and plant water status for data-driven irrigation management in nut crops.

After the trade show break and post-harvest nutrition demonstration, CEU talks related to nematode management and new technology for monitoring and managing nut pests will be featured. The California Tree Nut Conference will be held from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Tulare County Fairgrounds in Tulare. Registration is free and can be done online at WCNGG.com or by calling the JCS Marketing office at (559) 352-4456.

Click Here to Register

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