From Margin to Mainstream

Scientists help farmers boost organic production

farmer

On Mustard Seed Farms in the northern Willamette Valley, farmer Dave Brown switched over to organic methods after making a personal commitment to healthier eating. (Photo by Jan Sonnenmair)

“The organic movement has evolved from a fringe element associated with a lost generation to a core business strategy of the world’s largest corporations.”

–Reuters News Service, September 2008

When California-based Amy’s Kitchen opened a plant in Southern Oregon in 2006, the Oregon Department of Agriculture called it “a large feather in Oregon’s organic cap.” The nation’s largest producer of organic frozen foods, from complete meals to pizza, now employs about 700 full-time workers in White City. Its success is a sign that, over the last decade, organics have morphed from counterculture to mainstream.

Whether you’ve tossed a box of Amy’s enchiladas into your shopping cart, picked up salad greens from Gathering Together Farms at the local farmers market or purchased organic milk in the Fred Meyer natural foods aisle, you’re part of this fastest growing segment of American agriculture. For many Americans, anxiety about pesticide residues in their meals and contaminants in their environment prompts them to pay more at the checkout to protect their family and their planet. Until the recent economic slump, consumer sales were galloping ahead at 20 percent a year, according to the Organic Trade Association, reaching nearly $17 billion in 2006.

In Oregon, organics have taken off even faster. Between 2007 and 2008, certified organic acreage across the state shot up nearly 40 percent (from 83,000 to 115,000 acres), according to Oregon Tilth. Although that’s a fraction of the state’s 16.4 million agricultural acres, Oregon ranks eighth nationwide for number of certified organic farms. And the impact of the new ethic doesn’t stop there. Many conventional growers, too, are adopting sustainable practices to meet regulatory standards or to appeal to niche consumer markets.

True to its land grant roots, Oregon State University has a history of bringing advanced science and technologies to agriculture. Now, to help growers compete in the organic and natural foods industries, scientists are working hand-in-hand with farmers and ranchers — cranberry growers on the Pacific coast, cattle ranchers on the Zumwalt Prairie, vineyard managers near Portland, wheat farmers in the Klamath Basin — to boost yields, bolster nutrition and compound profits while eliminating chemicals that can disrupt ecosystems and threaten human health. OSU’s organic agriculture program includes 29 researchers developing methods in fruit, vegetable, dairy and livestock production.

Organic growers range from small farm to corporate. Terra takes you to a vegetable acreage in the northern Willamette Valley and a pear orchard in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley to meet researchers working with what some are calling the “ecological farmer.” On Dave Brown’s Mustard Seed Farms and Harry & David’s Bear Creek Orchards, crops are being raised where nature intersects science.

moth traps

Pheromone-scented traps help entomologist Richard Hilton and pear-orchard managers monitor how many codling moths are in the neighborhood. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Color of Earth

Dave Brown’s fields burst with color 10 months a year. From the cool greens of spring lettuce through the warm golds of winter squash, his organic farm sprouts a rainbow of nutrients. He owes the brilliance of his royal-purple broccoli and flame-orange cauliflower to the russet soils of his farm in St. Paul just north of Salem. If he can enhance the life-giving properties of that rich Willamette Valley earth, his vegetables will be bigger and brighter — and so will his business.

That’s why he’s part of an ongoing OSU study to investigate a key building block of plant growth: nitrogen.

“These studies are giving me concrete data I can work with,” says Brown, sitting at the kitchen table of 80-acre Mustard Seed Farms one drizzly day in April. “I know what’s going on in my soils.”

Framed and Bagged

Green Solutions

Farming that fosters ecological balance and biological diversity is the goal of OSU’s Organic Agriculture Program in the Department of Horticulture.Read more…

West of the farmhouse a battered pickup bumps along a dirt road, jostling OSU Extension agent Nick Andrews and his assistant, Kristin Pool, en route to a study site funded by the USDA and Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. The muck-booted pair piles out and grabs armloads of gear: four-foot-square metal frames, brown paper bags, harvest knives and the obligatory rainwear. Now into their fourth year studying nitrogen in the valley, Andrews and Pool have become fixtures on Brown’s acreage.

Andrews waves his arm toward a field dotted with little red flags. “In this plot we’re growing common vetch,” he says. “Over here is a mixture of vetch and cereal rye, and over there is still more vetch, this time mixed with phacelia.” The experimental plots are “cover crops” — soil-building plants typically grown over the winter and tilled into the earth come spring. They contribute to bigger pumpkins, tastier squash, more bountiful broccoli and more nutritious cauliflower by boosting soil fertility and structure.

Wading into the dewy, knee-deep vetch, Andrews and Pool place a metal frame over a patch of plants and then, kneeling under a pewter sky, begin carefully cutting away all stalks, leaves and flowers growing inside the square. Four samples from each plot will go back to the lab at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora for analysis.

Benefits of Cover Crops

Farmers use grasses and broadleaf plants as cover crops, but legumes are of keen interest because of their

veggies

An OSU study to help farmers estimate nitrogen contributions from cover crops will boost yields of organic vegetables. (Photo: Jan Sonnenmair)

special ability, in tandem with root-dwelling microbes, to take gaseous nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a plant-available form. Scientists call this process nitrogen “fixing.” When tilled into the soil before spring planting, these nitrogen-rich crops boost productivity naturally, letting farmers save money on nitrogen fertilizers and reduce groundwater contamination. The emerald canopies, flowers of yellow, lavender and indigo, and bacteria-nurturing root nodules offer other plusses, too: pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies; habitat for ground beetles, spiders and other beneficial insects; nutrients for earthworms and microbes; suppression of weeds and control of erosion.

But just how much nitrogen vetch and other legumes (members of the pea and bean families) contribute to the soils has long been a question for farmers. “Nitrogen contributions from cover crops vary widely,” Andrews explains. “Last year, one 26-inch tall cover crop of oats and vetch supplied only 10 pounds of plant-available nitrogen per acre, but a nearby 20-inch crop with more vetch supplied 60 pounds of available nitrogen. That’s a huge difference. Growers need a simple science-based method to account for this nitrogen supply.”

That’s what the OSU study aims to do: give growers new tools for estimating nitrogen availability from cover crops. In all, the researchers are monitoring 32 plots at each of five northern Willamette Valley farms to see how well various legumes perform in diverse soil types and farming methods. Soil cores taken early-on were frozen and their nitrogen content analyzed for baseline data. Then cover crops in 20-foot by 80-foot plots were planted. After fixing nitrogen all winter, the live plants were sampled and shipped off to the lab. Then a tractor blended the remaining nitrogen-loaded plants back into the earth to become “green manure.”

Nitrate levels and vegetable crop yields will be compared against those of untreated control plots, and cumulative effects will be measured over time. Meanwhile, in OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science, Associate Professor Dan Sullivan and graduate student RonJon Datta are measuring the amount and timing of plant-available nitrogen released from cover crops. They are identifying “reliable predictors of plant-available nitrogen in the field.”

“Our goal,” says Andrews, “is to be able to quantify the plant-available nitrogen so farmers can, with confidence, reduce nitrogen fertilizer based on the value of the cover crop.”

After last year’s findings suggested cutting back on chicken manure for certain low-nitrogen crops, Brown got eye-popping results. “I had the most beautiful winter squash I’ve ever had,” he reports. “Big plants, big fruit.”

Andrews explains the phenomenon this way: “Some crops will suck up a lot more nitrogen than others. Sweet corn, broccoli and cauliflower are very heavy feeders. Squash, on the other hand, is a modest feeder so it doesn’t need all that manure. Too much nitrogen has actually been shown to decrease squash yield. That’s because over-fertilized plants will keep growing leaves and stems rather than fruit.”

Faith of the Seed

For Dave Brown, going organic was the culmination of a personal journey. As a longtime conventional grower who relied on chemicals to enrich soils, control weeds and kill bugs, he got interested in nutrition in the late-1980s. Synthetic insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers started to seem jarringly out of sync with his new health-conscious lifestyle. “My wife Nancy and I decided that if we lived that way personally, we should grow our crops that way, too,” he says.

So he switched to fish fertilizer. Next he junked the chemicals. Organic certification followed three years later.

Taking something small — a tiny seed, a type of vegetable, an acre of land — and maximizing its potential is what Brown is all about. He pushes the envelope on everything.

“I’m not satisfied with white cauliflower — I have to grow purple and orange and green, also,” he says. “I don’t just do red beets, I do Chioggia and gold, too. A lot of people will grow acorn squash and butternut, maybe some Kabocha and a little Delicata. But I grow 19 or 20 kinds of squash.

“If you’re gonna grow ‘em, grow ‘em all — as long as you have a market.”

Finding a market for his organic produce hasn’t cost him one sleepless night. Business is brisk. Brown sells most of his produce to Organically Grown Company, the Northwest’s largest organic wholesaler. From his modest farm on Portland’s urban fringe, his vegetables might wind up at a big chain (Whole Foods, New Seasons, Fred Meyer, Albertson’s) or they might land in a community co-op, a mom-and-pop grocery, an elegant restaurant or a funky cafe. Surpluses go to the food bank.

A deeply spiritual man (he named his farm after the Biblical parable of the mustard seed), Brown sees no contradiction in his embrace of science. To him, enhancing God’s handiwork through hard data and agricultural research just makes sense.

“I’m a numbers person,” he says. “I like to analyze things.”

open road and fields

Southern Oregon owes its thriving pear industry to a 100-year partnership among growers and OSU scientists. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

Moth Squad

In Southern Oregon, the name Harry & David evokes a down-home setting. The company’s famous pears do originate in the bucolic reaches of Oregon’s Rogue Valley. But their trademark, Royal Riviera, tells a truer story. These regal fruits, gentled in jiggle-proof boxes, travel everywhere in the U.S. and Canada by jet and semi. Once-humble Harry & David, headquartered in Medford, is a $400 million corporation owned by the Wasserstein Group of New York City.

In this mountainous country, pears are very big business.

At Bear Creek Orchards, a Harry & David subsidiary, tens of thousands of trees in postcard-perfect symmetry grace acre upon acre of prime orchard land in Jackson County, producing not only gourmet Comice but also Bosc, Bartlett and D’Anjou for a handful of large growers and a dozen or so smaller ones. The region’s $30 million annual crop supplies one-tenth of the pears that wind up in America’s lunchboxes and salad bowls.

Rogue Valley pears, unblemished by bugs or blight, owe their perfection to a century-long partnership among growers and OSU researchers. Together, they have worked to outwit insects, fend off fungi and foil diseases that can decimate crops and destroy livelihoods. Science and technology have become indispensable allies for an industry driven by the vagaries of weather and other exigencies of nature.

New threats can emerge, quite literally, overnight.

Chief among the threats is the codling moth — a small, drab-winged pest that seems harmless until you see the ugly wormhole bored by its larva. In the old days, growers fought the moth with lead arsenate, a stomach poison. Then came the broad-spectrum pesticides — first DDT, followed by other neurotoxins such as the organophosphates, carbamates and pyrethroids — which killed everything that crawled and flew, the good bugs along with the bad. As a result, ecosystems tipped off-kilter. New pests popped up. The cycle of eradication began again.

OSU helped growers get off the overkill treadmill by introducing “integrated pest management” — using a mixture of nature-friendly tactics to keep insects in check. Thanks to research at OSU, other land grant universities and the Agricultural Research Service, Rogue Valley growers now spray host-specific viruses that target only the codling moth. And they rely heavily on pheromones — sex scents — that confuse male moths and disrupt reproduction. Exploiting nature’s own processes not only makes a lighter footprint on the Earth, it benefits the bottom line.

“You want it to be sustainable, but also profitable,” says lead entomologist Richard Hilton. “Growers are saving $100 to $150 an acre by going to a soft system. It’s significant.”

Rumors of Mites

Codling moths, along with other bugs in the “pear pest complex” — spider mites, pear psylla, San Jose scale, pear rust mites — provide regular fodder for the bimonthly brown-bags hosted by the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point. One noon-hour in May, OSU scientists are sitting around a long table with a spirited cross-section of industry folks: Mega-orchard managers with clipboards and briefcases from Bear Creek, Naumes (one of the nation’s largest pear growers), Associated Fruit, and the Church of Latter-Day Saints. A small landowner in red suspenders. A couple of “field men” (chemical company consultants). A packinghouse rep. A visiting entomologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two horticulturists — one from Harry & David and the other from Suterra, a Bend-based manufacturer of pheromone monitoring and control systems — round out the group.

OSU’s 10-decade legacy of industry cooperation shows in the easy synergy among these sun-burnished men and women. Hilton, raising his voice to cut through the chatter, displays a graph pinpointing peak egg-laying and larvae-hatch days. Quickly, the banter segues to shop talk. The group parries over “bio-fix” dates derived from two competing weather models. They trade info on the latest trap designs and bio-lures. They debate labeling on sprays with formidable names (Intrepid, Assail, Centaur). They weigh in on mite management. They invoke a litany of lesser pests (blister mites, stink bugs, Oriental fruit moths, leaf rollers). An innovative transparent trap that lures moths with acetic acid and pear ester — two natural chemical compounds given off naturally by ripening fruit — gets a lot of interest. That’s because these volatile compounds lure the female moths as well as the males. A USDA patent on the design is pending.

Data fly around the room like mate-seeking moths.

As the meeting breaks up, a mysterious green worm is passed to Hilton in a test tube. “We found this in the Dugan orchard when we were scouting for OBLR (oblique-banded leaf roller),” says Kathleen McNamara, pest control adviser for Harry & David’s 28 orchards. “Can you identify it for us?” The orchardists cluster around to peer at this potential new pest.

One more worry to take back to work.

Between brown-bags, the group stays in touch over the Net instead of, as in days gone by, over the fence. E-mail lists and OSU’s interactive “pest-alert page” give growers and researchers a place to post time-sensitive messages and data to maintain their competitive edge. The mystery worm, for instance, turned out to be a pyramidal fruitworm, a “fairly minor pest,” Hilton assured the growers in a posting shortly after the brown-bag.

A Cartridge in a Pear Tree

canopy photo

Southern Oregon owes its thriving pear industry to a 100-year partnership among growers and OSU scientists. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

If you walk the rows of Bear Creek’s organic orchard east of Central Point, plump pears destined for gourmet gift boxes and grocery store bins aren’t the only objects hanging in the cool boughs. Look closely, and you’ll see the fruits of science and technology, as well.

Matt Borman walks beneath a bower of boughs so green they seem like something out of a touched-up photo. Stopping at Row CFI-100, the Bear Creek hort technology manager reaches into the branches and takes down an orange plastic trap shaped like a tiny pup-tent. One moth and a soldier beetle are stuck on the sticky base.

“We hang one every seven acres to lure moths with pheromones and pear ester,” Borman explains. “Our scouts check the traps once a week, and enter the numbers in a database. Along with GIS mapping and microclimate weather monitoring, we can keep tabs on moth populations and decide whether and when to spray.” As one of a mere smattering of certified organic orchards in the valley, this 34-acre plot is sprayed with a biologically based insecticide, the granulovirus pathogen (CpVG), a natural enemy of the codling moth, and with a natural clay-based product called Surround, which drives other pests from the orchard.

“We’re learning things in our organic blocks that are bleeding into our conventional blocks,” says Borman. “We’re always trying to match the site with the most sustainable and soft system we can. We’re looking for that perfect balance between effectiveness and environmental friendliness.”

Borman then points high into the tree to reveal the most dazzling of novel moth technologies — the Suterra “puffer.” When a researcher at the University of California created the first puffer from a bathroom deodorizer dispenser in the 1980s, he couldn’t have imagined where his invention would lead. The device has evolved with the revolution in electronics. In the guts of today’s battery-operated model — which looks like a nesting house for birds — a miniature computer runs software designed to trigger bursts of pheromones from an aerosol cartridge, precisely timed with biological cycles.

Here’s how it works: As moths start to emerge, but before they mate, the puffers — placed in one tree per acre — begin burping out female pheromones every 15 minutes at night when the insects are active. The male moth picks up the scent and flutters off to find the faux female. He gets confused. He flies here, he flies there. He wastes time. Meanwhile, the window for fertilization is closing. If the phony seduction can fool the male for three or four days, the females’ odds of laying fertile eggs drop steeply.

Nature Bats Last

In the Rogue Valley’s pear orchards, new science constantly drives innovation. Solutions shift as knowledge grows and as nature adapts. European growers, for instance, are scrambling to fight a new strain of codling moth resistant to overused viral sprays in Germany. Despite ever-better methods for managing pests, nature remains — will always remain — one step ahead of human ingenuity. As Richard Hilton observes, “We will never fully understand the life of an insect.”

Nitrogen got you puzzled? Learn how to estimate nitrogen from cover crops here.

To support organic agriculture research at OSU, contact the Oregon State University Foundation.

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