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A Preliminary Evaluation of Using Drip Irrigation in Organic Spinach Production

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Introduction

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea) is a leafy green quick-maturing, cool-season vegetable crop. Most conventional and organic spinach fields are irrigated by solid-set or hand-move sprinklers. However, overhead irrigation could contribute to the speed and severity of downy mildew epidemics within a field when other conditions such as temperature are favorable. Downy mildew on spinach is a widespread and very destructive disease in California. It is the most important disease in spinach production, in which crop losses can be significant in all areas where spinach is produced. In the low desert of California, spinach downy mildew typically occurs between mid-December and the end of February. Although fungicides are available for the control of downy mildew in conventional production systems, products with similar efficacy are not available for organic production. Therefore, additional strategies are needed to reduce disease pressure, including irrigation managements.

 

It is postulated that new irrigation management techniques and practices in spinach production may have a significant economic impact to the leafy greens industry through the control of downy mildew. In addition to reducing losses from plant pathogens, new irrigation practices could reduce risks to food safety (risks caused by overhead application of irrigation water). For instance, adapting drip irrigation for high density spinach plantings could be a possible solution to reduce losses from downy mildew, improve crop productivity and quality, and improve crop water and fertilizer use efficiency. Currently, no one uses drip irrigation for spinach, and there is a lack of information on the viability of drip irrigation technology in spinach. This project aims to evaluate the viability of drip irrigation for organic spinach production and assess its impact on the management of spinach downy mildew.

 

Field experiment

The field experiment was conducted over two crop seasons (fall 2018 and winter 2019) at the University of California Desert Research and Extension Center in Holtville, California (Fig.1). Two dripline spacings (three and four driplines per 80-inch bed) was studied versus sprinkler irrigation as control treatment. A comprehensive data collection was carried out to fully understand the differences between the irrigation treatments. Untreated Viroflay spinach seeds were planted in both seasons. True 6-6-2 (a homogeneous pelleted fertilizer) and True 4-1-3 (a liquid fertilizer) were applied as pre-plant fertilizer and as complementary fertilizer through injection into irrigation systems, respectively. The emitter spacing on the dripline was 8-inch with nominal flow rate of 0.13 gph (gallons per hour) at 8 psi (pounds per square inch). The beds were 80-inch wide by 200 feet long. The experiment was arranged in a randomized complete block design with four replications. All treatments were germinated by sprinklers. In the winter trial, 6-spinach bed was germinated and irrigated using drip irrigation (four driplines per 80-inch bed) the entire crop season to evaluate the possibility of using drip for throughout crop season including plant establishment.

 

Fig. 1. A view of baby spinach trial under drip irrigation (80-inch bed). All photos courtesy of Ali Montazar.

 

 

Fresh biomass yield

In the fall trial, mean fresh biomass yield for the sprinkler treatment was 12,406 lb/ac (pound/acre), approximately 9 percent more than the 4-dripline in bed treatment (Table 1). In the winter trial, mean fresh yield in the sprinkler treatment was 13,281 lb/ac, approximately 7 percent more than the 4-dripline in bed treatment. Statistical analysis showed very strong evidence for an overall effect of irrigation system on spinach fresh yield in both the fall and winter trials. While we couldn’t find a significant difference between the sprinkler and the 4-dripline per bed treatment on spinach biomass yield in the winter trial, there was statistically significant yield differences between the sprinkler and the 3-dripline irrigation treatments in this trial. Fig. 2 shows a visual comparison of the drip treatments versus the sprinkler treatment 38 days after planting.

 

 

 

The yield difference between drip irrigation treatments and the sprinkler irrigation ranged between 7 percent (the 4-dripline per bed treatment against the sprinkler treatment in the winter trial) and 13 percent (the 3-dripline per bed treatment against the sprinkler treatment in the fall trial). The yield difference may have likely been caused by irrigation and nutrient management conditions of the drip treatments. Since drip irrigation was tested for the first time for spinach, subsequent trials need to plan for improvements and be conducted in different aspects. However, the 7 percent yield difference between the drip treatment (4-dripline per bed) and the sprinkler treatment demonstrates the potential of drip irrigation for a profitable spinach production. This yield difference could be reduced through optimal system design and a better irrigation and nutrient management practices for drip system.

 

Fall 2018 Winter 2019
Irrigation treatment Fresh yield (lb/ac) Irrigation treatment Fresh yield (lb/ac)
Sprinkler 12,406 a Sprinkler 13,281 a
4-dripline per bed 11,378 b 1.5D-4B 12,414 ab
3-dripline per bed 10,950 b 1.5D-3B 12,116 b

Table 1. Mean spinach fresh yield values of each irrigation treatment in each of the fall and winter experiments. Yields with different letters significantly differ (p < 0.05) by Tukey’s test.

 

Downy Mildew

Downy mildew was not observed in the fall trial but detected in the winter trial on March 5, 2019 (Fig. 3). Downy mildew disease incidence was low on March 11, 2019, with only two beds exhibiting incidences above 0.1 percent level. Mean downy mildew incidence in sprinkler irrigated plots following seedling emergence was approximately 3 to 11 times higher than treatments irrigated with drip following emergence. Statistical analysis indicated strong evidence for an overall effect of irrigation treatment on downy mildew.

Fig. 3. Spinach plants infested by downy mildew at the sprinkler treatment in the winter trial. 

 

The most likely mechanism for variations in spinach downy mildew incidences is the reduction in leaf wetness under drip irrigation, which is critical for infection and sporulation by the downy mildew pathogen. For instance, the data of leaf wetness sensors revealed that sprinkler irrigated crop canopies remained wet for 24.3 percent more time than crop canopies under the drip treatment at a period of 12 days over the fall season experiment (Fig. 4).

 

Fig. 4. The row counts of leaf wetness sensors at the sprinkler and 4-dripline treatments over a 12-day period in the fall crop season.

 

Other Observation and Lessons Learned

At the winter trial, a germination rate test was conducted 10 days after planting to evaluate the germination rate of the sprinkler irrigation (germinated by sprinkler) and beds germinated by drip irrigation. Although plots germinated by drip were not sufficiently replicated and were not randomized among plots with other treatments, it was worth-while to have an initial idea of germinating spinach with drip irrigations for future experiments. Spinach germination under drip irrigation was approximately three days late compare to the plots germinated by sprinkler irrigation. Spinach germination rate for the beds drip irrigated was averagely 3 percent lower than the sprinkler irrigated beds.

 

The developed canopy crop curves showed that the leaf density of drip irrigation treatments (germinated by sprinkler) was slightly behind (1-4 days depending upon the irrigation treatment and crop season) that of sprinkler irrigation treatment in time.

 

In late November 2018, more differences were observed among the treatments in several of the beds, mainly yellowing of leaves in between driplines (especially the 3-dripline per bed treatment). A possible reason may be that the fertigation did not move the nitrogen between the driplines. The values of total plant nitrogen content and leaf chlorophyll content demonstrated that nitrogen uptake at the drip treatments was not as effective as the sprinkler treatment, particularly in the fall experiment. Nutrient management issue in spinach drip irrigation in combination with water management is likely a critical issue that we need to address, while it may affect the adoptability and viability of drip for spinach production.

 

Conclusions

Drip irrigation demonstrated the potential to be used to produce organic spinach, conserve water, enhance the efficiency of water use, and reduce downy mildew disease incidences. Statistical analysis of the data collected indicated a strong evidence for overall variation in irrigation system on spinach fresh biomass yield and downy mildew disease incidences. A lower spinach yield could be likely caused by irrigation and nutrient management conditions under the drip irrigation at this point, where it is tried for the first and initial time. Subsequent drip irrigation trials for spinach production trials can be optimized with improved practices when using drip irrigation. Similarly, yield difference between drip and in sprinkler irrigated spinach could be reduced through optimal system design and better irrigation and nutrient management practices in drip irrigation system. The results also demonstrated an overall effect of irrigation treatment on downy mildew, in which downy mildew incidence was lower in plots irrigated by drip following emergence when compared to sprinkler.

 

Further work is needed to comprehensively evaluate the viability of utilizing drip, specifically optimal system design, the impacts of irrigation and nitrogen management practices in various soil types and climates, and strategies to maintain productivity and economic viability of spinach. Assessing drip irrigation for the entire crop season, germination and remainder of crop season, could be another research interest since spinach is a short season crop and combining sprinkler (for crop germination) and drip for such a short period might cause some practical issues.

 

Acknowledgement: This research was supported by the California Leafy Greens Research Board.

Navigating the Organic Certification Process with USDA’s National Organic Program

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Farmers and ranchers make decisions every day about production and processing, marketing approaches and certification programs in the context of real-life people, places and circumstances. Your farm and ranch business depends on agricultural markets, consumer preference trends, trade policies, regional infrastructure, and quality of life for your family and community. Organic certification to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic regulations is a practical option that provides a firm foundation on which to build healthier production systems and thriving commerce. Agricultural systems are diverse with respect to crop and livestock production systems, handling or processing options, marketing strategies, import-export policies and other applicable regulations. Organic cropping systems include diverse combinations of annual vegetables, small fruits and berries, perennial fruit and nut crops, mushrooms and sprouts, herbs and flowers, fiber crops, grains and legumes, feed and forage, pasture and range. Livestock operations produce a range of food and fiber, eggs and meat, milk and honey from many different species and breeds of insects, poultry, swine, and ruminants. Whether your organic crop and livestock enterprises are stand-alone production enterprises, or diversified and integrated businesses with processing, storage or distribution, the elements of your agricultural business are all addressed by the USDA organic regulations.

 

The following questions about how to find the regulations, feasibility of certification, cost-benefit analysis, as well as evaluation of alternative and complimentary programs for market access and regulatory compliance. They are intended to guide your decisions about becoming certified organic to USDA organic regulations, and help you navigate the certification process. These considerations and the references and resources provided will help you determine whether organic certification is a good choice for your operation, and if this is the appropriate time to begin.

 

What are the Requirements?

USDA organic regulations describe the practices and recordkeeping necessary to represent a farm, ranch or handling/processing facility and its products as certified organic. These regulations, found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Chapter 7, Part 205, detail the production standards for crop and/or livestock production, as well as handling (processing) of agricultural products. They also specify procedures for establishment, accreditation, and operation of certification agencies. To make it easier to find and read the sections of the regulations that apply directly to producers and handlers (and navigate around the administrative, certifier accreditation and procedural requirements) the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s (NCAT’s) ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program has compiled a set of excerpts of the key regulations relevant specifically to crop production, livestock production and handling (processing) activities. Requirements that are common to all types of certified organic operations include development of a written organic production and handling system plan (Organic System Plan, or OSP), and recordkeeping requirements. Each of these publications contains verbatim excerpts of the regulations for certification of crops, livestock, or handling. Although summary paraphrases (including this article) may offer a useful introduction and overview, and guidance documents provide interpretation and explanation of the regulations, there is no substitute for referring directly to the regulatory text. See references

 

Feasibility of Compliance with USDA Regulations

Does your farm or ranch have the capacity to comply with the applicable USDA organic regulations? Can you show land use history of three years without prohibited materials? Do you practice crop rotation to conserve soil, build organic matter, manage pests and nutrients, breaking pest cycles and enhance biological diversity? Are you committed to searching for and using organic seed and planting stock unless you can document lack of its commercial availability? Does your pest management rely on preventive practices, biological, mechanical and physical controls, using allowed materials with appropriate restrictions only when all other efforts are insufficient?

 

Are well-adapted livestock from compliant sources? Do they receive 100% organic feed and allowed supplements? Are animal health care practices preventative, using only allowed vaccinations, biologics and medicines? Do livestock living conditions include access to pasture for ruminants, outdoor access for all animals (any confinement duly justified), with fresh air, clean water, direct sunlight, shade, shelter, bedding and natural comfort behaviors as appropriate to the species? Can you describe ways you maintain or improve natural resources of your operation?

 

Do you have a recordkeeping system including a clear audit trail to track production through harvest, storage, transport, processing and sale? Do you take appropriate measures, during production and after harvest, to prevent contamination by prohibited materials, heavy metals, nutrients and pathogens?

 

Are there any significant barriers to organic compliance for your operation? Do your production systems face any significant challenges, such as pests or diseases, that could not be addressed with compliant preventive practices and materials allowed for use in organic production?  For example, USDA organic regulations prohibit use of antibiotics on organic livestock, yet require a livestock producer to treat sick animals humanely, even if it means using a prohibited medication. This means that the individual treated animal loses its organic status, but as long as there is an adequate system in place to identify and segregate that animal from the organic herd, the rest of the operation can remain certified organic. In this case, your organic system plan would have to list the antibiotic, and also include a description of procedures to be followed if an animal were to be treated.

 

What about the Paperwork?

While organic certification requires recordkeeping and audit trail documents that track products from seed or animal origin, through production practices and to final product sale, recordkeeping is also a good business practice. A majority of records required for organic certification benefit any agricultural business, regardless of certification status. Organic recordkeeping can facilitate completion of tax returns, enterprise cash flow budgeting and loan applications. In addition, organic recordkeeping can complement and reinforce regulatory requirements related to environmental health and food safety laws. For example, the Food and Drug Administration Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires traceability of vegetables, and USDA’s inspection, grading and labeling requirements for livestock products. In light of your overall business management, you can develop your recordkeeping systems to serve multiple purposes simultaneously. Producers and processors alike recount how the records they kept for organic certification enabled them to track practices, ingredients or products; to identify patterns, follow correlations, and the clarify causes, and more readily remedy problems, or replicate and expand upon successes. A discussion of the multiple benefits of recordkeeping is found in several articles in the NCAT/ATTRA newsletter issue focused on that topic: http://attra.ncat.org/newsletter/attranews_1105.html.

 

Organic regulations require that certified operations develop and maintain a recordkeeping system that is adapted to the business, fully discloses all activities and transactions, and demonstrates compliance with the regulations in sufficient detail as to be readily understood and audited. They must be available for inspection, and kept for 5 years after their creation. Records may be in written, visual, or electronic form. There is no specific format for recordkeeping that is required. A number of sources, including organic certifiers, NCAT/ATTRA, and the NOP make organic recordkeeping forms or templates available to use or adapt. Documentation Forms for Organic Crop and Livestock Producers. The introduction describes three main components of documenting compliance with regulations: the OSP describes the plan, documents show transactions between businesses, and records track on-farm activities. Sample forms are found in: Crop Documentation Forms, and Livestock Documentation Forms.  Many commercial recordkeeping programs are available as well. Several types of recordkeeping strategies were reviewed in an Organic Recordkeeping Webinar Series for Crop Producers presented by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) Foundation, by Ann Baier on August 20, 2018 and Thea Rittenhouse on September 2018 https://www.ccof.org/blog/organic-recordkeeping-webinar-series-growers. Factor in whether an organization can help streamline the recordkeeping and inspection processes for more than one certification at a time.

 

Will it Pencil Out? Accessibility and Affordability of Organic Production

How do the economics of organic production work for my crops and/or livestock? The Organic Market Overview by USDA’s Economic Research Service https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/natural-resources-environment/organic-agriculture/organic-market-overview, and the Organic Trade Association show sales of organic food, fiber and other products growing steadily every year since 2005, with price premiums remaining high, and organic consumers increasingly mainstream. The outlook on demand and price for organic products appears to be robust, such that the higher organic input and management costs may be offset by price premiums for certified organic products. The transition period can be a hurdle if your operation has previously relied on materials prohibited in organic production. USDA regulations specify a transition of three years between the last use of prohibited materials and the sale of a certified organic crop. During that time, the learning curve is steep. Organic management and input costs are higher; sales prices remain conventional (transitional crops rarely garner a premium). While market benefits kick in after three years, realization of the biological benefits of organic management is an ongoing process of continual improvement. Many states have cost share programs that reimburse a portion of organic certification fees. Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has developed practice standards to support transition to organic.

 

The suppliers of inputs allowed for use in organic production have expanded their offerings over the last couple of decades, resulting in a long list of materials that have been reviewed for compliance to USDA regulations by the Organic Materials Review Institute, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and USDA-accredited certifiers. Input choices may be more available in some regions, and with certain types of crop or livestock inputs. At least in areas with higher concentrations of organic farms have increasingly well-developed and knowledgeable input-supply businesses. Certified producers and processors always need to ensure the compliance of their inputs by listing them in their Organic System Plan, and having them approved by their certifier for their intended use. This process is described further in ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program’s publication, Organic Materials Compliance.

 

To discern viability for your operation, you will need to research both supply and affordability of inputs. Sharpen your pencil or pull up a spread sheet, and consult some enterprise budgets or cost studies and current price reports. Run several cost-benefit analyses for your farm based on different marketing scenarios, product pricing, and additional estimated expenses related to record maintenance and fees for each certification program. Consider seed and planting stock, fertility and pest management materials, and livestock feed. Because feed is a both a daily need (organic livestock must consume all organic feed) and major expense for livestock producers, it is critical to assess whether there is a reliable and cost-effective supply of organic feed that provides sufficient feed quantities for your animal’s entire life cycle, either through your own production or supplemental feed available for purchased locally? Does your current customer base provide a reliable price premium for your organic products that is sufficient to offset the increased costs of organic production? How can you achieve an appropriate balance of pricing with volume of sales to allow for economic viability of your business?

 

How does the Certification Process Work?

To help producers become familiar with the process of organic certification, the National Organic Program’s “Sound and Sensible” initiative provides resources to match different milestones along the certification journey. Steps include deciding whether to embark and for what scope(s)—crop production, wild crops, livestock production and/or handling; choosing a USDA-accredited certifier; developing an Organic System Plan and submitting it to your chosen certifier along with your Application and fees, preparing for an organic inspection, and maintaining recordkeeping and annual renewal. Among many good resources on this site are a set of Tip Sheets on Organic Standards that explain the regulations and ask related contextual questions for several types of crop and livestock production systems. To help you become familiar with the inspection process and prepare for your own inspection, the International Organic Inspectors Association has prepared two very useful videos entitled “What to Expect when You’re Inspected” found at showing a mock inspection of two real-life organic producers—one a vegetable crop, and the other a livestock producer.

 

What about Market Access Opportunities and Complimentary Certifications?

 

Checklist to Prepare for an Organic Inspection

[checklist_in_post]

  • Review your Organic System Plan (OSP); update as needed so that it is accurate and current, with respect to all your practices and procedures: production areas, products and activities, whether crops, livestock and/or handling; a list of materials used or planned for use, commingling and contamination prevention; monitoring and recordkeeping systems descriptions; labeling.
  • Review correspondence from your certifier, and be prepared to address any issues raised, action items, or requests for further information.
  • Gather your Recordkeeping, available in a form that can be readily audited and understood. It may be helpful to consider three main categories: Inputs that enter the farm; management activities that happen on the farm; Production outputs. Examples below are for crop producers.
    • What comes onto the Farm–Input Materials
      • Seed and planting stock, seedlings & transplants, greenhouse supplies
      • Soil amendments: organic fertilizers, lime, gypsum, compost and manure
      • Pest management materials
      • Materials used for cleaning tools, sanitation or post-harvest handling
  • What Happens on the Farm—Farm Management Practices.
    • Cultural Practices: Soil Preparation, Irrigation
    • Seeding and Planting Records
    • Crop Rotation (sequence, location, soil conservation, nutrient management, break pest cycles and enhance biodiversity)
    • Pest Monitoring and Management
    • Natural Resource Maintenance or Improvement
    • Prevention of Commingling & Contamination
  • What goes out of the Farm—Production
    • Harvest Records
    • Sales Transactions
    • Product Purchased for Resale (if any) with Certificates

[/checklist_in_post]

Records for livestock producers follow similar patterns, focusing on feed and animals that enter the farm; management activities such as feeding, health care and livestock living conditions, outdoor access and/or grazing, as appropriate to the species, and livestock and/or livestock products.

 

Choose a USDA-Accredited Certifier and Seek Organic Certification

You can find information about accredited certifiers on USDA’s NOP website, at https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification/certifying-agents

Even though there are currently 80 certifiers on this list, you can usually winnow the options down to a few practical choices that are good options for your location, and scope of operations (crops, livestock, and/or handling). To help you choose the certifier that best meets your needs, ask your potential buyers, and other organic farmers in your area about which certifier they prefer.

 

Once you have identified a USDA-accredited certification agency (ACA), submit your application with an Organic System Plan. Your ACA will review the application, assess the potential for the operation to comply, and send an inspector to conduct an on-site inspection. The inspector verifies that that land-use history, production-management practices, materials, contamination-prevention measures, and recordkeeping are all in compliance with USDA’s National Organic Program Regulations.  The ACA reviews the inspection report and makes a certification decision.

 

Although all USDA-accredited organic certifiers inspect to the same regulations, they may create their own certification forms (Application and OSP) and procedures, and require their certified clients to present the information required by the USDA organic regulations in that format, on their own forms. Some people ask about the use of different Organic System Plan (OSP) templates. Please be aware that most certifiers prefer, if not require, clients use their own OSP templates. Therefore, please be sure your organic certifier approves the use of any particular OSP form before you complete it, as it would be a waste of your time to complete any OSP template unless your certifier accepts and approves its use.

 

Who Can Help Farmers and Ranchers Navigate the Certification Process?

While there is a lot to learn, there are many, many resources available to help you on your way. Producers who complete the organic certification process have found it worth their while.

If you need more information on a particular aspect of this topic that applies to your operation, please consult the resources listed.

 

You can also contact NCAT’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program by calling 1-800-346-9140 (Bilingual English-Spanish hotline (800) 411-3222) or emailing your question to askanag@ncat.org. ATTRA is a program developed and managed by the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). The majority of funding for ATTRA is through a cooperative agreement with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service. We are also partially funded through sales and subscriptions of a portion of ATTRA materials and through contributions from friends and supporters. We are committed to providing high value information and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, extension agents, educators, and others involved in sustainable agriculture in the United States.

 

ATTRA services are available to farmers, ranchers, market gardeners, extension agents, researchers, educators, farm organizations, and others involved in agriculture, especially those who are economically disadvantaged or belong to traditionally underserved communities. NCAT strives to make our information available to everyone who needs it. If you are a limited-access or low-income farmer and find that one of our publications is just not in your budget, please call 800-346-9140.

 

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is a private nonprofit organization, founded in 1976, which manages a series of projects that promote self-reliance and sustainable lifestyles through wise use of appropriate technology. Its programs deal with sustainable and renewable energy, energy conservation, resource-efficient housing, sustainable community development, and sustainable agriculture. The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) launched ATTRA in 1987. NCAT is headquartered in Butte, Montana, and has five regional offices.

 

How Can I Find an Organic Farming Community or Network?

Organic farmers and processors often gain new ideas and sound advice from others doing similar work. Recognizing this, many organic certifiers and farm organizations across the country offer events or forums for learning and networking, whether through informal discussions at breakfast meetings, workshops or field days to visit the operations of experienced organic producers or handlers, as well as webinars or conferences. Also helpful are opportunities for organic producers to network with others in the supply chain, from handlers and processors to retailers. If you’re interested in organic production or processing, look for a group that offers educational events or networking opportunities near you. Several nonprofit organizations, university programs, and regional and national centers contribute to mutual learning, and can be found on NCAT’s website under “other resources”: http://attra.ncat.org/other/, as well as the database of Sustainable Agriculture Organizations and Publications https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/sustainable_ag/. Several organizations are listed on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Website: http://sustainableagriculture.net/about-us/members/. If you are considering organizing a network yourself, there is a guide for that as well: Finding Support through Farmer to Farmer Networking https://extension.oregonstate.edu/finding-support-through-farmer-farmer-networking. Being involved in a network that can provide practical information, advice and support can be invaluable as you navigate a new journey.

 

 

Publications by NCAT’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program

A concise description of the organic certification process, and how to prepare for an organic inspection, can be found in the following ATTRA publications:

Organic Certification Process

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/viewhtml.php?id=163

Preparing for an Organic Inspection: Steps and Checklists

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=165

Organic Materials Compliance

www.attra.org/attra-pub/download.php?id=157

Documentation Forms for Crop and Livestock Producers

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub-summaries/?pub=358

This same document can be found in Section I of the NOP Program Handbook in three parts: Intro, Crop, and Livestock Documentation Forms.

A discussion of the multiple benefits of good records is found in several articles in the NCAT/ATTRA newsletter issue focused on recordkeeping: http://attra.ncat.org/newsletter/attranews_1105.html.

Organic Standards for All Organic Operations

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/download.php?id=158

Organic Standards for Crop Production: Excerpts of USDA’s National Organic Program Regulations  https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=100

Organic Standards for Livestock Production: Excerpts of USDA’s National Organic Program Regulations https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=159

Organic Standards for Handling: Excerpts of USDA’s National Organic Program Regulations

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=160

For a detailed overview of organic certification, as appropriate to your operation:

The Guide for Organic Crop Production

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=67 or

http://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/guide-organic-crop-production

Guide for Organic Livestock Producers

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=154 or

http://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/guide-organic-livestock-producers

Guide for Organic Processors

https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=407 or

http://www.ams.usda.gov/publications/content/guide-organic-processors

 

Resources provided by USDA’s NOP and SARE websites:

 

Organic Certification https://www.ams.usda.gov/services/organic-certification/certification provides many useful introductory articles and links such as Benefits of Organic Certification and Tip Sheets on Organic Standards

 

Organic Regulations https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic

 

National Organic Program Handbook; Guidance & Instructions for Accredited Certifying Agents & Certified Operations https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic/handbook includes three sections: A. Standards (Guidance documents)

 

Sound and Sensible

https://www.ams.usda.gov/reports/sound-sensible

A Guide for Conventional Farmers Transitioning to Organic Certification

https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/10%20Guide%20to%20Transitional%20Farming%20FINAL%20RGK%20V2.pdf

 

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)

Four regional offices provide outreach for this program, based upon work supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://www.sare.org/content/search?SubTreeArray=2%2C2003%2C4528&SearchText=organic Many Organic Guides are found on this site, including: Transitioning to Organic, Certification, Marketing, Conservation, Tillage, Seeds, and Animal Systems.

 

Organic Farmers–Experienced or Brand New—Are All Welcome at NRCS

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Organic farmer John Teixeira from Lone Willow Ranch near Firebaugh, California, first started working with conservationists from United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) when he was already an experienced farmer with more than a decade of experience under his belt and a head full of ideas he wanted to try.

The experienced—and ever experimental—Teixeira is on his seventh contract with NRCS—and is always looking for new, push-the-envelope ideas for farming ecologically. He also appreciates that NRCS can help him plan and pay for the new conservation approaches. One of the five activities Teixeira is currently pursuing with NRCS is to completely (or nearly completely) source all his needed nitrogen on-farm—primarily by using manure and legumes in cover crop mixes.

One hundred and fifty miles away on the Pacific coast near Half Moon Bay, Calif., organic farmer John Vars of Fifth Crow Farm visited with his local NRCS conservationist, Jim Howard, even before he planted his first crop.

Vars sought out NRCS expertise for upfront, planning basics like pipeline placement, drainage and soils information, and where best to place a hedgerow before he began applying for financial assistance.

There is no wrong time to visit NRCS for the first time.

The path to the office door may be highly personal for each farmer, but NRCS conservationists are happy to meet farmers where they are—beginning or experienced—organic, conventional or transitioning. All are welcome to access the technical services that NRCS has provided for over 80 years and the financial services available through Farm Bill programs.

Here is a brief primer on the available options:

NRCS has long relied on a systematic approach to conservation planning that positions the farmer or rancher as the critical decision maker. The process begins with an inventory of the natural resources found on the farm/ ranch as well as a discussion of the problems to be fixed and the objectives of the farmer. Conservation practices and priorities are proposed and discussed and the farmer decides on an approach. The plan is implemented and results are evaluated.
Top Organic Practices Used by NRCS Customers: Self explanatory

Conservation Planning

Few of us would build a house without a blueprint. Building a successful conservation approach to farming merits the same comprehensive forethought. NRCS has a well-respected 9-step planning process that has been used successfully by tens of thousands of farmers in the last 80 years. It begins with a resource inventory and is then based on the goals of the farmer. Options are provided and the farmer is the sole decision maker. The final step is evaluating the results, tweaking where needed and repeating the process.

Vars offers this comment regarding the value of this planning process:

Agronomist Valerie Bullard
Agronomist Valerie Bullard of the Plant Materials Center in Lockeford, California, presents at one of the many workshops held at the PMC to host demonstrations and dialogue over current vegetative solutions to conservation challenges in the state. Currently the PMC is working on a number of trials to find ways to improve soil health and pollinator habitat in the Golden State.

 “When you first start farming, you have ideas of what you want to do to be sustainable and successful, but you can’t afford it. When you can afford it, you may find it hard to go backwards—like where you want a road you may have already placed your hedgerow.”

Teixeira, too, has done significant conservation planning since beginning work with NRCS in 2009—first working with conservation planner Rob Roy, and later, with Sheryl Feit. Feit says, “Through the years John’s goals have changed. The NRCS planning process gives us the flexibility to continue to adapt our approach and work with him on his evolving goals.”

Once goals are established, conservation practices are selected to answer the farmer’s particular needs and priorities. The NRCS has a time-tested catalogue of well over 100 conservation practices to call into play, though a given land use (row crops, orchards, grazing, dairy, forestry etc.) in a given geographic location will usually lend itself to a particular subset of these conservation options.

In California some of the most popular conservation practices used by organic farmers in recent years have included the following: nutrient management, cover crops, mulching, irrigation water management, hedgerow plantings, conservation cover, crop rotation and high tunnels.

The conservation practices seek to address resource concerns targeted to improve the farm’s soil, water, air, plants, animal and energy needs.

Both Teixeira and Vars have used well over a dozen separate practices including many of those listed above.

 

Don’t Forget the Critters

Beyond the significant needs of running a farm, organic regulations also require that producers maintain or improve natural resources and wildlife. Both Teixeira and Vars have worked with

NRCS to do so.

Recognizing the unique habitat opportunities on his ranch—which lies between the San Joaquin River and the Lone Willow Slough—Teixeira has planned and used NRCS practices to make room for fish and wildlife on his ranch. Does that create a problem? “Well, they may occasionally get a chicken that has strayed too far, but that’s not really a problem,” Teixeira says philosophically.

Fifth Crow Farm has the unique challenge of drawing water from Butano Creek which is also used by steelhead salmon. To provide for the farm’s irrigation needs while minimizing impact on the fish, Vars and NRCS have collaborated on engineering a system of pipes, pumps, variable frequency drives, risers and a storage tank. “This stream is the lifeblood of our farm,” says Vars.  The unique irrigation system helps balance the needs of the fish and of the farmer that both rely on that stream.

 

Professional Expertise

NRCS employs a diverse cadre of natural resource professionals who provide the expertise needed to work with farmers and ranchers to plan and apply conservation practices. These conservationists include agronomists, rangeland specialists, soil scientists, foresters, engineers, biologists and more. Not all of these will be found in a given field office (there are 54 field offices in California—typically one per county) but experts can be drawn upon as needed to explore a given conservation dilemma in more depth.

Additionally, NRCS partners with many resource specialists who can complement and deepen the expertise on staff. Resource Conservation Districts, university extension specialists and dozens of others collaborate to create a sort of “localized conservation internet,” looping in related specialists in entomology, ornithology, air quality, conservation easements, environmental regulations, energy and more.

 

Financial Assistance

In the real world, the difference between having lofty ecological goals and applying them across the landscape often comes down to money. Farm Bill programs provide a number of tools to help make goals reality.

 

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the National Organic Initiative (NOI)

EQIP is a popular program that shares with the farmer the cost of applying selected conservation practices to the landscape to realize the farmer’s conservation goals. In recent years California NRCS has invested almost $100 million annually using this program. Typically, EQIP provides roughly half of the cost of most practices and is paid as a reimbursement once the practice has been implemented and verified. EQIP is a competitive program (one out of every two to three applications is funded on the average) and projects are ranked for environmental benefits. Producers interested in organic systems should realize significant environmental benefits and thus are often well positioned to be funded.

In addition to the “general” EQIP pool, organic and transitioning farmers have an additional option available only to them: the organic subportion of EQIP called the National Organic Initiative (NOI). Most of the practices mentioned in this article can be funded through either general or organic EQIP. However, since the organic funds are available only to organic and transitioning producers, the competition is often less when competing in this pool.

In the new 2018 Farm Bill, which rolls out in fiscal year 2020, the amount that farmers can get through NOI has increased to $140,000 over the life of the five-year Farm Bill. Furthermore, the annual cap has been removed so for large projects, that entire amount could be used in one year.

Farmers and ranchers can get up to a maximum of $450,000, through the life of the 2018 Farm Bill using a combination of NOI and/or general EQIP financial assistance.

To summarize, there is more money available in the larger pool of general EQIP funds, but there will also be more competition. Organic farmers are welcome to apply for either. Nationally, more than 1500 organic farmers have received EQIP contracts in the past three years, representing an Agency investment of more than $42.6 million.

 

Transitioning to Organic

An Organic System Plan (OSP) is completed by those who wish to be certified organic. NRCS Technical Service Providers (TSPs) can help producers develop a Conservation Activity Plan for Organic Transition (CAP 138). CAP 138 consists of three sections: Resource Inventory, Erosion Control Inventory, and Summary Record of Planned NRCS Conservation Practices. The Resource Inventory section may serve as a portion of the farmer’s OSP.

Farmers and ranchers should begin by working with NRCS to develop a conservation plan for their operation. Then, a TSP can develop a CAP 138 for transition and producers can apply for financial assistance to implement conservation practices or enhancements. Nearly 1000 transitioning farmers across the Nation have received CAP 138 contracts in the last three years totaling more than $15.4 million.

Teixeira group photo
Organic farmer John Teixeira (center) poses with a few of the NRCS conservationists working on his farm. From left to right is Soil Scientist Luis Alvarez, Resource Conservationist Rob Roy, John, Resource Inventory Coordinator Sheryl Feit and Biologist Taylor Fridrich.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

John Teixeira–by himself and in combination with his brothers—has had four EQIP contracts—both general and organic. At this point John has a comprehensive conservation approach applied on most of his operation. John is now on his second Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contract.

Farmers like John who already have applied significant conservation work on their operations may be ready for CSP—which plans and pays farmers to maintain and further enhance conservation practices on their operation.

Using John as an example, he has established a comprehensive conservation system on his ranch but wants to continue to find additional ways to reach a higher level of stewardship. Using CSP he is undertaking new approaches—such as intercropping, sourcing 90 percent of his nitrogen on-farm, and using a deep-rooted cover crop to improve infiltration.

John says that the ideas and insights he gains through his CSP enhancements have also given him good ideas for trying on his conventional acreage that he farms with his brothers. Currently, he says, he is working on ways to bring his intercropping approach to conventional row crops.

 

Applying for Financial Assistance

When applying for EQIP, especially when applying for the first time, producers should be mindful that they will need to fill out forms providing USDA with information that confirms that they are eligible to participate in these public-funded programs. USDA employees can help with the legal and financial forms that will make it possible to receive funding. Most of these forms are not required for farmers requesting only conservation planning and technical assistance.

John T w Planners
NRCS conservationist Sheryl Feit chats with organic farmer John Teixeira while on a visit to his farm to review his progress on his CSP contract.

Special Situations

Most EQIP contracts pay producers approximately half of the cost of structures or management. Benefits for organic producers may be higher due to the typically greater costs involved in farming organically. Additionally, payment rates are typically higher for those who have farmed less than 10 years (considered beginning farmers and ranchers) and for those with limited financial resources (defined on a county by county basis). Beginning farmers and ranchers who served in the U.S. Armed Services will receive an application preference in certain EQIP and CSP funding pools. Please inquire with your local NRCS service center for more information if you are a military veteran.

 

Plant Materials Center

 NRCS is assisted by special facilities called Plant Materials Centers (PMC) that are dedicated to finding innovative ways to use plant materials to address resource concerns such as erosion, pollinator habitat or better soil health. In California the PMC in Lockeford has a robust program that provides demonstration gardens that are often the site of workshops and discussion groups. The PMC is a respected resource and site for continuing to find better conservation approaches. John Teixeira is currently trying to find a better cover crop approach for the hot, arid summer conditions in California’s Central Valley. As is turns out, that is a key focus for the PMC as well.

Director Margaret Smither-Kopperl
Director Margaret Smither-Kopperl presents in one of the many field days held at the Plant Material Center in Lockeford California. Behind Margaret are many patches of cover crop mixes that can be viewed by visitors to the Center.

Other USDA Assistance for Organic Growers

In addition to the many conservation services organic farmers can find at NRCS, there are other USDA agencies and programs that can also offer important assistance. Two examples are farm loans and microloans through the Farm Services Agency and the cost share assistance that helps pay for organic certification. In California the help with the certification fees are administered by California’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

 

Getting Started

While the internet and other farmers are always a rich source of information, the best way to delve into the conservation opportunities discussed in this article is to get to know the conservationists at your local office. NRCS has 54 offices in California—typically an office in each county.

Working with farmers is what NRCS conservationists love most—and the relationship is mutually enriching. “We always love it when John comes into the office,” says Feit, “he always challenges us with his new ways of thinking through a situation.” Jim Howard who works with John Vars in Half Moon Bay, couldn’t agree more. “Farmers in my area are idea machines and we just love engaging with them to find solutions for the land,” he says.

The NRCS field office director is called a District Conservationist and they are assisted by soil conservationists and/or a range of specialists. It’s always a good idea to call ahead to make sure they have put aside time to discuss your farm and your concerns. You can find your local office at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/ca/contact/local/.

 

Fish-Live-Here-poster
This poster depicts the unique irrigation system that allows Fifth Crow Farm to thrive side-by-side with anadromous fish. The poster is one of 19 created recently by NRCS and collaborator Lexicon of Sustainability to explain many of the ways that NRCS can assist organic farmers. The NRCS campaign also features eight videos, fact sheets and other web resources. Find it all here: https://go.usa.gov/xmkNQ

Multispecies Grazing:

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Organic farms are based on diversity, from wide variation in plant species composition above ground to the billions of microbes that make up the soil microbiome. Ensuring diversity in the pastures we manage fosters resilience and productivity, and is a natural application of our fundamental organic, agrarian values. Producers who combine perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation on annual fields, and good grazing management with high species diversity will see benefits to soil health and increased revenue due to reduced inputs and higher productivity. This is particularly important for organic farmers, who apply nature’s design to make animals and pastures more resilient and productive.

“The presence of multiple species of large herbivores is the typical condition of grassland and savanna ecosystems,” says John Walker, a range ecologist who wrote on the subject more than two decades ago (Multispecies grazing: The ecological advantage, by John Walker, 1994). Early in my career I was taught to plant one or two species of pasture forages and graze them continuously with a single livestock species. This practice is still evident if you drive around the countryside and look critically at pastures. Most often you see a closely grazed landscape peppered with the mature stalks from less-palatable plants. Cattle and sheep that graze continuously easily select the newest growth and cause selection pressure that results in the eventual demise of the best forages. This picture, however, can change.

There has long been an interest in grazing multiple species together, either sequentially or at the same time. More producers are adding diversity to their farms, not only by adding diverse pasture mixes and cover crops, but with multiple species of livestock. There are some very good reasons for doing this. A well-managed farm with abundant diversity is generally healthier, has greater carrying capacity, fewer weed problems, and higher net income.

Multispecies grazing takes full advantage of biological diversity. Those farmers who work hard to increase pasture-plant diversity will also see an even greater advantage by adding diversity of livestock to the mix. In fact, these ideas go hand in hand. Multispecies grazing works best, and excels, when a multitude of forage species make up the pasture composition. As vegetation of pastures becomes more diverse, multispecies grazing tends to improve composition and utilization.

Multispecies Grazing Increases Carrying Capacity
This management practice “may be one of the most biologically and economically viable systems available to producers, especially on landscapes that support heterogeneous plant communities” (Managing livestock using animal behavior: Mixed-species stocking and flerds, by Dean Anderson, E. L. Fredrickson, and Rick Estell. Animal, 2012). Studies have shown that when you add sheep to a cattle herd, you get 20 to 25 percent greater productivity and carrying capacity over cattle alone, and 8 to 9 percent greater productivity and carrying capacity over sheep alone (Walker, 1994).

Ecological Resiliency and Better Pasture Health
Grazing, when controlled and matched to the pasture resource, is known to increase pasture health. Diversity is key here, and just as diversity of plant species leads to greater soil health, having diverse animal species on the landscape adds a multiplier effect. Proper grazing increases soil aggregation, enhancing soil structure and allowing for better water-holding capacity and nutrient exchange. Grazing also contributes soil organic matter and rumen microbes to the soil that help to increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, escalate nutrient cycling, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance.

Annual cover crops provide excellent forage while adding diversity, building soil organic matter, and feeding soil microbes. Photo: Lee Rinehart, NCAT.

Because different animal species have different grazing habits and select various forages and combinations of forages, pastures that are grazed with multiple species have more uniform defoliation. Defecation patterns affect nutrient cycling, and whereas cattle prefer not to graze around their dung, sheep generally do not have any bias about foraging near cow patties. Better forage utilization and uniformity of grazing contributes greatly to forage quality and resiliency by keeping forage growth constant; resetting the plants to the same stage of growth with each grazing event and preventing weedy or unpalatable plants from taking over.

Vegetation Management
Pastures that have infestations of weeds or brush can be grazed with species appropriate to the plants present. This reduces the ability of any one species to dominate the landscape. Grazing managers must understand the growth habits of weeds and desirable plant species and know what animals graze them, in order to target-graze the weeds, and allow palatable plants enough rest to recover. This is especially important where invasive plants are involved. One species may eat what another will reject and, by using the correct livestock, managers can suppress and reduce a weed problem in a cost-effective and ecologically responsible way. With knowledge of plant response to grazing and timing of grazing events, grazing managers can alter the landscape to a healthy, diverse, quality pasture.

Goats can be used to control weeds and brush in diverse pastures. Photo: Lee Rinehart, NCAT.

Parasite Control
One of the biggest benefits of multispecies grazing is its effect on parasite management. Cattle will consume parasite larvae such as the Barber Pole Worm (a sheep and goat parasite) and because this worm is incompatible with cattle, the worms will die. The same thing happens when small ruminants consume parasites that are indigenous to cattle. Because of parasite larval incompatibility between species, cattle can be grazed after or with small ruminants to reduce the incidence of larval infection.

 

A small, portable mineral feeder can be used with electric netting to isolate sheep and feed them the appropriate mineral. Photo: Dave Scott, NCAT.

Managing forage height is key in controlling internal parasites. As long as you keep grazing the top leaves of the sward, and move the animals before they graze too low, you can significantly reduce infection. Also, give the paddocks a nice long recovery period. This is not only good for pasture health and resiliency, it also allows parasites to die off in the pasture before they can be consumed by a grazing animal.

Animals can deal with a certain amount of parasitism, and you’ll never be able to completely eradicate internal parasites from your herd or flock. However, an integrated management system with combined livestock species can certainly make a dent in parasite populations. The key here is maintaining a healthy herd or flock and fostering natural immunity through good nutrition, clean, fresh water, and pasture access. One of the best methods for controlling parasitism, in addition to observation and targeted treatment, is culling and selection for resistance when breeding and acquiring new animals.

Diversity of Enterprises/Income
Grazing two or more species together has been shown to increase animal production (Walker, 1994). As was mentioned above, the carrying capacity is increased when two or more livestock species are grazed on the same pasture. This results in higher productivity and increased cash flow from the greater production of added enterprises.

Predator Control
Due to their size, small livestock like sheep and goats are targets for predators such as coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, bears, and even neighborhood dogs. The first line of defense should be strong, adequate fencing. But, depending on your location and predator pressure, fencing may not be enough to protect your livestock. Sheep and goats can be better protected by a combination of adequate fencing, bonding to larger livestock species (such as cattle, donkeys, or llamas), and using guardian dogs.

Guardian dogs may be an essential part of your farm if you have small ruminants. Photo: NCAT.

When small ruminants are bonded to cattle to form one herd/flock (or, ‘flerd’), they tend to remain together in a group that provides safety from predators and takes less time to manage. Bonding species together imparts many more benefits as well. For instance, cattle fencing can work very well for sheep when they are bonded to cattle. Grazing distribution is enhanced as sheep and goats tend to spread out more evenly as they graze with cattle, compared with flocks that are not bonded.

 

Key Considerations for Implementing Multispecies Grazing

Fencing and Working Facilities
Fencing is probably the most critical and challenging component of multispecies grazing from a practical standpoint, and is a crucial question given the size and behavioral differences between livestock species. Your fencing should serve multiple purposes. Certainly, you’re going to want to keep your animals off the highway or out of the neighbor’s garden. But you’ll also be using your fencing as a tool to control grazing in specific areas for specific animals.

Your perimeter fencing should be strong and permanent. Be sure to pay attention to gates and areas where terrain changes, or where fallen trees or stumps are near the fenceline. Goats have an uncanny ability to squeeze between gates and posts that otherwise work well for cattle or sheep.

Two strands of electrified poly-wire can work well to contain grazing sheep in a paddock. Photo: NCAT.

Next, you’ll be thinking about how to deal with pasture and paddock subdivisions. This is the working part of your fence system that will place the animals just where you want them and will help you manage grazing for the benefit of the livestock and the pasture. There are so many options out there, and the first thing to think about is what you have on hand. Is it appropriate for multiple species? Polywire or polytape can work for cattle, sheep, or goats, especially if you use three strands.

If you want to use polywire or polytape, train animals to the wire by placing them in a pen with a hot polywire and just expose them to it for about a week, so they can get used to the new idea. These materials are portable and allow you to adjust paddock size as resources and herd size demand. For small paddocks, electrified netting works great and is easy to move.

For larger paddocks, some producers have suggested that woven wire with two electric wires, offset and at the top, works best for sheep and goats. A really hot wire fence is sometimes is the only way to deter some predators. A 30- to 50-joule charger is not unwarranted, because you want to instill fear of the fence in any predator that encounters it. Dave Scott, an Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) specialist and sheep rancher in Montana, recommends that producers with high predator pressure buy a charger that is twice the joule rating of what they initially think they need.

Working Facilities and Shelter
A well-designed handling system considers the welfare and behavioral tendencies of the animals, ease of movement, efficient and safe operation by handlers, and the overall image of the livestock industry as seen by the consumer.

A livestock handling facility should be constructed to accommodate a particular class of livestock. Because of the size differences between cattle and small ruminants, they cannot both use the same chutes and restraining systems. However, if you have a combined herd of cattle and sheep or goats, a system could be built to take care of both species if you have a single trap or holding pen that would provide access to two separate chute and restraint systems; one for the cattle, and one for the small ruminants.

Livestock require very little in the way of shelter, but do need to be protected from wind chill, especially when it’s cold and raining. Animals use energy to maintain their body heat, and extremes in temperature can cause stress, notably for young animals. For cattle, windbreaks or a grove of trees or woods can often provide what they need to get out of the weather. And, although sheep and goats don’t require much shelter, either, it’s important to note that goats typically don’t like rain. Lambing and kidding can and should, in most cases, occur on pasture, where the animals have access to fresh air and flock behavior, but young lambs and kids are very sensitive to wet and cold. For the safety of young animals, especially in winter and foul weather, animals can be brought into a barn prior to parturition and kept there for several days after lambing or kidding, until the young ones gain their footing and are ready for pasture.

Mineral Supplementation
Grazing different species together can cause some logistical problems that go beyond fencing and working facilities and require producers to think about new ways of accommodating the needs of different animals. One of these issues is mineral supplementation. Cattle mineral should not be fed to sheep due to sheep’s lower tolerance of copper.

Stocking-Rate Decisions
The goal in determining a stocking rate is to find a combination of two or more livestock species that will produce more total gain, while maintaining the integrity of the pasture ecology and improving the pasture composition. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for determining a stocking rate, but as with single-species systems, it should be based on empirical observation of forage production and plant composition.

Your stocking rate will likely vary from year to year, and even from season to season, and will change depending on temperature, rainfall, pasture composition, animal growth rates, and many other factors. Also, remember that sheep and goat herds grow more quickly than cattle herds. Within a few months you can easily go from 50 sheep to 150 sheep, and this will place added pressure on your pastures. Be sure to take this increased herd size into account when you are planning your grazing.

Stocking rate is dependent on the available forage resources of the landscape and the kind of management employed to ensure pastures are well rested. If you have adequate, diverse forages, maintain a short grazing period, move animals regularly, and provide adequate pasture rest, you can increase your stocking rate. Remember: implement, observe, adapt.

If you are just starting out with multispecies grazing, it might be best to stock a little conservatively. This will allow you to observe and adapt. Greg Brann, a multispecies grazier in Tennessee and a retired Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) professional, suggests matching the livestock stocking ratio to the vegetation that livestock prefer. He’s found that a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio of sheep to cattle works well as a starting point.

Pigs can be an excellent addition to a multispecies grazing operation. They work well following cattle and sheep, and can help renovate old, worn-out pastures. Maintaining adequate ground cover is a challenge for pastured swine producers, and, if not managed, pigs will strip a pasture bare, which has negative impacts on soil and water quality. To ensure pasture productivity, provide a varied pasture mix of diverse legumes, forbs, and grasses. Stock the pigs appropriately with around 15 to 20 growing pigs or four to seven sows per acre and rotate! Make sure there is adequate time for pasture regrowth.

Multispecies grazing is all about matching animals to the appropriate landscape. It’s about having the right fencing and working facilities for the species you’re working with. It’s about managing parasites and predation and ensuring proper mineral supplementation. Finally, it’s about determining an accurate stocking rate to use the pasture resource efficiently and sustainably. With these principles in mind, combining multiple species on pasture can be successful, profitable, and fun.

Linda Coffey, NCAT.

Resources
ATTRA has developed some in-depth resources and training programs to help you plan, implement, and monitor your managed grazing system:

ATTRA’s Managed Grazing Tutorial
https://tutorials.ncat.org/

This course was designed to help producers manage toward productivity and resilience. Topics include inventory, infrastructure, managing the mature stand, intensifying grazing, stockpiling, fertility and soil health, and monitoring.

Grazier’s One-Stop Resource Packet
https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=587

Includes useful planning tools for managed grazing, including a Clip and Weigh Forage Yield Calculator, Grazier’s Calculator for matching forage to animal demand, a Monitoring Checklist, and a Grazier’s Math tipsheet with useful formulas.

This article has been adapted from the ATTRA publication Multispecies Grazing: A Primer on Diversity (2018), by Lee Rinehart. Download the publication at https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub-summaries/?pub=244

Lee Rinehart has been writing and educating on sustainable agriculture for over 20 years. A graduate of Texas A&M University and an Agriculture Specialist for NCAT’s ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, his work focuses on agronomy, livestock, and grazing. Lee can be reached at 479-587-3474 or lee@ncat.org.

Organic Farmers–Experienced or Brand New—Are All Welcome at NRCS

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Organic farmer John Teixeira from Lone Willow Ranch near Firebaugh, California, first started working with conservationists from United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) when he was already an experienced farmer with more than a decade of experience under his belt and a head full of ideas he wanted to try.

The experienced—and ever experimental—Teixeira is on his seventh contract with NRCS—and is always looking for new, push-the-envelope ideas for farming ecologically. He also appreciates that NRCS can help him plan and pay for the new conservation approaches. One of the five activities Teixeira is currently pursuing with NRCS is to completely (or nearly completely) source all his needed nitrogen on-farm—primarily by using manure and legumes in cover crop mixes.

Agronomist Valerie Bullard of the Plant Materials Center in Lockeford, California, presents at one of the many workshops held at the PMC to host demonstrations and dialogue over current vegetative solutions to conservation challenges in the state. Currently the PMC is working on a number of trials to find ways to improve soil health and pollinator habitat in the Golden State.

One hundred and fifty miles away on the Pacific coast near Half Moon Bay, Calif., organic farmer John Vars of Fifth Crow Farm visited with his local NRCS conservationist, Jim Howard, even before he planted his first crop.

Vars sought out NRCS expertise for upfront, planning basics like pipeline placement, drainage and soils information, and where best to place a hedgerow before he began applying for financial assistance.

There is no wrong time to visit NRCS for the first time.

The path to the office door may be highly personal for each farmer, but NRCS conservationists are happy to meet farmers where they are—beginning or experienced—organic, conventional or transitioning. All are welcome to access the technical services that NRCS has provided for over 80 years and the financial services available through Farm Bill programs.

Here is a brief primer on the available options:

Conservation Planning
Few of us would build a house without a blueprint. Building a successful conservation approach to farming merits the same comprehensive forethought. NRCS has a well-respected 9-step planning process that has been used successfully by tens of thousands of farmers in the last 80 years. It begins with a resource inventory and is then based on the goals of the farmer. Options are provided and the farmer is the sole decision maker. The final step is evaluating the results, tweaking where needed and repeating the process.

Organic farmer John Teixeira (center) poses with a few of the NRCS conservationists working on his farm. From left to right is Soil Scientist Luis Alvarez, Resource Conservationist Rob Roy, John, Resource Inventory Coordinator Sheryl Feit and Biologist Taylor Fridrich.

Vars offers this comment regarding the value of this planning process:

 “When you first start farming, you have ideas of what you want to do to be sustainable and successful, but you can’t afford it. When you can afford it, you may find it hard to go backwards—like where you want a road you may have already placed your hedgerow.”

Teixeira, too, has done significant conservation planning since beginning work with NRCS in 2009—first working with conservation planner Rob Roy, and later, with Sheryl Feit. Feit says, “Through the years John’s goals have changed. The NRCS planning process gives us the flexibility to continue to adapt our approach and work with him on his evolving goals.”

Once goals are established, conservation practices are selected to answer the farmer’s particular needs and priorities. The NRCS has a time-tested catalogue of well over 100 conservation practices to call into play, though a given land use (row crops, orchards, grazing, dairy, forestry etc.) in a given geographic location will usually lend itself to a particular subset of these conservation options.

In California some of the most popular conservation practices used by organic farmers in recent years have included the following: nutrient management, cover crops, mulching, irrigation water management, hedgerow plantings, conservation cover, crop rotation and high tunnels.

The conservation practices seek to address resource concerns targeted to improve the farm’s soil, water, air, plants, animal and energy needs.

Both Teixeira and Vars have used well over a dozen separate practices including many of those listed above.

Don’t Forget the Critters
Beyond the significant needs of running a farm, organic regulations also require that producers maintain or improve natural resources and wildlife. Both Teixeira and Vars have worked with NRCS to do so.

Recognizing the unique habitat opportunities on his ranch—which lies between the San Joaquin River and the Lone Willow Slough—Teixeira has planned and used NRCS practices to make room for fish and wildlife on his ranch. Does that create a problem? “Well, they may occasionally get a chicken that has strayed too far, but that’s not really a problem,” Teixeira says philosophically.

This poster depicts the unique irrigation system that allows Fifth Crow Farm to thrive side-by-side with anadromous fish. The poster is one of 19 created recently by NRCS and collaborator Lexicon of Sustainability to explain many of the ways that NRCS can assist organic farmers. The NRCS campaign also features eight videos, fact sheets and other web resources. Find it all here: https://go.usa.gov/xmkNQ

Fifth Crow Farm has the unique challenge of drawing water from Butano Creek which is also used by steelhead salmon. To provide for the farm’s irrigation needs while minimizing impact on the fish, Vars and NRCS have collaborated on engineering a system of pipes, pumps, variable frequency drives, risers and a storage tank. “This stream is the lifeblood of our farm,” says Vars.  The unique irrigation system helps balance the needs of the fish and of the farmer that both rely on that stream.

Professional Expertise
NRCS employs a diverse cadre of natural resource professionals who provide the expertise needed to work with farmers and ranchers to plan and apply conservation practices. These conservationists include agronomists, rangeland specialists, soil scientists, foresters, engineers, biologists and more. Not all of these will be found in a given field office (there are 54 field offices in California—typically one per county) but experts can be drawn upon as needed to explore a given conservation dilemma in more depth.

Additionally, NRCS partners with many resource specialists who can complement and deepen the expertise on staff. Resource Conservation Districts, university extension specialists and dozens of others collaborate to create a sort of “localized conservation internet,” looping in related specialists in entomology, ornithology, air quality, conservation easements, environmental regulations, energy and more.

Financial Assistance
In the real world, the difference between having lofty ecological goals and applying them across the landscape often comes down to money. Farm Bill programs provide a number of tools to help make goals reality.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the National Organic Initiative (NOI)
EQIP is a popular program that shares with the farmer the cost of applying selected conservation practices to the landscape to realize the farmer’s conservation goals. In recent years California NRCS has invested almost $100 million annually using this program. Typically, EQIP provides roughly half of the cost of most practices and is paid as a reimbursement once the practice has been implemented and verified. EQIP is a competitive program (one out of every two to three applications is funded on the average) and projects are ranked for environmental benefits. Producers interested in organic systems should realize significant environmental benefits and thus are often well positioned to be funded.

In addition to the “general” EQIP pool, organic and transitioning farmers have an additional option available only to them: the organic subportion of EQIP called the National Organic Initiative (NOI). Most of the practices mentioned in this article can be funded through either general or organic EQIP. However, since the organic funds are available only to organic and transitioning producers, the competition is often less when competing in this pool.

In the new 2018 Farm Bill, which rolls out in fiscal year 2020, the amount that farmers can get through NOI has increased to $140,000 over the life of the five-year Farm Bill. Furthermore, the annual cap has been removed so for large projects, that entire amount could be used in one year.

Farmers and ranchers can get up to a maximum of $450,000, through the life of the 2018 Farm Bill using a combination of NOI and/or general EQIP financial assistance.

To summarize, there is more money available in the larger pool of general EQIP funds, but there will also be more competition. Organic farmers are welcome to apply for either. Nationally, more than 1500 organic farmers have received EQIP contracts in the past three years, representing an Agency investment of more than $42.6 million.

Transitioning to Organic
An Organic System Plan (OSP) is completed by those who wish to be certified organic. NRCS Technical Service Providers (TSPs) can help producers develop a Conservation Activity Plan for Organic Transition (CAP 138). CAP 138 consists of three sections: Resource Inventory, Erosion Control Inventory, and Summary Record of Planned NRCS Conservation Practices. The Resource Inventory section may serve as a portion of the farmer’s OSP.

Farmers and ranchers should begin by working with NRCS to develop a conservation plan for their operation. Then, a TSP can develop a CAP 138 for transition and producers can apply for financial assistance to implement conservation practices or enhancements. Nearly 1000 transitioning farmers across the Nation have received CAP 138 contracts in the last three years totaling more than $15.4 million.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
John Teixeira–by himself and in combination with his brothers—has had four EQIP contracts—both general and organic. At this point John has a comprehensive conservation approach applied on most of his operation. John is now on his second Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contract.

Farmers like John who already have applied significant conservation work on their operations may be ready for CSP—which plans and pays farmers to maintain and further enhance conservation practices on their operation.

Using John as an example, he has established a comprehensive conservation system on his ranch but wants to continue to find additional ways to reach a higher level of stewardship. Using CSP he is undertaking new approaches—such as intercropping, sourcing 90 percent of his nitrogen on-farm, and using a deep-rooted cover crop to improve infiltration.

John says that the ideas and insights he gains through his CSP enhancements have also given him good ideas for trying on his conventional acreage that he farms with his brothers. Currently, he says, he is working on ways to bring his intercropping approach to conventional row crops.

Applying for Financial Assistance
When applying for EQIP, especially when applying for the first time, producers should be mindful that they will need to fill out forms providing USDA with information that confirms that they are eligible to participate in these public-funded programs. USDA employees can help with the legal and financial forms that will make it possible to receive funding. Most of these forms are not required for farmers requesting only conservation planning and technical assistance.

Special Situations
Most EQIP contracts pay producers approximately half of the cost of structures or management. Benefits for organic producers may be higher due to the typically greater costs involved in farming organically. Additionally, payment rates are typically higher for those who have farmed less than 10 years (considered beginning farmers and ranchers) and for those with limited financial resources (defined on a county by county basis). Beginning farmers and ranchers who served in the U.S. Armed Services will receive an application preference in certain EQIP and CSP funding pools. Please inquire with your local NRCS service center for more information if you are a military veteran.

Plant Materials Center
NRCS is assisted by special facilities called Plant Materials Centers (PMC) that are dedicated to finding innovative ways to use plant materials to address resource concerns such as erosion, pollinator habitat or better soil health. In California the PMC in Lockeford has a robust program that provides demonstration gardens that are often the site of workshops and discussion groups. The PMC is a respected resource and site for continuing to find better conservation approaches. John Teixeira is currently trying to find a better cover crop approach for the hot, arid summer conditions in California’s Central Valley. As is turns out, that is a key focus for the PMC as well.

Other USDA Assistance for Organic Growers
In addition to the many conservation services organic farmers can find at NRCS, there are other USDA agencies and programs that can also offer important assistance. Two examples are farm loans and microloans through the Farm Services Agency and the cost share assistance that helps pay for organic certification. In California the help with the certification fees are administered by California’s Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

Getting Started
While the internet and other farmers are always a rich source of information, the best way to delve into the conservation opportunities discussed in this article is to get to know the conservationists at your local office. NRCS has 54 offices in California—typically an office in each county.

Working with farmers is what NRCS conservationists love most—and the relationship is mutually enriching. “We always love it when John comes into the office,” says Feit, “he always challenges us with his new ways of thinking through a situation.” Jim Howard who works with John Vars in Half Moon Bay, couldn’t agree more. “Farmers in my area are idea machines and we just love engaging with them to find solutions for the land,” he says.

The NRCS field office director is called a District Conservationist and they are assisted by soil conservationists and/or a range of specialists. It’s always a good idea to call ahead to make sure they have put aside time to discuss your farm and your concerns. You can find your local office at https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/ca/contact/local/.

Organic Dairy: Economics Opportunities and Challenges with a Focus on California

Opportunities for organic dairy producers include higher market prices and growing market shares. But, to the familiar challenges of costs and management constraints, is added a difficult market outlook for beverage milk products that have been the mainstay of organic milk utilization. This article explores these issues.

About 18 percent of U.S. milk comes from California. California also represents about 12 percent of dairy consumers, including many who buy organic milk. Organic milk production and marketing in California exemplifies the complexity of the outlook for this segment of the dairy industry nationally.

One the supply side, the requirement that organic dairies make substantial pasture available to their herd is a limiting factor for expansion of organic production in the dry San Joaquin Valley where most California milk production is located. In that region tree, vine and vegetable crops compete for land and irrigation water and typical milking herds have thousands cows. The organic segment has therefore concentrated in the coastal hills and valleys north of San Francisco that are less suited to intensive irrigated farming. There high-priced wine grapes claim much of the suitable cropland, and the remaining dairy industry has shifted to organic practices. Let us examine some of the economic facts that drive the situation and outlook for the organic dairy industry.

Comparing Farm Costs and Returns
We use data from the California Department of Food and Agriculture on dairy farm costs and returns for more than 100 representative dairy farms across the state. The reports identified farms by breed of cow, region and whether they were organic. Table 1 summarizes costs and returns for a sample of 13 organic farms in 2017 (the last full year of available data) compared to a sample of 96 conventional farms. The organic farms are mostly in the North Coast region and the conventional farms are mostly in the San Joaquin Valley. A typical conventional dairy has thousands of cows and that produce about 24,000 pounds per year each. A typical organic dairy has a few hundred cows that produce about 16,000 pounds per year.

Table 1. Comparing Costs and Returns for Organic and Conventional Dairies

Three facts stand out in the cost and returns data:

  1. First, although even the organic dairies in California are large by national standards, milk from conventional dairies comes from farms that produce about nine times as much milk as the organic dairies.
  2. Second, costs are much higher on the organic farms, with the difference dominated by feed and labor costs that are about double per hundredweight of milk.
  3. Third, milk revenue per hundredweight is so much higher that the net return per hundredweight of milk is more than three times higher (for the low-price year of 2017) on the organic dairies.

If it were feasible to scale up the organic industry and continue to return an extra $3/hundredweight, then the dairy industry would be rapidly converting to organic. Some of that is happening, but it is not easy. Three problems are: (1) organic dairies require much more management and land per hundredweight of milk, and thus scale diseconomies keep organic operations small; (2) neither the opportunity cost of operator time and management or the scarcity of the required pasture is included in the costs displayed in Table 1; and (3) the amount of organic milk that can be sold at prices that are almost double conventional milk prices places a limit on expansion of organic dairies, even if the land and management could be found.

We turn to the size of the market next.

Markets for Organic Dairy Products
Organic milk is mostly sold in beverage form nationally and in California. Figure 1 shows that the organic share of beverage milk quantity in California has doubled in the ten years since 2009 from just over 4 percent of beverage milk sales (known as Class I products under federal regulation) to about 8.5 percent. But this expansion in share masks a concern. All beverage milk sales have fallen, so organic milk has gained a rising share of a shrinking market. This overall decline in beverage milk quantities is severe enough that quantity of organic beverage milk sold fell from about 54 million gallons in 2013 and 2014 to about 47 million gallons in 2016 and has remained low through 2018 (using data through October to extrapolate to the 2018 annual quantity).

The higher farm price, and considerations in where and how organic milk is sold, means that retail price of organic milk is more than double the retail price of conventional milk in California. Organic milk is more than 20 percent of the total expenditure on beverage milk in California. Within the beverage milk category, the organic milk share tends to be about one percentage point higher for whole milk (or 2 percent-fat milk) than for low fat or skim milk—perhaps reflecting the tendency for school milk to be low fat and non-organic.

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data show somewhat lower national shares of organic beverage milk than shares in California. The national share has was about 5.5 percent or a little less for 2017, 2018 and the first three months of 2019. Like California the share of organic in whole milk is higher—about 6.5 percent.

Future Considerations
The higher prices and rising shares of organic milk are positives for the industry. Concerns include the limits of an economic model that requires high market prices to offset lower milk per cow, higher costs of feed, higher labor costs and diseconomies of size and scale.

The higher farm price of organic milk must be supported by higher consumer willingness to pay and that has been evident for beverage milk products. One of the challenges for beverage milk demand has been the expansion in the sales of beverages made from plant sources, such as soybeans, almonds and many others. An open question is the degree to which these products tend to compete for some of the same customers that would otherwise be drawn to organic milk.

A challenge for growth in the organic dairy industry is how to raise the willingness of buyers to pay organic prices for such major dairy products as bulk cheese, whey or dry milk powders that tend to be used as food ingredients. Overall U.S. dairy production has grown as beverage milk quantity has declines. It therefore seems important to expand the demand for organic milk used for other dairy products, including dairy products used as food ingredients.

Organic Spider Mite Control in Deciduous Trees and Vines

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Management programs for spider mites in tree and vine crops are a classical opportunity to implement integrated pest management (IPM) practices. It requires proper identification of the mites, monitoring programs that include both pests and natural enemies, treatment thresholds that consider biological control, and in some cases miticides. When IPM practices are in alignment, biological control is often sufficient to provide season-long mite control. When chemical controls are needed, choice of a selective miticide that has minimal impact on natural enemies helps maintain the integrity of an organic production system.

Proper Identification
For deciduous trees and vines, the most significant spider mite problems are caused by Pacific and two-spotted spider mites. These two species have a nearly identical appearance in the field. During the winter they are orange in color while adult females hide in protected areas, such as in leaf litter or under loose bark. During the spring, typically in March or April, they move up the tree or vine and take on an amber color after feeding on green leaf tissues. Spider mites are generally slow moving and are often found in association with webbing (Fig. 1). They lay spherical eggs within this same webbing. Both species have two spots on their abdomen, for which the two-spotted spider mite gets its name.

Spider mites need to be distinguished from predatory mites, also called phytoseiids, which are an important natural enemy of spider mites. Phytoseiids are typically amber to clear-colored, have a tear-drop shape, and are shiny due to a lack of hairs. They do not produce webbing. Phytoseiids do not have spots on their abdomen, produce conical eggs that are often found within spider mite webbing, and are often seen moving quickly on the leaf surface.

Monitoring and Treatment Thresholds
Monitoring programs for most tree and vine crops can be found at the University of California Statewide IPM Program web site (http://ucipm.ucanr.edu) by clicking on ‘Agricultural Pests’, then selecting a crop, and then clicking ‘webspinning spider mites’. In most commodities, monitoring efforts begin by evaluating individual leaves or leaflets for the presence or absence of spider mites and natural enemies. This should be done in multiple locations within an orchard or vineyard, and can typically be done rather quickly, especially considering that counting individual mites or natural enemies is not required. These data are used to calculate a percentage of leaves with the presence of spider mites and natural enemies that can be compared to published guidelines regarding the need to treat for each commodity (Table 1). Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) are encouraged to keep written records of their monitoring efforts, such as on the forms linked in Table 1, to justify their treatments. These records are also beneficial when looking at multi-week trends in mite populations. For example, should an almond PCA be concerned if 20 percent of almond leaves are infested? The answer depends on the context. If multi-week sampling shows that it was only 5 percent last week, intervention is likely required. If it was 50 percent last week, then 20 percent infested leaves this week indicates that natural enemies will likely be adequate to provide control.

Table 1. University of California Statewide IPM Program monitoring forms and treatment thresholds.

  • Almond Treat if 25% or leaves have mites and there are no natural enemies, or if one third of the leaves have mites and natural enemies are present. http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/C003/almonds-mites.pdf
  • Walnut Treatment decisions are made by sampling leaflets in the top and bottoms of the trees. Avoid treatments if predators are present on at least half of the leaves. If predators are present on fewer than 10% of infested leaves, spray when 10% of the leaves have spider mites. If predators are present on more than 10% of infested leaves, spray when 20% of leaves have spider mites. http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/C881/walnut-mitemon.pdf
  • Grape Treatment decisions are determined by comparing mite injury levels (light, moderate, heavy, or very heavy) to predator-prey ratios (predators are rare, occasional, frequent, or numerous). http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/C302/grape-leafhoprmite.pdf
  • Peaches, nectarines and plums Use presence-absence sampling to determine a mite rating (low, low/moderate, moderate, moderate/high, high) that is compared to a predator rating (low, moderate or high). A treatment should be made if there is a low/moderate mite rating with a low/moderate predator rating, or a moderate/high mite rating with moderate/high predator rating. http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/C602/peach-mitesampling.pdf
  • Cherries Treat if the number of leaves with spider mites exceeds the number of leaves with natural enemies, or if week-to-week sampling indicates that the percentage of leaves with spider mites is increasing while the percentage with natural enemies stays the same, especially if large numbers of spider mite eggs are found. http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/r105400211.html

 

Biological Control
Natural enemies play a key role in regulating spider mite populations in all commodities, especially in ones grown organically. It is for that reason that monitoring for natural enemies is critical when making the treatment decisions that were previously described. The diversity of natural enemies changes according to commodity, geography, regional diversity of cropped and non-cropped areas, and history of pesticide use.

Phytoseiids—There are approximately 70 different species of predatory mites in California. In a statewide survey led by Dr. Grafton-Cardwell, a team of extension farm advisors and specialists from the University of California documented that the species differ among crops, different climatic regions of the state, and at differ times of the year. Some phytoseiids, such as Galendromus occidentalis, are excellent predators of spider mites, while other species, such as many in the genus Euseius, prefer to feed on pollen. Regardless of the exact species and feeding preferences, all predatory mites are known to benefit biological control programs. Growers should monitor for them and protect them if present. Several species that are important in trees and vines, such as Galendromus occidentalis and Neoseiulus californicus, can be purchased from commercial insectaries and released to augment natural populations, particularly in the spring.

Six-spotted thrips—Over the past decade sixspotted thrips has become the most important mite predator in California almonds, and has been known as an excellent mite predator in stone fruit for several decades. Sixspotted thrips get their name from spots on the wings of the adults (Fig. 2). They are voracious feeders and exclusively eat mites and mite eggs, with the exception that they will also eat each other when their preferred food is scarce. They thrive in hot, dry conditions and are very good at navigating within spider mite webbing.

Fig. 2. Sixspotted thrips get their name from the spots on wings of the adult. Photo courtesy of D. Haviland.

Over the past few years, yellow sticky cards have been shown to be the preferred way to monitor for sixspotted thrips. The most effective is the small yellow strip trap (3 inch x 5 inch) that can be purchased through Great Lakes IPM (Fig. 3). Cards can be hung from a tree branch using a binder clip and large paper clip near the locations of other traps, such as pheromone or egg traps for navel orangeworm, peach twig borer, codling moth or oriental fruit moth. Traps can be checked weekly to determine the number of sixspotted thrips present (Fig. 4). Data from almonds show that if one thrips is found per card per week, there is no need to use miticides in April or May. In June and July, if there are three thrips per card per week there is a 50 percent chance that mites will be the same or lower within 14 days. If six thrips are found per week there is a 72.7 percent chance mites will decrease within seven days, and 96.6 percent chance they will crash within two weeks.

Fig. 3. Yellow sticky trap for sixspotted thrips. Photo courtesy of D. Haviland.

Mite destroyer beetles—Small black ladybugs, called mite destroyer beetles, are commonly found in orchards with spider mites (Fig. 5). This beetle feeds exclusively on mites. Advantages of this species are that they eat many mites, and live a long time. Disadvantages are that they develop slowly and do not often appear until very late in the season, long after they were needed. For this reason, it is important to observe and protect this species, but probably not wise to overly rely on it for mite control, especially during the spring and early summer when mite management is most critical.

Fig. 4. Sixspotted thrips on a sticky trap. Photo courtesy of D. Haviland.

Other predators—There are several other species of insects that feed on spider mites. Some of the most common are minute pirate bugs and green and brown lacewings (Fig. 5). These species are generalists and also feed on scales, mealybugs, aphids, and other pests in trees and vines. These generalists have an advantage that they can survive on many different foods while mites are absent and be ready to eat the mites when they appear. Conserving these beneficials is of great importance in an organic system.

Fig. 5. Larval stage of a green lacewing (top) and adult spider mite destroyer beetle (bottom). Photo courtesy of D. Haviland.

Cultural Controls
Spider mites respond directly to plant stress by increasing their populations. This can be stress due to water, such as insufficient irrigation, that is either accidental or done intentionally (such as deficit irrigation practices used to improve wine grape quality or to synchronize hull split in almonds). It can also be caused by poor nutrition programs, excessive heat, root systems damaged by nematodes or disease, or even a heavy crop load. Dust also promotes spider mites. It is for that reason that many growers are adamant about adherence to speed limit signs on the farm. Growers that limit dust in their trees and vines, have excellent irrigation and fertilization practices, and are good at managing nematodes and diseases, typically have less problems with spider mites.

Miticides
There are occasions where biological and cultural controls are insufficient to provide adequate spider mite control. In this case, when thresholds dictate the necessity, miticides can be used. Most of the miticides available to organic farmers are oil-based, with many containing plant-based oil extracts such as clove oil, rosemary oil, garlic oil, or extracts from plants such as chenopodium. Oil-based pesticides kill mites by causing them to suffocate, with some products also having other toxic effects. During 2018 we evaluated three examples of oil-based miticides, including Biomite, TetraCurb and Cinnerate (Fig. 6). While not as effective as traditional miticides used in commercially-grown fields, all three products did cause significant reductions in the number of spider mites to levels that were comparable to a 1 percent 415 oil conventional standard. These results are consistent with the performance of several OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute)-approved, oil-based plant extract or botanical oil miticides that we have tested over the past several years.

Fig. 6. Evaluation of three oil-based miticides against Pacific spider mite in almonds, Kern County, 2018.

For More Information
Growers and PCAs in search of methods to control spider mites or other pests should consult the UC Integrated Pest Management web site at http://ucipm.ucanr.edu. Guidelines for the management of each pest contain information specific to the biological and other control methods available to organic farmers.

Disclaimer: Discussion of research findings necessitates using trade names. This does not constitute product endorsement, nor does it suggest products not listed would not be suitable for use.

Organic Carrot Breeding Delivers Novel Varieties, Cutting-edge Research

The U.S. organic industry continues to grow, with sales of organic food reaching $45 billion in 2017 and the number of organic farms estimated at over 14,200, an 11 percent increase in one year. Organic carrots increasingly make up a larger share of overall carrot production—14 percent of the estimated 100,000 acres of carrots grown in the U.S. are certified organic (compared to three percent of total vegetables grown organically).

Growing carrots organically isn’t easy, however, given the extensiveness of major diseases and pests, and the cost of managing weeds. More than 80 percent of U.S. carrot acreage is infested with one or more of the most common pests or diseases: root-knot nematodes, Alternaria leaf blight, and other foliar and storage diseases, such as cavity spot. The future of organic carrots therefore relies on the development of effective, non-chemical methods for addressing these challenges, including managing weeds in this slow-to-establish crop.

Breeding a Key Factor
“Organic farming takes a whole-systems approach to addressing plant nutrition and challenging weeds, diseases, and pests,” says Micaela Colley, program director for Organic Seed Alliance. “In important ways, organic growers rely on the genetic characteristics of the seed they plant even more than other growers, since most pesticides and fertilizers are not allowed under organic regulations.”

“That’s where plant breeding comes in,” Colley adds.

Seed provides growers the genetic tools to confront day-to-day challenges in the field, and breeding plants in the environment of their intended use—in this case, under organic conditions—can yield many benefits. Enter the Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) project, a multi-regional plant breeding collaboration between the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA)/Agriculture Research Service (ARS), University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue University, University of California-Riverside, Organic Seed Alliance, and Washington State University. It is the first publicly funded organic carrot breeding project in the U.S., and the USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) grant program recently awarded the project a second round of four-year funding—and for good reason. The project’s successes thus far are noteworthy.

Dr. Philipp Simon is the coordinator of CIOA and has been breeding carrots for 40 years. He holds a joint position with USDA/ARS and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Horticulture Department. Simon has learned a lot in the last decade about the needs of organic carrot growers and how CIOA can turn their production challenges into breeding opportunities. To that end, CIOA’s main goal is to develop orange and novel colored carrots with improved disease and nematode resistance, improved weed competitiveness, and better nutrition and flavor. That’s quite the genetic package, but progress toward releasing new varieties has been efficient—and relatively quick—thanks to the project’s variety trial network that expands across the U.S.

Variety Trials
In 2018, CIOA variety trial sites were located in California, Hawaii, Indiana, Maine, Washington, Wisconsin, Vermont, and Virginia. Each site tested a different mix of 34 promising advanced breeding populations (these are varieties that are nearly uniform enough to release commercially). Simon is especially excited to see more evidence that the most important traits are “fixed.” This means that from general appearance to disease resistance to flavor, CIOA partners are finding that the varieties in development are performing relatively similar across trial locations.

“From a breeding standpoint, the process of putting together the right combination of traits and then having them reliably expressed across regions is so important,” Simon explains. “CIOA’s extensive trialing network is providing us more confidence that certain traits will express in varying environments, allowing us to accurately report just how well the overall varieties perform in different regions across the U.S.”

Simon says that two traits in particular are worth noting: top size and nematode resistance. Research shows that carrots with bigger tops help suppress weeds, a costly production challenge for all carrot growers, not just organic. CIOA breeders have had success in incorporating this trait into breeding lines to support better weed competition.

CIOA is also having success in breeding orange and novel colored carrots that demonstrate resistance to the two major species of root knot nematodes, tiny roundworms not visible to the naked eye. Nematodes live in soil and feed on plants, leading to malformed, stubby, and hairy roots, and tougher skin and lower yield. Furthermore, growers who aren’t organic are losing access to chemical fumigant and spray controls, making breeding for resistance that much more important to the entire industry.

Emerging Science
CIOA’s research is contributing to emerging science regarding beneficial microbe associations with crops as well. Plants (including carrots) associate with a diverse assemblage of microbes living on the surface and within plant tissues, which is now commonly called the plant microbiome. Some of these microbes have the potential to help plants acquire nutrients and withstand biotic and abiotic stress, so identifying factors that affect their recruitment and survival is important to optimizing plant growth. CIOA partner Dr. Lori Hoagland and her research team at Purdue University have determined that a carrot’s genotype plays a small, though significant, role in shaping these beneficial endophyte communities, indicating it may be possible to select varieties that are more apt to recruit them from soil. Other studies are underway to determine if researchers can identify differences in carrot genotypes in how they interact with soil microbes to facilitate organic matter decomposition, which could be important for managing organic nutrients.

Collaboration
The CIOA project team takes a participatory approach to plant breeding, where farmers, formal plant breeders, and members of the seed and food industry collaborate on setting project priorities and evaluating the results. Evaluations have also closely involved consumers of organic carrots to ensure that breeding projects not only meet the needs of growers with traits like disease-resistance, but also meet the expectations of the market. Not surprisingly, flavor and nutritional content are of top priority to consumers of organic carrots. CIOA hosted seven variety tastings in 2017 and 2018 to gather feedback on their projects from consumers, focusing on flavor, texture, color, and appearance. This feedback is evaluated and then informs breeding decisions moving forward.

Novel Colored Carrots
Novel colored carrots—yellow, red, and purple—are increasingly popular among consumers and chefs, yet they’re in need of serious breeding attention. Much of the colored carrot germplasm collection hasn’t been improved for, or even tested in, organic systems. One exciting finding is that within this collection is the expression of important traits, including large tops, bolt resistance, and vigorous seedling growth. CIOA breeders are improving this material to also include disease and pest resistance characteristics as well as good flavor and nutritional value. For example, breeders are testing CIOA carrots for their level of carotenoids and anthocyanins (both are naturally occurring pigments that offer health benefits), among other nutritional elements.

The CIOA project takes a classical approach to carrot breeding, starting with intercrosses to combine traits from two breeding stocks in one offspring population. So, for example, intercrossing breeding stock with good flavor and an unrelated nematode resistant carrot, to develop a new breeding line with both good flavor and nematode resistance. As CIOA breeders develop DNA markers to track genes controlling these traits in carrots, the 5 to 10 year process of combining traits will be be reduced. That is good news because carrot growers and consumers are interested in improvements for many traits.

Micaela Colley is program director for Organic Seed Alliance, a partner in CIOA. In this photo Colley is reviewing carrot variety trials in El Centro, California.

Challenges
Simon says one challenge the project has encountered is finding suitable carrots for the Southeast region, where the subtropical climate proves difficult for production. But trials in Virginia, and in the tropical climate of Hawaii, have provided promising leads on which material is worth pursuing as part of CIOA’s breeding work. They hope to identify even more material in 2019 to help meet this need.

CIOA partners Dr. Philipp Simon and Micaela Colley evaluate carrot variety trials in El Centro, California.

New Releases
For now, CIOA is poised to release several varieties adapted across geographical regions in the U.S. Project partners plan to release at least half a dozen varieties within the next two years, including a purple-orange carrot and some red varieties. Reds are of special interest to organic growers, who report having limited options that have good flavor.

CIOA has already released some breeding lines with exceptional nematode resistance to other breeders, including a carrot breeding collaborative in British Columbia, as well as to the organic seed industry. These lines support the breeding work of others, resulting in even more improved varieties entering the marketplace. CIOA’s intent is for the products of their work to remain in the public domain: free of intellectual property rights that restrict the ability of farmers and breeders to freely operate. CIOA believes it’s important that everyone have continued access to use and further develop these new varieties and breeding lines that were supported through public funding.

The Carrot Improvement for Organic Agriculture (CIOA) project will soon release new colored carrot varieties that were bred under organic farming conditions. Pictured here are carrots in a variety trial conducted in El Centro, California.

CIOA partners also hope new varieties coming out of their project will be produced organically and successfully commercialized to help organic operations meet the requirement to use certified organic seed when available. Although gaps remain in the organic seed supply, availability in organic seed has expanded tremendously over the last 15 years. Organic plant breeding has played an important role in this growth to ensure that more diverse organic seed options are available—and it will continue to play a meaningful role.

2018 Farm Bill
Congress recently passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which more than doubles the amount of research funding available to the USDA’s OREI program, CIOA’s funding source. By 2023, $50 million will be available each year to support research that benefits existing organic growers as well as transitioning growers who face a steep learning curve when adopting organic practices. Because organic research often focuses on soil health and alternative pest and disease management, the results benefit all farmers—not just organic.

“One of the long-term impacts of CIOA—and of publicly funded organic research in general—is that graduate students working on this project are developing expertise in organic systems,” says Colley. “They represent the next generation of plant breeders and agricultural researchers. And the demand for and interest in organic farming is only growing.”

This article first appeared in Carrot Country.

Celebrating Organic Farming in Arizona

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Highlighting the most available figures from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA/NASS), in 2016, the United States have 14,217 certified organic farms that produced $7.6 billion in certified organic products. Of those 14,000 certified U.S. organic farms, Arizona had 38 of them.

Sound like small numbers for this desert state? Maybe. But when you consider that one of the largest certified USDA Organic farms is in Arizona (Duncan Family Farms) and that we’re planting and harvesting 365 days out of the year, this southwest state does pretty darn well with the organic farming effort. And, it’s not over yet. Wait until USDA/NASS releases their latest certified organic numbers soon.

Of those 38 certified organic farms in Arizona, $117.8 million in certified organic products was recorded by NASS. Of the 33,183 acres of certified land in Arizona, 27,063 acres were cropland and 6,120 acres were pastureland or rangeland. The top two certified commodities sold in Arizona, according to NASS, were spinach with sales valued at $24.7 million and lettuce with sales valued at $18.8 million.

Another caveat to these numbers, USDA/NASS isn’t counting those farms adhering to most of the organic practices but simply are not certified. So, our numbers could be much larger.

These numbers mean something, but the real story to dig in on is down on the farm.

From top to Bottom, Sean McClendon, Kate McClendon, Marsha McClendon, Bob McClendon, Aidan McClendon in tractor wheel.

Organic Farming Came Naturally to Arizona
Recently interviewing Mark Schnepf, owner of Schnepf Farms in Queen Creek, Arizona, he said, “We have a mini-Sonoma Valley feel going on here.” He was referring to the cluster of U-pick, agritainment farms clustered all over Arizona.

Their main crop is their organic peach orchard that provides a u-pick setting during harvest season. “We grow eight different varieties at the farm,” Schnepf explains. “What I consider to be the two best include Early Grand and Florida Prince. Peach trees can get up to 15 feet tall if you let them. But we never let a tree get that tall to ensure a fruitful u-pick experience. We trim from the time our trees are little and we shape our trees so that ladders are not needed by the public. Ultimately trimming the peach trees so they’re low to the ground and you can reach all the peaches by just standing on the ground and picking the fruit.”

Peaches from Schnepf Farms have been named and featured in Wine Spectator Magazine as the best in the country and for over 50 years, the Schnepfs have continued to extend their season by planting more orchards with different varieties. Besides their two other peaches, peaches like Earligrande, Springcrest, and Florida King are all popular varieties that grow extremely well in the Desert climate.

Schnepf’s Peach Season begins before any other location in the United States. It’s an incredible season that typically lasts six to seven weeks! The different varieties ripen at different times which means customers must plan accordingly.

The Schnepf Farm peaches are their number one crop. So, they are very particular about the way they care for their trees and even open the farm up to the public. They used to have a “Peach Festival.” In the first year, they picked the orchard clean in three hours. It got so big, and the peaches become ripe at various times thanks to mother nature, they decided to spread it out and not feature a festival.

The interesting story behind the generational Schnepf family farm is that it started out years ago as a very traditional farm: cotton, wheat and alfalfa. Mark Schnepf and wife, Carrie, saw an opportunity in the market and went for it. Today, their farm is nationally recognized.

And, their story isn’t unusual.

Another Success Story Comes From Robert (Bob) and Marsha McClendon.
Local and organic sells better than either one alone. Just ask Bob and Marsha McClendon, members of Arizona Farm Bureau and owners of McClendon’s Select; a retail/direct-market farm. They’re so niched and specialized, they shake their own heads at how strong the demand is for their product.

Bob and Marsha, along with their son Sean, his wife, Kate, and their grandson Aidan grow exclusively USDA certified organic, all local, on a limited amount of acres and mainly to chef-owned, chef-directed restaurants, never to chain restaurants. They sell directly to the public at two Saturday Farmers’ Markets, Uptown and the Old Town Farmers’ Market during their growing season. They started selling at the Town and Country Market more than a 17 years ago, and forged relationships with customers and chefs that have lasted and grown ever since.

“We only wanted to work with restaurants that are passionate about using organic, local produce,” says Marsha. They have developed such a following of such chefs that the farm now has a waiting list of restaurants wanting to do business with them. Beginning with 25 acres, Bob says, “We continue our quest for excel­lence even as we expand our acreage.”

They sell citrus, vegetables, dates and honey, along with many specialty items that are in high demand from chefs and market customers, like heirloom tomatoes and baby greens. During the season, they grow more than 200 kinds of fruits and vegetables. It is their relationship in working with chefs to find their needs that have led them to try new crops, such as Yuzu, Gilfeather Rutabaga, Spigariello, and Sun Gold Tomatoes.

Arizona has only a handful of growers catering exclusively to chefs and the resort market, but the niche is lucrative. Others in the business describe the same kind of customer waiting lists and a clientele that may call up one season begging and pleading to have a new type of veg­etable to feature for a restaurant’s seasonal menu.

If there is anyone that knows about farming in the direct-market segment, it’s McClendon.
“Direct-market sales directly to consumers of any kind of food item that’s locally grown continues to be popular,” says Bob. People more and more want to know where their food comes from. Customers are even focused on how the food is packaged. For example, I sell honey. Many of my customers would prefer to purchase honey in glass bottles. So, I sell my honey in glass and plastic containers.”

And, while Arizona has plenty of organically-managed farms, McClendon is a serious advocate to the USDA Certified Organic label. Here’s why.

“First, the term organic can’t be used unless it’s USDA certified,” explains Bob. “There’s another group called Certified Naturally Grown. Right now, you can go online and get your backyard certified Naturally Grown. They use the good ole boy approach where Sam Jones wants to be certified and he calls Phil Roberts who lives a mile down the road to come by and say, “Oh, yes, you’re certified.” They claim they are the same standards as the nationally certified organic standards, but the big difference is there is no independent third-party inspection and review. It’s a way to get around the USDA Organic certification without the expense, the trouble and the compliance.”

He adds: “The value in the USDA Certified Organic program is that the public has a great deal of trust in it. It’s the only standard that they can hang their hat on. They know with a high degree of trust in this program they are getting a true (organic) product. Plus, the penalties for non-compliance can be really stiff. From the time we became USDA Organic certified our business has grown exponentially.”

Bob McClendon even has marketing advice for the organic farmer, especially those just starting out and struggling with managing the business. “Live the business,” he says. “Get to know your customers. Define the market and cater to that market and meet that market’s needs. If they go into a farmers’ market and see an opportunity they first need to assess the status quo and figure out how to do it better. (The aspiring direct-market farmer) must ask how they can offer something different, something better; high quality. Sometimes, it’s the simplest shifts in how they are doing something, for example, if they’d just keep something cold by packing the produce in ice. If not, within two hours you will have a wilted product but don’t expect to sell it.

“Customers want to see and know who grew their stuff. As a result, either Sean, my son, or I are at the market. Don’t send the hired help to put out a bunch of stuff to sell. Direct-market farmers also need to have an educational mindset. If they put out a variety of produce they should be prepared to tell people how to cook it because they’ll ask you. They’ll also ask how to cut the produce. We people that work market hours to talk to our customers about cooking and recipes. It’s the educational part of what we do. If our customers know how to cook something, they want to know a different way to cook it.”

Today, McClendon’s Select has grown. Their 93 acre operation included growing crops on 68 acres adjacent to the Cancer Treatment Centers of American in Goodyear, Arizona.

McClendon’s select.

Helping Arizona Families Connect to Local and Organic Farming
We’ve all heard the statistic: by 2050, almost 75 percent of the world’s population will be urban. And most of us, including Arizona families are generationally removed from the farm even though America began very agrarian. So, if American families have no contact with the source of our food other than eating it, we have a real challenge with making a reconnection.

Arizona Farm Bureau realized the importance of this and set out to make a difference. The opportunity to meet a modern-day farmer growing food for the local market is not a difficult connection to make if you think creatively. We did it through Fill Your Plate.

Fill Your Plate is an online, searchable database of Arizona farmers and ranchers that can sell food products and certainly local Arizona food directly to Arizona families. We stay Arizona focused. Two other searchable databases include recipes and our statewide listing of farmers markets. And, the majority of farmers featured on Fill Your Plate are organic growers, certified and non-certified.

Launched in 2007, Arizona Farm Bureau’s Fill Your Plate serves to help form a unique relationship—a common bond—between Arizona farmers and ranchers and Arizonans. In fact, it’s one virtual way to build community! Fill Your Plate provides chefs and our Arizona families with an opportunity to find and purchase locally grown food and along the way make friends with the farmers and ranchers who grow our food.

One of our regular Fill Your Plate users, Arizonan Janel Rogers and mom of three, said, “The wealth of information I can find at this website, including their weekly blog is so useful and why I use it regularly.”

On the site, viewers have all sorts of entertaining opportunities to engage beyond just the searchable produce-based database. They can search for recipes, read what local celebrities are saying about food and view a number of the videos we’ve produced for the site. We even provide information about how food prices are trending and nutritious tidbits that highlight Arizona fruits and vegetables and meat products. It’s a cornucopia of insights that once you’ve begun to use Fill Your Plate your mouth will water in anticipation of biting into an Arizona apple or barbequing some of Arizona’s famous and tasty beef.

Aerial shot of the Peoria farm.

Our Commitment to the Organic Farmer
Arizona Farm Bureau has more than 25,000 members. Of that number, about 2,700 are agriculture members. And, we represent all agriculture. Our farm and ranch members are small, medium and large, organic and conventional and they grow and raise just about anything you can imagine. Our organization is a big tent and works for organic and small producers, especially because of the challenge’s beginner farmers face. Farm Bureau provides financial services and asset protection for all sizes of operations and any type of production. This, because the agriculture in Arizona is so diverse.

In fact, Shane Burgess, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the University of Arizona calls Arizona the “Nutrition State.” His main point in calling Arizona a nutrition state is because we can grow almost anything with our 300-plus days of sunshine, letting us plant and harvest every month of the year.

But, why does Dean Burgess call Arizona the nutrition state? “When you take a look at what contemporary science considers our optimal diet for physical function and our ability to think and learn (often described as a Mediterranean or Okinawan diet) it looks a lot like what is produced by Arizona agriculture,” he says. “Imagine we were to stop food imports to Arizona and so we could only eat what we produce here; how would we feel about that and how healthy would we be? We come out pretty well (arguably better off than many of us are today).”

Burgess goes on to talk about the market segments in agriculture in this state. “Not only is this about what products Arizona produces but what market segments it delivers into. For example (and with apologies to those I miss), if you are like me and care about sustainable optimal production with lower water use and minimized pesticide application you can get transgenic (GMO) crops; if you want to have certified organic food you can get that; if you want “local” you can get that; you can chose grass-fed or grain-fed; if you want “heart-healthy,” that’s no problem. If dairy is your thing—no problem. If you want salad at Christmas dinner—sure, have at it at bargain prices with negligible “carbon miles.” If you want some great wine or beer, you can get that. We even have exceptional aquaculture production. Of course, this will require some actual cooking and families eating together.

“Obviously, I am not actually suggesting or advocating we carry out this experiment; it’s simply one way to visualize the amazing diversity of primary production Arizona possesses. We are not the biggest farm and ranch state by any means, but there are few that can boast what we can deliver to a table and to lower health care costs.”

And that is what makes Arizona farming and ranching so special, especially our local, organic farms that are growing such an array of agriculture that the list of products goes on and on.

A New Tool Makes it Easy

The concept of healthy farms brings to mind fertile soils, clean water, and abundant wildlife. These amenities or ecosystem services were at one time taken for granted, but are now increasingly in the news and scientific literature, as we recognize that many are being degraded.

Biologically Diverse Agricultural Ecosystems
Organic farmers rely on biologically diverse agricultural ecosystems to maintain resilient farms in the absence of synthetic chemicals. Services provided by healthy agricultural systems include the production of food, fiber, and fuel, biological control, pollination, biodiversity conservation, aesthetic landscapes, carbon sequestration, climate control, purification of air and water, production of high quality soil, flood control, and breakdown of waste into nutrients. Though ecosystem services are provided free of charge, their estimated global value exceeds $33 trillion dollars per year. Beneficial species such as insects and birds, for example, provide an estimated $4.5 billion in biological pest control and $3.1 billion in pollination services annually. These ecosystem services also reduce the need for external inputs and increase yields—improving profits and sustainability. Furthermore, such practices aid local conservation efforts.

Photo courtesy of John Quinn.

In 2016 the National Organic Program (NOP) published its Guidance on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation, a direct response to the need for supporting on-farm ecosystem services through organic agriculture. Unfortunately, the guidances provided are vague, placing the burden of designing and implementing technical plans on the farmer. This task is complicated by the fact that variation in farm size, type, and geographic location all influence the feasibility and effectiveness of biodiversity-friendly farming techniques making a “one-size fits all” conservation recommendation impossible.

Research continues to identify techniques and specific on-farm best practices that will result in a biodiversity increase on farm systems, but translation of this information for farmers remains limited, as does on-farm implementation. These shortcomings continue despite the benefits that can be gained by organic farmers.

Compliance Tool
To address this, The Organic Center and Dr. John Quinn of Furman University have collaborated to develop a NOP Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance Compliance Tool, which provides a farmer-friendly means of examining biodiversity with an interactive front-end interface that includes the mandates released by the National Organic Program in order to aid farmers in technical decisions to increase on-farm biodiversity and comply with the new guidance.

The tool can be accessed here, and details ways that farmers can find and measure biodiversity on their fields. For example, diversity can be measured as the number of livestock breeds on a farm, the number of crop species planted in a field, the presence of unique wildlife in a pasture, or habitat patches across the farm. As a complete biodiversity inventory is not practical for a farm, suitable indicators are needed. The tool suggests indicators for general, crop, and livestock Organic System Plans for each of the following four management goals:

  •  Planning
  •  Management
  •  Restoration
  • Preservation

In addition, to guide standardized reporting as part of annual United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) NOP certification, the tool can be used to generate a formal report.

Lastly, the tool is designed to encourage farmers to set annual biodiversity conservation targets and follow a more formal land use planning process. Thus for each category, farmers are asked to choose the best indicator for their farm, the current values that they observe on the farm, and where they would like to see their farm change to address each biodiversity indicator in the next two to three years.

Photo courtesy of John Quinn.

Recognizing the importance of ecosystem services to human well-being is an essential first step to sustaining healthy ecosystems now and for the future, and it is essential to ensure that the broad array of services is part of the decision-making process. The NOP Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation Guidance Compliance Tool seeks to improve how decisions are made by providing a cohesive way for farmers and certifiers to track on-farm biodiversity in a way that makes it easy to follow the Guidance on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation.

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