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Warren Morgan, looking for a way to grow his own fertilizer in the orchard,  is experimenting with a side-discharge mower to blow green manure down the tree row.

Warren Morgan, looking for a way to grow his own fertilizer in the orchard, is experimenting with a side-discharge mower to blow green manure down the tree row.

Sustainability is a topic of keen interest to Warren Morgan. Although there is little branding of sustainable products in the market today, especially when compared to organic foods, he believes that consumers are concerned about what farmers are doing in regards to the environment and global warming—issues that will continue to become more important in the future.

The public does not easily understand the term "sustainable," but Morgan hopes a session on sustainable issues at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting will help stimulate discussion and motivate tree fruit growers and shippers to consider the sustainability of their horticultural practices.

Morgan, who is head of Double Diamond Fruit, a grower-packer in Quincy, Washington, said that the concept of sustainability is broad, encompassing components like the work force, community, and world, and horticultural practices that impact the environment. Sustainable actions that are taken must contribute to the long-term economic viability of the business. He defines sustainability as "being able to do whatever I can that is in the best interest of the environment for the long term."

Growers following sustainable practices have more viable tools than organic growers, he said, adding that organic rules specify what can and cannot be done. "With sustainability, I’m not constrained by a box of rules."

Organic or sustainable?

About a year ago, Double Diamond Fruit spent extensive time considering whether to jump on the organic bandwagon and move their orchard operations to organic. "We analyzed it thoroughly from the growing and marketing side, to how suitable were our orchard locations," he said. "Since we’re a grower-shipper, we have to be able to sell what we grow and there is significant risk in switching to organic.

"But at the end of the day, I just couldn’t do it. It’s not that we couldn’t achieve it on the farming side, but I didn’t want to be limited to what’s in my box of tools."

He points to the herbicide glyphosate (Round-up) and Round-up Ready crops (genetically engineered to be resistant to Round-up) as one of the most important tools in saving the planet. The herbicide has reduced countless tractor hours, fuel, and carbon dioxide emissions that were before needed for disking and cultivating weeds, and allows the nontilled soil to sequester carbon.

Morgan notes that while they recently began using a cultivator in their orchards to reduce herbicide use, a practice used by many organic growers, he’s not yet sold on it. "Every time we use it, we’re turning over the soil, exposing organic matter, and releasing carbon from the ground. If you’re really worried about the environment and things like carbon footprints, then you need to think about the impact of all the practices. If you’re running a cultivator, you’re losing carbon."

Composts and mulching

Applying compost is another environmentally kind practice that can be misleading if all the costs and impacts are not fully considered. Research has shown that composts and mulches are beneficial for a variety of reasons, like adding nitrogen and organic matter, improving soil tilth, and suppressing weeds, to name a few. Some growers are using compost and cover crops to eliminate or reduce the need to apply traditional fertilizers.

Morgan hauls compost into his orchards, spreading about four tons to the acre. "But when you start looking at all the costs—buying and transporting it to the farm, labor used to load and transport it to the orchards, and application costs—that are involved in putting out that tiny little bit of material that has only three to four percent nitrogen…and I’m saving the planet how? It’s an extremely inefficient way to get nitrogen into the soil."

In his search for a more efficient way to add nitrogen while reducing fertilizer costs, he began experimenting with a side-discharge mower in a young orchard, blowing mulch from the row middles to under the trees. When they weighed the mulch, he was surprised to learn that the dried grass clippings were the equivalent of covering the rows with four tons per acre of dry material.

He is now experimenting with growing nitrogen-fixing legumes in the orchard middles to mow and blow on the tree rows.

"We’re looking at using our rows to grow a legume crop instead of a lawn and move away from fertilizer," Morgan said. "If I can find a way to grow my own fertilizer and nutrients and put it on economically, I’m money ahead. That’s what sustainable is about—being economically viable."

He hopes to learn from others who have more experience in growing cover crops for their nutrients. The mowed green manure, which is not incorporated into the soil, releases nutrients much slower than compost, and while it helps suppress weeds, he knows that it creates mouse habitat. "But since I’m not organic, I have more tools to use for rodent control than organic growers."

His company is also experimenting with compost teas and uses a 500-gallon brewer to make their own. With only anecdotal evidence (he does not have a test plot set up to run side-by-side comparisons), he is nonetheless pleased with the results so far. It’s inexpensive to make and easy to pump through the irrigation lines underneath the trees. "It’s hard to see any harm in it."

Third-party audit

A third-party audit of your orchard practices can be valuable in documenting or "proving" your sustainable practices, Morgan said. Though his orchards have gone through food safety and good agricultural practices audits in the past, like EurepGAP, they went through their first sustainable agriculture audit in 2007.

Third-party audits are time consuming. Their audit, conducted by the Food Alliance, based in Portland, Oregon, lasted six hours. And that’s not counting the preparation time. But he said the audit was worth it as it helped focus their sustainable vision and goals and understand the "why" behind certain practices.

"It’s about documenting or proving what you said you did," Morgan explained. "It’s proving that you educated your workers about pesticide applications, calibrated your equipment, followed label intervals, and such."