Organic growers identify research needs
An instant survey during the Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting provided insights into organic challenges.
Field horticulturist Tom Pitts sees a need for research specific to organic production.
Organic tree fruit growers see a need for organic-specific research to help them address nitrogen fertility and control the spotted wing drosophila, according to a clicker survey taken during the organic session of the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting in Yakima this week.
The audience responded electronically with clickers to a number of questions about organic production. Asked about the most critical areas for organic-specific research, they ranked nitrogen fertility and spotted wing drosophila control as the most important, with fireblight control the third most important.
Organic apple, pear, and soft fruit growers, like their conventional counterparts, pay an assessment of $1 per ton to the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission to fund research projects. Cherry growers pay $4 a ton. Tom Pitts, field horticulturist with Cascade Ag Services in Wenatchee, Washington, calculates that of the $3.5 million or so that the commission collects from growers for research each year, about $185,000 comes from organic growers.
Many of the projects that the commission supports focus on issues that are important to both conventional and organic growers, such as mating disruption of codling moth, biological control of pests, and rootstock and variety development, Pitts said. Even crop management has some cross-over now that many conventional apple growers are using lime sulfur for thinning, rather than synthetic materials.
However, Pitts said he believed there should be some organic-only projects to target specific problems not addressed by cross-over projects.
Interviewed afterwards, Dr. Jim McFerson, manager of the Research Commission, said the commission tries hard to include producers on its advisory committees who have a commitment to organic or an interest in it. Projects that the commission is supporting on soil nutrition and management of the spotted wing drosophila should include treatments that would be acceptable in organic production.
Projects that the commission has supported across the board have organic components and a commitment to long-term sustainability issues, McFerson added. “The technical barriers that a producer faces in Washington are identical in many cases for organic and conventional producers.”
If organic producers see a need for specific research, they need to find researchers who are interested in working on such projects and to bring the issues forward at Research Commission advisory committee meetings, he said. “The more organic producers we can have participating, the better. They are welcome and encouraged.”
Of the 79 people who took part in the instant survey at the meeting, 25 percent said insect pest management was the most limiting factor in organic production, while 24 percent said soil fertility was the most challengine, and 22 percent cited weed control.
Almost half the respondents take soil samples for analysis every year, but 12 percent never take them. Thirty-five percent take annual leaf samples, but 41 percent never take leaf samples.
Half the growers said they themselves determine the amount of nitrogen to apply, while 40 percent rely on a consultant, and six percent follow the recommendations of a private lab.
Composted chicken mature was the most popular amendment (applied by 29 percent of the growers), followed by feathermeal and bloodmeal.
A majority of the growers (57 percent) applied between 51 and 100 pounds of nitrogen to the soil annually, while 19 percent applied between 101 and 125 pounds, and 11 percent applied 50 pounds or less.
Just over half the growers seed legume crops to supply nitrogen in their orchard.
Twenty percent of the growers use Oregon State University’s Organic Fertilizer and Cover Crop Calculator to figure out how much fertilizer to apply, but more than half of the respondents didn’t know about it.
The Wonder Weeder cultivator was the primary weed control method used in the tree row, followed by removal of weeds by hand.
Four out of five growers said they would use an organic version of the spray guide (WSU Crop Protection Guide for Tree Fruits), 13 percent would not, and 8 percent were undecided.
Only about a third of the growers were aware of a major multi-state research project entitled “Enhancing Biological Control in Western Orchards,” which should benefit organic as well as conventional growers.
Forty percent of the growers rated their vole/gopher problem as moderate, and another 25 percent as severe or extreme. The problem was rated “annoying” by 28 percent, and only 7 percent have no problem with those pests.
Fifty-six percent of the pear growers in the audience said they could successfully manage pear rust mites and 66 percent said they could manage pear psylla.
Almost 20 percent of the cherry growers thought they could control spotted-wing drosophila, but 36 percent said they couldn’t, and 45 percent weren’t sure. Forty-five percent had good to excellent control of the black cherry aphid, but fifty-five percent said their control was only fair or poor.
Seventy percent of the growers had good to excellent control of powdery mildew.