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Insect Ranching Are Mealworms the Food of the Future?

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The mealworm beetle was once known only as a pest that ruined stored grains, but the lowly mealworm is currently having its moment in the positive spotlight as a high-protein sustainable food source. Not only are mealworms fed to backyard chickens, wild birds and pets, such as reptiles and captive birds, but they are also a protein source fed to commercially raised swine, poultry and farmed fish.

Humans eat farmed fish, and the parts that we don’t eat, the fish byproduct, are dried and crushed into fishmeal and fed to swine and poultry as well as back to farmed fish. Fishmeal is also used as a fertilizer to grow fruits, vegetables and nuts. So, the mealworm already plays a role in our food supply chain.

As with mealworms, fishmeal is a high-protein food source, but it may contain heavy metals or other contaminants. When organic farmers raise mealworms, they can control the insects’ feed and environment to eliminate chemicals and contaminants.

Mealworms aren’t actually a worm at all. They are the larvae of Tenebrio molitor, a species of darkling beetle. The beetle has four life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult beetle. The larvae go through several instar, or developmental stages, before reaching a final length of 2.5 cm to 3 cm. Adults are shorter in length, about 1.25 cm to 1.8 cm. Adult beetles live for several months. The females lay around 500 eggs in their lifetime.

In the wild, mealworms eat vegetation, dead insects and their own skin casings from all those developmental molts. In captivity, mealworms eat food waste.

Mealworm Business Model
One northwest company, Beta Hatch, in collaboration with Indiana University, is taking the future of mealworms a step further with a genetic breeding program to produce bigger, better bugs. The new Beta Hatch flagship hatchery in Cashmere, Wash. is in the final stages of construction.

“It’s the largest facility for mealworm farming in North America,” said Aimee Rudolph, Beta Hatch vice president of business development. “We are currently in the process of amplifying our mealworm population and insects have begun moving into their new grow rooms. We expect to be online and at full capacity in March 2022.”

Mealworms are part of the four- to five-billion-dollar annual animal food market.

By 2023, Beta Hatch expects to start contracting with a network of insect ranchers.
“We are using a hub-and-spoke approach to production and expansion,” Rudolph said. “The facility in Cashmere is designed to operate as a hatchery. Eggs will be shipped to insect ranches. These ranches will be co-located with feedstocks for the insects, finished feed produces, end users for the frass or other key steps in the supply chain. In this way, we can further reduce the environmental impact of food production.”

Beta Hatch’s flagship hatchery is designed to support at least a dozen ranches and is already looking at ways to expand. Besides dried mealworms, Beta Hatch also sells frass. The mealworms’ frass (insect excrement) is a 2-3-2 fertilizer and soil amendment certified organic by USDA. It’s also OMRI listed.

Raising Mealworms
Mealworms are raised in a sustainable way. Besides eating agricultural waste byproducts, mealworms require minimal water and grow at 500 times the acre yield of soy, according to Beta Hatch’s website (soy produces an average of 50 bushels per acre.)

Mealworms are a popular treat for backyard chickens, pet birds and reptiles.

“The larval stage is when we use the mealworms for feed. It’s also the life stage which produces frass, a natural fertilizer,” Rudolph said. “We have this beautiful, circular system in which the insects eat byproducts from industries like fruit harvesting and grain processing. The entire insect is then utilized as a feed ingredient with feed production mirroring the way it works in nature.

“Insect ranching can be a steady source of revenue,” Rudolph pointed out. “You don’t have seasonality with mealworms. It’s a year-round predictable income to complement a diverse crop portfolio.”

Darkling beetle (grown mealworm).

Food Revolution
Humans eat the chickens, swine and fish that have been fed mealworms, but what if we skipped the middleman and went straight to eating the grubs?

Many other cultures already eat insects. The act of humans consuming insects even has a name: entomophagy. In Brazil, queen ants take flight during October and November. The ants have a minty flavor and are often dipped in chocolate. In China, bee larvae are available as an appetizer. Chinese street vendors sell assorted insects skewered on sticks. In Denmark, ginger root and blended grasshoppers are mixed with apple juice for a special drink. In Ghana, up to 60% of the protein in rural Africans’ diet comes from insects; termites are an important survival food.

Japanese chefs whip up fancy dishes using fried silk moth pupae and fried grasshoppers. Insects in Mexico can satisfy a sweet tooth, either fried and dipped in chocolate or added to candy. Some Mexican cooks soak ant eggs in butter before serving them up. In Thailand bars, customers can snack on stir-fried crickets, grasshoppers and grubs while enjoying their favorite alcoholic beverage. In the U.S., there’s a California-based company called Hotlix, which offers insect novelty edibles, such as suckers with scorpions embedded inside and snack-size packages of fried mealworms and crickets in assorted flavors, including bacon and cheddar, Mexican spice and salt and vinegar.

Mealworm stages of development.

For those interested in growing a sustainable protein source in their home or office, Livin Farms based out of Austria and Hong Kong supplies desktop mealworm hives. The hive looks somethings like a plastic tote with drawers. Mealworms are raised inside the drawer compartments, fed daily and harvested weekly.

Mealworms are over 50% protein and about 25% fat and can live on food scraps, such as those the home gardener might toss into their compost bin or feed to their backyard hens. Scraps such as fruits and vegetables, and grains such as oats and bread, will keep mealworms growing and thriving in the Livin Farms mealworm hives. Worms in the hives shouldn’t be fed greasy or spicy foods, liquid foods, such as soup, or anything rotten or moldy. Dry and moist foods must be balanced to keep smells at bay.

Optimum temperature for mealworms in captivity is around 82 degrees F. They need around 60% humidity. After harvesting the worms when they are about 3 cm long, they can be humanely killed by freezing them. They are then ready to fry, bake or grind into protein powder for human consumption.

Besides being high in protein, insects have a minimal impact on the environment. The question is: Will Americans ever be able to get past the ‘ick’ factor and willingly eat insects as anything other than a novelty? Only time will tell.

Managing Arthropod Pests in Organic Vegetable Crops

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Organic and conventional vegetable crops have similar pests.

Common pest species of vegetables include coleoptera (e.g. click beetle, Colorado potato beetle); diptera (e.g. cabbage maggot, leafminers); hemiptera (e.g. aphids, psyllids); lepidoptera (e.g. Diamondback moth, leafrollers); thysanoptera (e.g. thrips); and acarina (e.g. spider mites, bulb mites) as well as symphylans and spotted snake millipedes. These pests have different methods of damaging vegetable plants, including but not limited to chewing, boring, rasping/scraping and piercing and sucking. They prefer to feed on surfaces or bored plant tissues (leaves, roots, stems or fruits), mines, rolls, folds, etc.
Control options for arthropod pests in vegetables are based on multiple factors, including pest biology, feeding behavior/habitat, mode of action of the pesticide option, prevention/curative and environmental conditions. These factors all need to be taken into consideration in order to develop an integrated pest management (IPM) plan for an organic field.

IPM of Utmost Importance
Surendra Dara, an entomology and biologicals farm advisor for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, said that while both organic and conventional vegetables use similar management techniques and that IPM is important for all systems, a good IPM plan is even more crucial in organic production.

“In organic crop production, the choice of pesticides can be limited, leading to their repeated use and potential resistance problems,” he said. “Cultural, mechanical, microbial, biological and behavioral control options are critical components of IPM and complement control with pesticide applications.”

Cultural Options
Dara outlined multiple cultural options that growers have at their fingertips, including the use of resistant host plants, sanitation and modification of agronomic practices, in a University of California webinar. Starting with clean material, managing alternative/weed hosts, removing and destroying infested plants and managing crop residue are all facets of good sanitation in the field, he said. Planting time, plant density, crop rotation, trap crops and mixed cropping as well as good nutrient and irrigation management can also play a role.

Biological Options
A biological approach can be especially important in an organic setting. Biologicals include natural enemies, microbial control agents and biostimulants.

Diamondback moth feeding damage on cauliflower. Infestations of the pest are growing in some areas in both organic and conventional fields, according to UCCE’s Surendra Dara (all photos by S. Dara.)

“[Biologicals] play a significant role in IPM in improving crop health, providing natural control, reducing the reliance on synthetic or other pesticides, minimizing environmental and human risk, and promoting sustainable food production,” Dara said.
One PCA at a Santa Maria-based produce operation also noted the importance of biologicals. “It is important to have some biological control present,” she said. “We try to promote beneficials by planting cilantro or alyssum in the field; when the pest pressure is high, this is less effective, but it does help some.”

Chemical Options
If pesticides need to be used on an organic vegetable field, Dara recommends botanical pesticides, microbial or microbial metabolite-based pesticides, and/or pesticides containing diatomaceous earth, fatty acids and minerals. Pesticides will need to be chosen based on arthropod behavior and habitat (i.e. chewing vs. sucking insects, surface feeders vs. borers/miners/rollers, underground vs. aboveground, life stage of insect, etc.) Active ingredients for pesticides with organic labels include pyrethrins, spynosyns, avermectins, azadirachtin and botanical extracts/oils.

Mechanical Options
Dara recommends use of row covers, screens, sticky tapes and reflective material as well as ultraviolet light.

Behavioral Options
Depending on the type of arthropod species, Dara recommends baits/traps and mating disruption.

In a recent study on diamondback moth (DBM) management in Brussels sprouts, Dara examined the efficacy of a sprayable pheromone to evaluate the potential enhancement that mating disruption could provide in an IPM program. What he found was that mating disruption (in this case, CheckMate DBM-F), when combined with larval-suppressing pesticide applications, “will significantly enhance the current IPM practices by reducing pest populations, contributing to insecticide resistance management and reducing pest management costs,” according to Dara in the March/April 2021 edition of Progressive Crop Consultant.

Organic vs. Conventional
Except for using the products that do not have organic registration, Dara said organic and conventional vegetable production systems use the same strategies for pest management. He also said that there aren’t any new pests specific to organic vegetables at the moment, but DBM infestations are growing in some areas in both organic and conventional fields.
The Santa Maria-based PCA noted that more acreage is sometimes required depending on losses that certain organic crops can experience. “Sometimes when the population gets really bad, we actually do nothing as far as pesticides go because it’s just impossible to control it,” she said.

Considering Soil Compaction Problems for Maximizing Organic Production

Soil compaction can be a far greater limitation, even on organic farms and gardens, than many growers tend to suspect. To optimize production capabilities on any type of land, building up needed nutrients and eliminating compaction must both be considered as essential with the effectiveness of each being dependent upon the other. Though many who are concerned with compaction never associate that the nutrient levels matter, this article will help focus on why such should be the case.

Reasons for Compaction
An old rule of thumb is that when there is 300 pounds of pressure per square inch of soil, it is so hard that plant roots will have difficulty penetrating it. Compaction is closely associated with the formation of a hardpan, claypan, plow pan or plow layer, which hinders root penetration. But even impediments to the movement of water through the soil can cause compaction problems. When conditions are present in any soil which causes even slight resistance to water movement, that signals the beginning of problems with too much soil compaction.

Dr. Al Trouse, who worked at the National Tillage Machinery Laboratory in Auburn, Ala., used to illustrate compaction problems by using soil pits which he would dig in cornfields. He would then use a trowel and a brush to show where any type of compression had caused resistance in that soil. Not only could he pick out the problems made by a moldboard plow, or a disk, or a chisel plow, he showed where even the press wheel of the planter left its imprint by visibly compacting the soil.

In the most serious situations, the use of a soil penetrometer, soil compaction tester, tiling rod or soil probe can help identify if, when and where compaction problems exist in each field or area in question. When a soil has enough moisture present to keep it sufficiently wet, including the soil compaction layer, roots can more easily penetrate that soil. But so can whatever instrument you choose to use to determine to what extent any compaction may exist. On the other hand, when the soil is extremely dry, it becomes much harder for the roots to break through any compaction layer, and the same is true for the use of any tools used for trying to measure it. So, it is best to test for compaction problems under normal growing conditions.

Working soil when it is too wet presses out needed pore space. That required porosity would normally most benefit the crop by helping provide the proper amounts of needed air and water for use by the plants growing there. The best approach is to find and eliminate any form of compaction by working the soil when it is dry enough to tolerate such treatment without adversely compacting it in some way.

Though not a good idea, at times, crops planted in fields that are worked wet seem to do better than those where growers waited for the right conditions to plant, but then got worse results. When the compaction layer stays moist for long enough that roots can penetrate and get through it when there is sufficient moisture, then any additional water and nutrients provided below the layer will aid the crop, and as such, may provide a short-term advantage.

When the soil is so tight that water is not able to move freely through the topsoil and into the subsoil, this is not only causing the loss of whatever moisture that should have gotten into that soil, but the distribution of plant nutrients is also affected. Such cases can often be detected by the inordinate accumulation of specific soil nutrients where this problem exists.

When the levels of sodium, sulfur and/or boron continue to accumulate in a soil, this tends to indicate there is some type of a compaction problem. Each of these elements, when being applied either alone or in some type of combination, are found to be consistently high in compacted soils. This causes an impediment to water movement and an accumulation of those elements that would normally move with the water.

Fixing Compaction
Once a compaction layer has been detected, what is the best way to deal with it? Too often, the solution is given via a set of generalities that do not apply in every case. The goal is to break up any impediment or compaction layer in the soil and prevent its return for as long as possible.

That goal may be accomplished in one of three ways. You can physically break up a claypan or plow layer by use of some type of deep tillage implement, such as a subsoiler or chisel plow. Another method, which has long been used by farmers, ranchers and growers, is considered as more of a biological approach for dealing with compaction using deep-rooted legumes, such as alfalfa or sweet clover, whose root systems can penetrate hardpan layers that other plants cannot. Finally, there are various forms of soil conditioners that employ the use of soil chemistry to help water and plant roots break through a hardpan.

Any of these three methods will work if the rules for their use are correctly understood and followed. For certified organic growers, the use of soil chemistry may be questionable due to finding properly certified materials that can help eliminate a plow pan at 9 to 12 inches deep. There are a number of products that claim to provide such benefits, but few who manufacture and sell them seem willing to expend the time and money even to dig pits and show what can consistently be expected from use of such products.

These materials have special merit in certain circumstances. For example, a golf course would not normally be able to use a deep ripper or grow alfalfa for several seasons to deal with a compaction problem. Use of a material that can soften the soil as a topsoil application may be the only consideration for solving the problem.

Working as a consultant in a company that does not sell products, we find that some materials work well in one type of situation but not necessarily in others, depending on the specific circumstances. All of those differences cannot be dealt with in an article of this length. Often, those looking for answers are most interested in a quick fix and not the time and expense it requires to determine the truth of each situation and get the job done right.
The use of legumes for breaking up a compaction layer should be straightforward enough for those who are able to incorporate them into their crop rotation. Just consider that those who must use heavy equipment for planting or harvesting will generally find that compaction problems will become an issue about every three years, especially for those who feel they must get on fields before they have sufficiently dried first.

The use of a subsoiler or chisel plow to physically control compaction has some general guidelines that would apply in every case. For example, determine the depth of the compaction layer and plan to go just deep enough to break it up. The goal is to allow plant roots to get through that tighter soil to gain the use of moisture and nutrients below it.
Once the depth is determined, then select what implement will be used. In many cases, a chisel plow can do all that is needed. Whether a deep ripper or a chisel plow is used, these additional rules should be considered.

Use narrow shanks and set them at least 30 to 40 inches apart, and no matter how many or how few that may be, always assure that the speed through the field can be at least 4.5 miles per hour. The goal is to shatter the soil just deep enough to eliminate the compacted layer. If you go deeper and keep doing the same things that have been done in the past, the next compaction layer will be at the new depth to which you ripped that soil.

Working soil when it is too wet presses out needed pore space. That required porosity would normally most benefit the crop by helping provide the proper amounts of needed air and water for use by the plants growing there.

Next, be sure your soil has a sufficient level of calcium before trying to deal with a hardpan or plow pan. On the soil test we use, that should be at least a 60% base saturation of calcium. If less than that and you rip the soil in the autumn under otherwise ideal circumstances, with adequate winter rainfall, that soil will run right back together by spring and be just as tight as it was before because it did not shatter properly.

A word of caution here: For spring crops, it is usually best to subsoil in the autumn to allow time for the soil to settle, otherwise there can be so much porosity that it dries out and loses moisture that could otherwise be used for the crop. The same would be true when more than one trip is made at a time. The problem is that the soil dries out too quickly.
One client whose farm was extremely sandy experimented with using a chisel plow to subsoil as compared to the use of a moldboard plow in both fall and spring on a farm that had no irrigation. He saw his crops had the least moisture stress where he used the chisel as a subsoiler in the autumn, but they did better where he used the moldboard plow for spring tillage. Using the chisel as a subsoiler in the spring did not allow the soil to settle sufficiently. This resulted in too much air space, and the soil and crop suffered from an excessive loss of needed moisture.

Be sure the soil has sufficiently dried so that when you pull through the field, the soil is shattered just as deep halfway between the shanks as it is right where they are ripping. If there is not a sufficient level of calcium, the soils will not shatter as they should. To be sure, take a soil compaction tester, a tiling rod or a soil probe and test the depth halfway between each set of shanks.

If the subsoiling was done properly, that soil halfway between the shanks should be shattered to the same depth as where the shanks ran. If the soil is too wet, it will not shatter, but will smear the soil on each side where the shanks were pulled through. When the soil has less than 60% base saturation of calcium or when it is too dry, the soil halfway between where the shanks run will not shatter as deeply as it does where the shanks ran.

Nutrition Factors in, Too
What else is needed to keep the soil open to maximize porosity and eliminate the conditions that tend to cause compaction? Correcting the calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium base saturation percentages are always necessary to achieve the best results in correctly dealing with compacted soils.

For example, in desert soils that are affected by excessive salt levels, compaction can be contributing to the problem. When there is a high level of sodium chloride in the water, this may or may not be the problem. The way to tell is by first measuring how much is present in the water. Then test the soil by running a complete soil analysis, including sodium, salts and chlorides. If using salty water and the sodium is high but not the chlorides, this indicates the soil should be sufficiently porous to allow releasing and leaching out of any unneeded sodium once the base saturation of calcium is 60% or higher.

In soils where the chlorides are low, but the sodium that remains is attached to the soil colloids, it indicates the need for increased porosity before it is possible to leach any excess sodium out of that soil. That is why building soil fertility and reducing compaction are both requirements that organic growers need to deal with because only then is it possible to remove the detrimental effects of soils with an extreme excess of one or more nutrients.
When the fertility of the soil is sufficiently supplied, including the correct proportions of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, and any compaction layer is eliminated, this makes it possible for organic growers to deal with excesses and the detrimental effects they will have on the soil and the crops to be grown there.

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.

Growing Clean Hemp for a Sustainable Environment

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Hemp is one of the oldest crops farmed by man. It’s been grown since 8,000 BCE, the very beginning of human agriculture. Archeologists found traces of hemp in what is now Taiwan and China.

As for hemp history in the U.S., the plant is as American as apple pie. It was first grown in the U.S. in Jamestown, Va. and was a crop the colonists were required to grow. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Pioneers used hemp to make wagon coverings.

Hemp uses less water, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides than many other crops. It’s efficient at sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it a lower footprint crop than many others. One acre of hemp will take in 10 to 15 tons of CO2 in a growing season, which is equivalent to the average amount of CO2 contributed by one person in a year.

As far as eco-friendly fibers and fabrics go, hemp is up on the list with jute and organically grown cotton, flax (linen) and bamboo. Hemp seed can be used for animal feed and the stem fiber as insulation and animal bedding.

Hemp is also good for the soil. A farmer will get more corn yield from a field if it was first planted in hemp. Wheat and barley are also good crops to plant following a hemp harvest. With all of its potential ecological benefits, some growers are looking to make inroads into organic certification for hemp and cannabis production.

Going Organic
Cassandra Maffey is the vice president of cultivation at Hava Gardens, an organic cannabis growing operation in De Beque, Colo. and the largest living-soil cultivation of cannabis in the state. Although Hava Gardens is a new business (they bought their greenhouse and revamped it in 2020 and harvested their first crop in 2021), Maffey has 20 years of regulated cannabis growing experience in both the U.S. and Europe.

Cassandra Maffey, vice president of cultivation at Hava Gardens, said it is important not to let pests get a foothold in organic production.

Maffey said she learned about organic growing through trial and error. “I tried synthetic. I tried aeroponics and a couple different styles of hydroponics. I was never as happy with the quality as when I went organic.”

Hava Gardens grows their plants in a greenhouse, but even under cover, Maffey is still a big believer in growing plants in soil teeming with life.

“Living soil is rich in organic matter and probiotic microorganisms. Living soil is really just mimicking what exists in nature. Soil isn’t meant to be used once for a crop and then thrown away,” Maffey said.

Soil for new transplants at Hava includes peat moss and worm castings to create a biodynamic environment for young plants.

She prefers to create an environment that will slowly consume what she’s putting into the soil. “At Hava Gardens, we create a great ecosystem in soil for organisms to thrive.”
Maffey likes to use organic kelp and alfalfa meal, along with various crushed minerals, testing the soil periodically for nutrients and micronutrients. She uses dry bulk material—dried kelp, for example, instead of kelp extract. The kelp meal is minimally processed. It acts as a slow-release fertilizer in the soil, naturally. With kelp meal, the fermentation process can be done by the soil. With kelp extract, the fermentation is done by the nutrient manufacturer. By purchasing kelp meal, a grower isn’t paying to basically ship a lot of water, Maffey noted.

Living Soil Produces Less Waste
“If you use your soil one time and then throw it out, that’s several tons of waste that would go directly to a landfill in many cases,” Maffey said.

Plants are transplanted into living soil at Hava Gardens.

In the best-case scenario, the used soil is going to an industrial composting facility, but it takes fossil fuels to get it there, Maffey points out, and could mean extra trips up to five to six times a year.

Maffey starts with a soil mix that includes materials such as peat moss and worm castings. So, how do the microorganisms get into the soil?

Organic production requires more “eyes on the plants.”

“Oftentimes, there are mycorrhizal fungi in the soil mix. A lot of that soil food web gets introduced passively,” she said, citing nematodes as an example. “There are nematodes covering everything all over the world. Our broad-spectrum inoculant is worm castings. Everything that the worms consume is introduced into the soil.”

Sometimes, a little more boost in microorganisms is warranted. “We have some inoculants that we can use from time to time to make sure we have a pretty diverse microsystem,” Maffey said. “A lot of people have wound up spending a whole lot of money on microorganisms that maybe only live for a couple of days.”

Growing in a Greenhouse
Growing plants in a greenhouse leaves a smaller carbon footprint than growing indoors, said Maffey. When you’re growing in a greenhouse, you use less HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and lighting than you would growing in an indoor facility where growers have to provide 100% of the light.

“Lights create heat, so then you have to supply 50% to 80% more HVAC,” said Maffey. For cooling, Hava Gardens uses a wet wall to water cool the growing environment. “We’re not using refrigerant.”

Pruning a plant at Hava Gardens.

Growing cannabis in a greenhouse won’t work in every location. “In western Pennsylvania or the Midwest, for example, where it’s cloudy and damp for a month at a time, it can be really challenging to pull off a great cannabis crop in a greenhouse in the winter,” said Maffey. “You always have to be compensating for weather.”

It’s important to choose your greenhouse location; someplace warm and dry with lots of sunlight, Maffey notes.

Eyes on the Plant
You can’t let pests get a foothold. Hiring more people will help with that.
“I think if you’re aspiring to be an organic cultivator, one of the most important things is integrated pest management. You need more people, more eyes on the plants to be looking for pests. More pruning to allow air to move through the canopy,” Maffey said.
Employee training is also important. “In an organic facility, you need to make sure your people are really well trained. Then they might say, ‘You’ve got Pythium in the third bay.’ As long as it hasn’t gone too far, you can go ahead and address that right away,” said Maffey.
With synthetic methods, a grower might let an issue go too long and then try to correct it with heavy doses of chemical sprays.

Sustainable-Growing Certifications
In the cannabis world, two California farms are the first to become OCal certified cannabis farms. The certification comes through California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). OCal’s standards closely mirror the USDA’s National Organics Program (NOP). It’s hailed as “Comparable-to-Organic.” The certification goes to Sensibolt Organics out of Humboldt County and The Highland Canopy at Sonoma Hills Farm out of Sonoma County. Sonoma Hills Farm’s pasture was also recently certified organic along with their flower and vegetable crops.

Maffey likes to use organic kelp and alfalfa meal, along with various crushed minerals, testing the soil periodically for nutrients and micronutrients at Hava Gardens in Colorado.

The process to become OCal certified involves filling out an application, a review, an inspection, a compliance review and, finally, certification. OCal is a California-specific program, but if cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, the USDA would likely offer a similar organic certification to qualifying farms across the nation.

Sonoma Hills Farm and Sensibolt Organics are both also Sun+Earth certified. That certification process is different than OCal. Sun+Earth is a non-profit certification for regenerative organic hemp and cannabis small-scale family farmers that grow their crops outdoors under the sun. Sun+Earth not only looks at a farm’s sustainable growing practices but also considers how a farm treats its employees and how involved the farm is in the community. Examples of community involvement include helping to organize farmers markets, taking part in CFA or even picking up litter along rural roads.

New Berkeley Urban Ag Ordinance Cultivates Growing Food Together

The little-known recent Berkeley Urban Ag Ordinance zoning changes cultivate growing food together by allowing adaptive city farm production and programming in backyard, community garden and vertical farm settings, setting precedent for other cities, thanks to the Berkeley Food Policy Council, the Berkeley Community Garden Collaborative and Slow Food East Bay. The Oakland Food Policy Council before them had successfully advocated for the “Right to Grow Food” citywide in 2014. In fact, urban and peri-urban food policy councils have been organizing food system changes for more equitable food access, with nearly 300 councils in the U.S. as of 2021, each with goals of more nutritious, affordable and local food, many in communities with limited fresh food access. Both the zoning changes and groups organizing them are catalysts for the kinds of cooperative, community-based food and ag business and nonprofit efforts that can keep cities diverse, and support homegrown current-resident-based micro-economic development, with minimal start-up costs.

Zoning Changes

In 2018, the Berkeley City Council adopted a newly revised Urban Ag Zoning Ordinance to further allow citywide food growing, provide criteria for city agricultural land use intensity, set local food sales/crops parameters and provide guidance for associated agricultural education opportunities. For years, growing food on a Berkeley vacant lot was a rabbit hole complicated by incomplete agricultural land use zoning guidance. This ambiguity left city staff and residents to self-interpret statutes, despite increasing interest in urban farming that could bring neighborhood residents closer together. The Berkeley Food Policy Council, Berkeley Community Garden Collaborative plus the Ecology Center actively advocated for the new Ordinance, along with the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition. Previously, the Berkeley Residential and Manufacturing Districts Zoning included statutes allowing some “urban ag” in residential areas, but food growing as an agricultural land use was minimally referred to and mostly undefined by City of Berkeley’s Zoning Ordinance criteria.

That older ordinance allowed for commercial farming/gardening in residentially zoned lands as an accessory to a residential use. This meant a residential property with a house or apartment building on it could have a backyard garden supplying food to the neighborhood by sale or donation. Even an occasional produce stand was allowed, however, they were not permitted in other city zones, even on rare, residentially zoned-vacant lots, excepting Manufacturing (M) and Mixed Manufacturing (MM) districts. In zoning statutes for those districts, minimal language specified ag land use limits, except for permit types based on land area occupied. In fact, the Berkeley City Zoning Ordinance defined neither “Farms” nor “Agricultural Uses” in any of its statutes before the amendment; thus, the new ordinance is more comprehensive and helpful.

Urban Farms and Community Gardens

The difference between the two urban agricultural land use intensity levels revolves around thresholds for:
• Parcel size: (less than or greater than 7,500 sq. ft. co-determines designation as an LIUA vs. HIUA land use). Greater than 7,500 sq.ft. requires an Administrative Use Permit (AUP).
• Lot coverage with accessory structures: (<20% of land can include coverage with a greenhouse or toolshed). Must also
comply with Berkeley Accessory Buildings and Structures (Zoning) Chapter.
• Hours of farm and activity operation(s): 8am to 8pm, 7 days/ week. An AUP is required for operations outside of these times.
• Group classes and workshops: Up to 20 participants allowed, up to three times per week. Classes and workshops meeting more often than three times per week would also require an AUP.
• Pesticide use is set as a defining threshold-criteria for HIUA designation, fostering public notification and review through a corresponding AUP review process.
• Cannabis cultivation and small animal husbandry exclusion in Berkeley city farming, as covered under other regulatory statutes, and are not considered allowed urban agricultural land uses.

The City Council referred two distinct 2016 zoning revision matters to the Planning Commission, one on urban ag and the other on community gardens. Both sought clarity in defining city farmland uses, products, permitting and accessory structures, and by setting food-growing land use limits based on intensity of production and use. Prior Berkeley city farming regulations allowed limited sales of “non-processed edibles” without clear definition of allowable crops that could be sold or guidance related to minimizing nuisance-causing agricultural activities (like manure smells and machine noises.) The Planning Commission streamlined inner city food growing regulations, recognizing urban ag’s social, economic and environmental benefits as contributing to the development of vibrant, multicultural, livable cities. Although the 2016 zoning revision issues were referred to separately, the Commission chose not to separate urban farms and community gardens by definition, but by site criteria based on land use extent in production, size and intensity.

For years, growing food on a Berkeley vacant lot was a rabbit hole complicated by incomplete agricultural land use zoning guidance (photo courtesy Berkeley Basket CSA.)

As a progressive policy, this combined category upholds urban farms and community gardens as potential community agricultural education centers where neighborhood residents can also learn, for example, the benefits of locally grown produce, or how to save seeds for the next crop. Amended urban ag zoning added statutes on urban farming operations and recognized farming as an activity aligned with the Berkeley Climate Action Plan, fueling zoning reform. Mayor Arreguin had been on City Council when initiating the Council’s two referrals for ordinance revision back to the Planning Commission for review, and collectively, the Planning Commission recommended urban ag be an allowable citywide land use in summer 2018.

A Low-Intensity Urban Agriculture (LIUA) designation includes community gardens or yards where small amounts of food are sold and food is allowed to be grown by right with a Zoning Certificate citywide without being subject to review hearings and excessive fees. Conversely, High-Intensity Urban Agriculture (HIUA) includes urban food-growing land uses requiring higher levels of regulation and/or community input due to greater extent of scale, production for sales and possible needs for increased regulation addressing food safety.

By the end of 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, 288 food policy councils nationwide were conducting needed work on food and agricultural legislative changes at local, municipal, county and state levels, comprising extensive policy, program and partnership achievements. In 2021, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food Policy Networks project organized a national Power of Food Forum with support from a national design team, which brought together over 525 people from 167 food policy councils and similar groups advocating for policies that create equitable and sustainable food systems (Santo et.al., 2021).

While local urban food growing has been increasing in popularity to the point of recent U.S. Farm Bill establishment of a USDA Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production, globally, >55% of the world’s population lives in cities, with projected increases to 68% by 2050 (United Nations Dept of Economic and Social Affairs’ 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects). Currently, projected food production increases are at 60% by 2066 to feed the growing population, 795 million of whom experience regular hunger or malnutrition, and these kinds of model zoning ordinances are one of many tools that can help meet those needs in your communities, too, and food policy councils can give voice towards those goals.

Soil Nitrogen Fertility for Organic Sweet Corn Production

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Sweet corn is a heavy feeder on soil nitrogen (N). A full-season sweet corn variety may uptake about 125 lbs. N per acre in the stover, and about 50 lbs. N is removed by harvest of marketable ears. Thus, before organic growers crop a field to sweet corn, they should build up the capacity of the soil to supply N.

Because there are no cheap and readily available approved N sources for supplying supplemental N during the early growing season, it is important to design an organic farm plan that will minimize the need to apply sidedress N fertilizer for production of organic sweet corn. Crop rotations, legume cover crops, manures and compost are commonly used organic methods and inputs to achieve a goal of soil N sufficiency.

Help the Crop Early On
At the time of planting, a small amount of an organic fertilizer may be placed near the seed row. This strategic placement is intended to get the crop off to an early start when the root system is limited.

Collect stalk samples on same day as harvest of the sweet corn crop.

Once the corn plants are about six inches tall, it is the beginning of a very rapid vegetative growth phase where the crop has a high daily uptake demand for N. The peak uptake rate for N may exceed 3 lbs. N per acre per day. During this critical period of rapid growth, the soil under organic farming management must have the capacity to supply sufficient N to match the needs of the crop.

One way to access the soil N availability at this critical growth stage is to test the soil for nitrate-N in the surface 12 inches of soil. This soil test method is commonly referred to as the Pre-Sidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT). The concept behind the test was first developed on grain and silage corn, but research has demonstrated that this soil test can be applied effectively to sweet corn and a wider range of annual vegetable crops such as cabbage.

The PSNT is a soil test where the soil sampling is performed during the early growing season. It is most useful in fields where one might expect, based on good soil building cultural practices, that the soil can be predicted to supply sufficient N to take the crop to maturity. Thus, the purpose of this early season soil test for N is to make predictions about projected N availability for the remainder of the growing season.

If the PSNT soil test finds a 25-ppm-or-higher level of nitrate-N in the soil, the field is considered adequate and no supplemental or sidedress N fertilizer would be recommended. When growers test and find this level of available soil N early in the growing season, it gives confidence to growers that their N fertility program is on target.

On the other hand, if the PSNT soil test finds less than 25 ppm of nitrate-N in the soil, the field is considered deficient and sidedress N fertilizer would be recommended. Hopefully this is not a common occurrence for organic sweet corn growers, but if it happens, they may sidedress with pelleted poultry manure or some other approved N fertilizer.

Conceptually, the PSNT soil test is a good diagnostic tool use for organic crop production. Under good organic farming management, the PSNT is useful to measure and hopefully confirm that the soil has the capacity to supply sufficient N and produce a good crop yield of sweet corn. This gives the organic grower confidence in their soil building and cultural management practices.

On low-organic-matter-content soils and where farming systems neglect to use soil fertility building practices as well as where there is not a strong focus on building up a healthy biological capacity to supply N to crops, it is generally a waste of time to use the PSNT soil test. This is because such fields will almost invariably have low soil test values as measured by the PSNT, and this can be predicted without performing a PSNT soil test.

The PSNT soil test can be used for several vegetable crops besides sweet corn. In this instance, the PSNT soil samples are being collected from a field on cabbage early in the growing season about two weeks after transplanting. Note that the soil sample probe depth for this special soil test is taken from the first 0 to 12 inches of soil, which is deeper than typically done for regular soil testing.

In most cases under good organic farming management, the PSNT soil test should find 25 ppm or above for nitrate nitrogen. As previously stated, if the PSNT soil test finds less than 25 ppm, the grower can still apply some supplemental N fertilizer. A situation where N deficient soils might be found is where a heavy leaching rain washes available N from the soil before the PSNT soil sample was collected.

Occasionally, an organic grower might, when using the PSNT soil test, find exceptionally high levels (greater than 50 ppm) of nitrate-N. In this hopefully rare instance, this may be interpreted as a sign that the organic grower used a combination of manures, composts and legume rotations to supply excess N. The grower can learn from this experience and adjust their soil fertility building program accordingly in future growing seasons.

Carrying Out a PSNT Soil Test
Details on how to carry out the PSNT soil test are available by web search for a fact sheet at Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station: “Soil Nitrate Testing as a Guide to Nitrogen Management for Vegetable Crops”.

Corn plants exhibiting N deficiency. A “V”-shaped pattern of yellowing and leaf necrosis is a sign of severe N deficiency on corn. The symptoms are most prominent on the lower leaves.

Briefly, for sweet corn, soil samples are collected when plants are about six inches tall by collecting soil cores between the rows. The soil sample probe for this special test needs to be able to collect the soil sample cores from the 0- to 12-inch depth (note that this is a deeper sampling depth than for a traditional soil fertility test.) Collect about 15 cores from the field area of interest. The soil sample needs to be dried shortly after collection to stop soil metabolism which could otherwise change nitrate-N concentrations. Soil samples can be dried quickly in an oven or overnight by placing the soil in a thin layer in pan inside of a warm greenhouse. Send the sample off to a soil testing laboratory that can report results back to the grower quickly. A fast turnaround for reporting is needed because if by chance the soil test finds that N is deficient, the grower will want to immediately take corrective action by adding supplemental N fertilizer.

Soil test kits for nitrate, designed for use on the farm, may be used as an alternative to sending soil samples out to a laboratory.

Note that interpretations for the PSNT may vary slightly among states, so check with your local state extension service. Nevertheless, there is good consensus among researchers that the critical PSNT soil test level is near 25 ppm nitrate-N for field corn, sweet corn and cabbage.

Unique Organic Fertility
Another point of consideration is the unique fertility situation of soils under organic management. Approaches to building soil fertility, the nutrient sources and the tillage systems are often quite different for organic versus conventional production systems. After long-term management under the contrasting systems, especially because of organic matter accumulation, the soils may become more biologically active and different enough that agronomic test results may need reconsideration. Soil fertility test interpretations as developed from research conducted under conventional farming are generally assumed to be transferable for use in organic systems. However, most soil testing standards were developed under non-organic farm management, and that is about the only database we currently have until more soil fertility test research is conducted on certified organic farms.
Another indicator of when corn is provided with excessive amounts of N from soil or fertilizer is by use of a stalk tissue test. Corn plants typically have good green color just as should be expected for optimally fertilized corn. However, excessive N supply and N uptake are not so easy to visually diagnose by crop appearance alone. A good diagnostic test for excess N fertilization of sweet corn is the “End-of-Season Stalk N Test”. This plant tissue test is performed at harvest time. At this stage, it is too late to take corrective action during the current growing season; however, a grower can learn from experience if year after year they are providing excessive N. With this “report card” information about their production practices, they can learn to adjust their fertility program in subsequent growing seasons.

In the case of N deficiency, stalk N testing in sweet corn is not useful because the symptoms of N deficiency in corn (yellowing of the older leaves and small ear size) are readily apparent without performing a test. Classic symptoms for N deficiency appear first on lower leaves as yellowing and in severe cases as a dead tissue with a V-shaped pattern from the leaf tip to midvein.

To perform the corn stalk tissue test, collect samples of stalk tissue by cutting and collecting segments of the stalk at harvest time. Do not delay sample collection; sampling must be performed on the same day as sweet corn ear harvest. Cut stalk segments at 6 and 14 inches above the ground. Remove outer leafy plant tissue and collect about ten or more stalk segments from the field area of interest. Dry the samples and send them to a lab for analysis for total N concentration.

Interpret results as follows: sweet corn stalk samples with 1.6% to 2.2% N are regarded to be in the optimum range, and stalk samples testing above 2.2% N are regarded as having too much N and are a sign of overfertilization.

Details on how to use this tissue test are available by web search at Rutgers New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station: “Sweet Corn Crop Nitrogen Status Evaluation by Stalk Testing”.

Other Nutrients
Besides N, sweet corn needs a proper balance of all essential plant nutrients. Fields intended for sweet corn should be sampled and tested to ensure that P and K fertility levels are at or near optimum levels. The target soil pH level for sweet corn is 6.5. Applications of limestone as recommended by soil test reports should supply any needed calcium (Ca) or magnesium (Mg). Sulfur (S) is an important nutrient for both yield and enhancement of sweet corn flavor. Fields with very sandy soils are most likely to be S deficient. Organic growers who frequently apply manures or compost will generally have enough S fertility from the soil. The need for micronutrients can be assessed from soil tests. Boron (B) is an important nutrient for pollination and good kernel fill at the ear tip. Manganese (Mn) deficiency sometimes occurs on sandy soils. Foliar applications of manganese sulfate (1 lb. Mn/acre) can correct a Mn deficiency.

Amount of nutrient removal by crop harvest is a useful indicator for sustainable nutrient management. For sweet corn, we have data to show how much macro and micronutrients are removed with every harvest of sweet corn. Depending on whether sweet corn is grown for direct marketing, wholesale or processing, growers may use different units to express yield. Thus, the nutrient removal values can be expressed both in units of ear number and weight.

A crate typically consists of 50 ears as a market unit. Whether expressed as per 1,000 ears, hundredweight (100 lbs. = 1 cwt), or crate (50 ears), nutrient management planners can scale nutrient removal values up to a yield goal per unit land area by multiplication. As an example, for nutrient removal data we will assume a typical full season variety of sweet corn. And assume the yield level = 150 cwt/acre (or about 18,396 ears/acre or about 368 crates). (This example assumes weight of a one typical fresh sweet corn ear of market size with green husk included equals 0.815 pounds.) This full-season variety of 18,396 ears harvested fresh would be projected to remove in lbs. per acre: N, 51; P, 9.1; K, 34; S, 3.7; Ca, 2.0; Mg, 3.9; B, 0.024; Cu, 0.014; Fe, 0.09; Mn, 0.044; and Zn, 0.072. Nutrient removal values would be somewhat less for a shorter season sweet corn variety.

Integrating Chicken and Vegetable Production in Organic Farming

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Chicken and tomatoes are a tasty duo beloved by many in popular dishes like chicken tikka masala and chicken cacciatore. This combination, delightful in the culinary sense, is also the subject of a recent integrated farming experiment. This fall, researchers at UC Davis harvested the first crop of tomatoes from a 1-acre experimental field and successfully processed the second flock of 130 broiler chickens. This acre is part of a tri-state experiment also taking place at University of Kentucky and Iowa State University, where the experiment was originally spearheaded by horticulture professor Ajay Nair. Funded by USDA, this research aims to produce science-based learnings and best practices for organic agricultural systems that integrate rotational production of crop and poultry together on the same land.

Potential of Integrated Production
While the idea of chickens alongside crops evokes an image of “traditional farming”, these systems are relatively rare in North America today. Integrated farms have the potential to help organic farmers create a more resource-efficient “closed-loop” system. For vegetable farmers looking to start an integrated system, chickens require the lowest startup costs as compared with other livestock. This type of diversified production may be especially promising given the growing consumer demand for more sustainably and humanely produced chicken.

Table 1. Some potential benefits and drawbacks of integrated poultry-vegetable production.

However, there are many beliefs that remain unconfirmed and questions that remain unanswered by scientific research when it comes to integrating poultry production into vegetable cropping. For instance, at what extent does manure deposited by poultry on the farm reduce the need for off-farm soil fertility inputs? What benefits can we observe when crop residue is used to supplement the diets of the chickens? What stocking rate is the most advantageous in these systems? What types of crops and breeds of chicken work the best with poultry production in different regions? And is it feasible to squeeze in a successful yield of broiler production into the transition window between different crop seasons? Finally, can all this be done effectively from a food safety perspective and economically from both a farmer and consumer level?

Study Design
To better understand and evaluate the potential to integrate poultry with crop farming from multiple perspectives, the research objectives focused on evaluating growth yields, quality of agricultural outputs, food safety risks, agroecological impacts on soil and pests, and economic feasibility of such systems.

In this experiment, broilers were raised on pasture starting at around 4 weeks of age to graze on crop residue. In the California iteration of this experiment, we raised two flocks per year in between rotations of vegetable crops in the summer and cover crops in the winter (Figure 1a). Rather than remaining in a fixed location, the pastured broilers are stocked in mobile chicken coops, commonly referred to as “chicken tractors”, which are moved to a fresh plot of land every day for rotational grazing. Four subplots distributed across the field are grazed by chickens before vegetables are planted in the spring (treatment B), and four different subplots are grazed by chickens after vegetable harvest (treatment A).

The impacts of grazing on soil and crop production of the two treatments are compared to a third control treatment of only cover crops and vegetables (treatment C), while the impacts of rotational grazing on meat production are compared to an indoor control flock.
Collaborating researchers in Iowa and Kentucky are also collecting weed and insect diversity data to better understand the impacts on crop pests and better understand how poultry affect the integrated farmland. Additional studies on animal welfare for the chickens as well as conducting cultivar trials on the success of varieties of different vegetables like lettuce, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and spinach tested in combination with poultry are being conducted.

Challenges Identified and Lessons Learned
As the study is still underway, we cannot make any conclusions without testing and re-testing experimental results to confirm their repeatability and statistical significance across more than one growing season. So far, however, we’ve collected a great deal of initial learnings on our integrated systems.

Soil Fertility
Organic farmers know that soil amendments, such as chicken manure, release nitrogen slowly to crops over time. Factors related to timing of application, precipitation and temperature affect how soil microbes process organic material to ultimately impact the soil quality. In California, although our tomato crop received sufficient subsurface drip irrigation, we suffered low yield and tomato end rot across the treatments. This was due to the fact that our experimental plot was previously conventionally managed and very nutrient depleted, an issue which we attempted to manage by applying organic compost and liquid fertilizer to the entire field to supplement the manure deposited by the chickens. In addition, severe drought during and after the period of manure deposition may have hindered soil microbial activity and, in turn, retarded the decomposition of our cover crop residue and chicken manure into the soil.

Meat Production
Additional data remains to be collected on subsequent flocks and statistical analysis on the findings have yet to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Preliminary results from meat quality analysis indicate that the pasture-raised chicken yielded less drumstick meat than the indoor control and breast meat was darker and less yellow in color. They also yielded redder thigh meat and less moist breast meat than the indoor chicken when cooked. So far, broilers in California that grazed on cover crops in the spring reached a higher average market weight relative to indoor control, while broilers grazed on tomato crop residue in the fall reached a lower average market weight relative to the indoor control.

Figure 1a. Seasonal timing of integrated production in the California research station experiment.

Food Safety
No presence of Salmonella has been detected thus far in the soil nor on the poultry produced in the California experiment. Collaborators in Iowa and Kentucky report that persistence of Salmonella associated with the poultry producing soil has not been observed to persist into the harvest period. While these results are promising, it should be noted that Salmonella are relatively common in poultry. Ideally, best practices can be identified that reduce the risk of Salmonella persisting in the soil environment while crops are grown following chicken grazing.

Many other anecdotal findings have emerged: In Iowa, a farmer collaborating with researchers to conduct their own on-farm iteration of the experiment has noted positive results from the poultry treatment on their spinach crop; our collaborating researchers also report that the chickens may appear to be eating an insect that is beneficial in their agricultural system, a finding which, if validated, may debunk the perception that their presence on the farm is always advantageous to pest control.

Table 2. A non-exhaustive list of the data being collected and analyzed for the integrated poultry-vegetable farming study.
Figure 1b. Diagram of experimental treatments applied on the one-acre field located at the UC Davis Research Ranch.

In California, we are realizing the impact the design of the chicken tractors has on labor demands. Our 5 x 10 ft-wide wheeled coop was more difficult to move in a tomato production system with raised beds and loose soil as compared to a relatively more even and firm ground in a pasture. It seems apparent that engineering considerations such as wheel type, coop material and coop weight will influence the adaptability of poultry and crop integrations. Careful timing and planning is yet another labor consideration when it comes to transitioning successfully between cropping and poultry husbandry that we encountered. Eagerly, we await to gather more information in the next year until additional conclusions to our research questions can be drawn after the study concludes in 2022.
Additional Resources

Nair, A. & Bilenky, M., (2019) “Integrating Vegetable and Poultry Production for Sustainable Organic Cropping Systems”, Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms Progress Reports 2018(1).

Biological Solutions for Managing Botrytis Fruit Rot in Strawberry

Botrytis fruit rot or gray mold caused by Botrytis cinerea is a common fungal disease of strawberry and other crops damaging flowers and fruits. This pathogen has more than 200 plant species as hosts producing several cell-wall-degrading enzymes, toxins and other compounds and causing the host to induced programmed cell death (Williamson et al. 2007). As a result, soft rot of aerial plant parts in live plants and postharvest decay of fruits, flowers and vegetables occurs. Pathogen survives in the plant debris and soil and can be present in the plant tissues before flowers form. Infection is common on developing or ripe fruits as brown lesions. Lesions typically appear under the calyxes but can be seen on other areas of the fruit. As the disease progresses, a layer of gray spores forms on the infected surface. Severe infection in flowers results in the failure of fruit development. Cool and moist conditions favor botrytis fruit rot development. Sprinkler irrigation, rains or certain agricultural practices can contribute to the dispersal of fungal spores.

Although removal of infected plant material and debris can reduce the source of inoculum in the field, regular fungicide applications are typically necessary for managing botrytis fruit rot. Since fruiting occurs continuously for several months and fungicides are regularly applied, botrytis resistance to fungicides is not uncommon. Applying fungicides only when necessary, avoiding continuous use of fungicides from the same mode of action group and exploring the potential of biological fungicides to reduce the risk of resistance development are some of the strategies for effective botrytis fruit rot management. In addition to several synthetic fungicides, several biological fungicides continue to be introduced into the market offering various options for the growers. Earlier field studies evaluated the potential of various biological fungicides and strategies for using them with synthetic fungicides against botrytis and other fruit rots in strawberry (Dara 2019; Dara 2020). This study was conducted to evaluate some new and soon-to-be-released fungicides in fall-planted strawberry to support the growers, ag input industry and to promote sustainable disease management through biological and synthetic pesticides.

Methodology
This study was conducted on a conventional strawberry field at Manzanita Berry Farms, Santa Maria in strawberry variety 3024 planted in October 2020. Treatments included fungicides containing captan and cyprodinil + fludioxinil as synthetic standards along with a variety of biological fungicides of microbial, botanical and animal sources at various rates and different combinations and rotations. Products and active ingredients evaluated in this study included captan 38.75%, cyprodinil 37.5% + fludioxinil 25%, potassium carbonate 58.04% + thyme oil 1.75%, botanical extract 100 g AI/L, giant knotweed extract 5%, protein 15-20%, cinnamon oil 15% + garlic oil 20%, caprylic acid 41.7% + capric acid 28.3%, Pseudomonas chlororaphis strain AFS009 50%, Bacillus subtilis strain AFS032321 100%, P. chlororaphis strain AFS009 44.5% + azoxystrobin 5.75%, Banda de Lupinus albus doce – BLAD (a polypeptide from sweet lupine) 20% with chitosan 2.3% or pinene (polyterpenes) polymers, petrolatum, alkyl amine ethxylate (spreader/sticker) 100%, thyme oil 20% and a thyme oil blend.


Excluding the untreated control, the rest of the 24 treatments can be divided into synthetic fungicides, a fungicide with synthetic + biological active ingredients (a formulation with two application rates), synthetic fungicides alternated with biological fungicides and various kinds of biological fungicides (Table 1). Treatments were applied at a 7- to 10-day interval between April 22 and May 17, 2021. Berries for pre-treatment disease evaluation were harvested on April 19, 2021. Each treatment had a 5.67’ x 15’ plot replicated four times in a randomized complete block design. Strawberries were harvested three days before the first treatment and three to four days after each treatment for disease evaluation. On each sampling date, marketable-quality berries were harvested from random plants within each plot during a 30-second period and incubated in paper bags at outdoor temperatures under shade. Number of berries with botrytis infection were counted on three and five days after harvest (DAH) and percent infection was calculated. This is a different protocol than previous years’ studies where disease rating was made on a 0 to 4 scale. Treatments were applied with a backpack sprayer equipped with hollow cone nozzle using 90 gpa spray volume at 45 PSI. Water was sprayed in the untreated control plots. A surfactant with methyl esters of C16-C18 fatty acids was used at 0.125% for treatments that contained protein P. chlororaphis alone and in combination with azoxystrobin, B. subtilis, thyme oil and thyme oil blend. Research authorization was obtained for some products and crop destruction was implemented for products that did not have California registration.
Percent infection data were arcsine-transformed before subjecting to the analysis of variance using Statistix software. Significant means were separated using the least significant difference test.

Pre-treatment infection was very low and occurred only in some treatments with no statistical difference (P > 0.05). Infection levels increased for the rest of the study period.

Results
Pre-treatment infection was very low and occurred only in some treatments with no statistical difference (P > 0.05). Infection levels increased for the rest of the study period. There was no statistically significant difference (P > 0.05) among treatments for disease levels three or five days after the first spray application. Differences were significant (P = 0.0131) in disease five DAH after the second spray application where 13 treatments from all categories had significantly lower infection than the untreated control. After the third spray application, infection levels were significantly lower in eight treatments in three DAH observations (P = 0.0395) and 10 treatments in five DAH observations (P = 0.0005) compared to the untreated control. There were no statistical differences (P > 0.05) among treatments for observations after the fourth spray application or for the average of four applications. However, there were numerical differences where infection levels were lower in several treatments than the untreated control plots.


In general, the efficacy of both synthetic and biological fungicides varied throughout the study period among the treatments. When the average for post-treatment observations was considered, infection was numerically lower in all treatments regardless of the fungicide category. Since the rates, rotations and combinations were all experimental, additional studies can help determine optimal use strategies for these active ingredients. Multiple biological fungicide treatments either alone or in rotation with synthetic fungicides appeared to be as effective as synthetic fungicides. These biological fungicides can be an important part of integrated disease management, especially for the botrytis fruit rot that has frequent resistance problems.

Thanks to AgBiome, AgroSpheres, Biotalys, NovaSource, Sym-Agro, Syngenta, and Westbridge for funding and Chris Martinez for his technical assistance.

References
Dara, S. K.  2019.  Five shades of gray mold control in strawberry: evaluating chemical, organic oil, botanical, bacterial, and fungal active ingredients.  UCANR eJournal of Entomology and Biologicals.  https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=30729
Dara, S. K. 2020.  Evaluating biological fungicides against botrytis and other fruit rots in strawberry.  UCANR eJournal of Entomology and Biologicals. https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=43633
Williamson, B., B. Tudzynski, P. Tudzynski, and J.A.L. van Kan. 2007. Botrytis cinerea: the cause of grey mold disease. Mol. Plant Pathol. 8: 561-580.

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.”

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