In 1965, Richard Birkemeier and his family planted 40 acres of Barcelona hazelnuts—known then as filberts. In 1966, the Birkemeier family planted another 40 acres, creating Meridian Orchards in Aurora, Oregon. In 1970, the Birkemeiers bought another 40 acres. Richard managed his orchards with conventional farming methods. Richard’s son, Jim Birkemeier studied biology in college. He found it fascinating. “All the organisms are helping each other. Symbiotic relationship. It’s pretty amazing,” Jim said.

When Jim took over management of the family orchards in 1995, he transitioned the operation to organic growing methods. In the mid-1990s, he went to a sustainability seminar and talked about different things he’d tried: Compost-tea fertilizer; playing high-pitched bird sounds in the orchards to chase away pests; flailing limbs into the soil; grinding down stumps and planting new trees right on top of the stumps. “It was a nightmare,” Jim said. But gradually, he struck a balance with nature. In 1997, Meridian Orchards was certified organic.

Taking the organic leap was difficult, but worth it—not only for Jim’s conscience and the good of the earth, but also monetarily. He was able to mark up his organic nuts about 25 percent over conventional-farmed nuts.

He’s since turned management of the orchards over to his daughter, Mary Birkemeier-Stehman and her husband, David Stehman. “I’m getting older and lazier,” Jim quipped, “so I think it’s a good thing the new generation took over.”

When Mary was a young girl, she thought she’d never leave the family orchards. But as she grew up, she wandered in a different direction. She and David met at Hesston College in Kansas—David is from Kansas. “I came back to it,” Mary said about the orchards. She brought David back with her.

Old Barcelona Orchard A group of more than 75 people in the hazelnut industry attended the 2019 Summer Farm Tour. The tour was presented by Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative. The group first toured a young organic hazelnut orchard at Skydance Farm in Sherwood. They then traveled to Aurora for a tour of Meridian Orchards—the oldest organic hazelnut orchard in the USA. After hearing a panel of business owners speak during a lunch break, the group followed David and Mary out into the mature orchard.

About the floor in the old Barcelona orchard, David said, “We’ve been scraping and mowing. It’s looking pretty good out here, but we’ll keep working.” This was in mid-August. “We’ve got another month and a half before we’ve got nuts on the ground. So we keep scraping and mowing.” The orchard floor must be as smooth as possible before harvest in order for the sweeper and nut harvester to work properly.

Mary remembers the day when her dad grew cover crops of winter rye and common vetch in the old orchard. “It would get six feet tall,” she said.

David talked about the filbert moth traps that they used in their orchards. He pulled down a trap on a rope-pulley system from the upper third of a tree canopy. Mary peered inside. She tilted the trap this way and that to catch the glimmer of gold scales of the filbert moths’ wings. “There are several little moths in here,” she said, “but I don’t see…wait, there’s one.”

David and Mary have used mating disruption for the past four years to control filbertworm—the nut-eating offspring of filbert moths. They check their pheromone traps regularly. If there are four or five moths in a trap, no problem, David said. “If there are twenty-five to thirty in a trap, we’ll spray with Entrust.” They’ve also been spraying with PyGanic plus Entrust, David said, to “throw the book at the filbert moth.” He’s also tried Grandevo Bioinsecticide. “It smells like chocolate,” he said, “but we didn’t see a good effect with it.”

Replanting In 1995, the same year that Jim took over orchard management from his dad, Eastern Filbert Blight began working its way down the Willamette Valley. It hit their Barcelona trees. David and Mary are gradually replacing the old blighted Barcelonas with Oregon State University-bred, blight-resistant varieties such as Jefferson and Yamhill. So far, they’ve replanted around 30 acres.

After damage from gophers and borer beetles in some of the young trees, David said they planted more Yamhill and York trees last winter. They planted the new orchards single density, because they like to use equipment, such as flail mowers, in three directions. They also put in irrigation.

For weed control they tried Supress and then Homeplate, “which is easier to work with,” said David about the latter. “We’ve also been around all these trees with a weed eater and hoes.”

Another Young Orchard The last orchard the group toured was a three-year-old Yamhill, which David said had been sprayed three times, scuffle-hoed twice, and gone over twice with a weed eater.

“We used chicken manure for nitrogen,” he said. Aged chicken manure has been used in the orchards for 50 years. “Phosphorous was through the roof in our soil samples,” David said. “We’ll probably try feather meal.” He said the first couple of years they used compost around the young trees.

David and Mary planted a cover crop of peas, vetch and winter ryegrass down the aisles. “If I can get it tilled again between harvest and weather, we’ll try to plant it again.”

In managing the suckers, David said it’s easiest to hit them with an organic herbicide when they’re less than eight inches tall. Another grower in the crowd said he uses a side cutter on his mower. A side cutter doesn’t get every single sucker, so some hand cutting is still required, but it helps alleviate some of the hand labor.

For irrigation, David uses a water gun on a reel. It stretches and retracts back, he said. It’s not a typical irrigation method for hazelnuts, but he plans to continue irrigating with the gun until it starts hitting the trees. “Then we’ll go from there.”

Pests Three years ago, they had a real gopher problem. “We didn’t stay on top of it,” David said. When they started planting young trees the gophers became a real issue. They paid a guy a ten-dollar bounty for each gopher, mole and squirrel. David estimated they’ve eliminated around two-thousand gophers in the orchards over the past three years.

David made raptor poles and put up owl boxes, to encourage birds of prey to help keep down populations of voles and field mice. He said growers can use an organic rat poison, but Mary is against using the poison in their orchards.

“I won’t let him,” Mary said. “We’ve been organic from the start, versus conventional for the first three years, then get certified after six years.” She sees importance in maintaining air and water quality. “I have young kids. I want to do something I believe in,” she said through tears, and then chided herself for the show of emotion.

Their hazelnuts are certified organic by Oregon Tilth. “It’s so much more than ‘natural,’” Mary said, noting the word “natural” in food production doesn’t really mean anything. She admits that being certified is costly and a lot of work—including a roughly 39-page application and yearly continuation—but she believes it’s worth it. Her dad agrees. “So much better than fighting nature, because we wind up fighting ourselves if we do that,” Jim said.

“Some growers using conventional farming methods think it’s impossible to grow hazelnuts organically,” Mary said.

Wash and Dry Lines With their own wash and dry lines, Meridian Orchards is able to grow, harvest, wash, dry and size their nuts all onsite. They took applications this year to process nuts for other growers, too.

The wash and dry line was built in 2011. “It’s pretty standard equipment in the valley for washing and drying nuts,” David said. “We use SaniDate at the end to rid any bacteria.” The nuts are first washed and de-rocked. The sticks and dirt are removed. “We can blow as hard as needed to blow out the lighter, wormy nuts,” David said.

“We lose some good nuts,” Mary said, “but it’s worth it.” Dirt and debris from the washing process is returned to the orchards.

Then into the dryer the nuts go. Different varieties and differing weather affects drying methods and times.

“Yamhill comes out of the field too dry,” David said. “We actually add moisture at processing.” For a dry year, four to six hours is the typical drying time. Big nuts take longer. Rain-soaked nuts from a wet year can take up to 72 hours. The nuts are dried on gas-heated wooden dryers.

Meridian grades nuts to size in the shell. “Most processors will size again,” David said. They get their nuts shelled elsewhere, bring them back to the farm and store them in a cooler. From there they are mostly sold wholesale in lots of 800 pounds or more.

George Weppler is 80 now, but he still keeps a hand in Weppler Farms—a business he started in the late 1970s. The farm is situated on a 28-acre chunk of land tucked into the Cascade foothills of Brownsville, Oregon. The Calapooia River skirts the property. The land was once a walnut orchard. It’s also been a hops farm and a potato patch. And for a while before Weppler and his wife Fran bought the property in 1976, it was pasture for a Jersey milk cow. “I know the history of this land,” Weppler said. “No poison, no chemicals of any kind has ever been put on this piece of land, ever.”

Weppler got into the business of growing produce for upscale restaurants almost by accident. With degrees in accounting, business administration and biology, he was predisposed to just such a business, even before he realized it. “I started it to have good things to eat for myself and my family,” Weppler said. Locals started coming out to the farm to buy produce. Then Weppler helped his neighbors market wild mushrooms. Their mushroom customers asked if they had anything else for sale. The neighbors mentioned Weppler’s vegetables, and a chef asked to see some of his produce. “It grew from there,” Weppler said. “It just happened.”

Weppler began shipping tender young greens, lettuces and other vegetables to restaurants around the country. He points to three things as a guide to his success—soil health, providing a quality product, and building relationships. A solid work routine also enters into the recipe.

Soil Weppler started out with a rich layer of natural river loam. He’s added to it and improved the soil over the course of many years. His soil is rich, dark, and crumbly. He demonstrates the tilth by plunging both hands forearm deep into a planting bed.

Weppler uses two-inches of dried, screened cow manure from an organic dairy as top soil. It goes under and over seeds. After the crop is harvested, the manure top layer is tilled into the bed. When he starts a new bed, he first adds chicken manure from an organic, free-range chicken farm. The chicken manure gives the plants a quick dose of nitrogen. In the fall and winter, Weppler makes use of the big leaf maple trees on his property. He collects the leaves and tills them into the soil. He doesn’t use the walnut leaves—too much acidity from the tannic acid.

Routine Crop harvest and shipping comes the first part of each week. Mid-week is the time to clean and prep new beds. Replanting comes at the end of the week. Of course routine can change—it’s often dependent on weather. Weppler Farms plants year round. “We grow a certain amount of product all year,” Weppler said. On a recent invoice, Weppler listed arugula, bok choy, carrots, celeriac, cress, fennel, chanterelles, romaine, kale, mustard, cauliflower, leeks, lettuce, peppers, potatoes, radishes, spinach, shallots, squash, Treviso, radicchio. He also supplies restaurants with wild mushrooms, such as chanterelles and morels, from Oregon forests.

Relationships and Product Quality Relationships with his buyers developed over the years. Weppler has learned which chefs prefer which vegetables and how much they use in any given week. He rarely gets phone calls or orders. “I know their usage and know what they want. I know times of year when they’re busy and when they’re not.”

Weppler doesn’t want restaurants to have produce leftover at the end of the week, so he even knows when to cut back on the shipment. For example, he knows when a particular chef closes his or her restaurant for a long Fourth of July weekend.

Weppler ships to established clientele weekly. Some of the accounts he’s held onto for 25 years or more. One restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, has bought Weppler Farms’ produce since 1982. “They are willing to pay the price for a better product,” Weppler said. People who eat at high-end restaurants, he said, want to see something different that they can’t buy at their local grocery store.

His business has all been created by word of mouth. “I’ve never had to spend anything on advertising,” Weppler said. “I’m willing to produce what these people need.” That way, he says, he knows he’s able to move the crops he produces.

Weppler sells to two restaurants in Brownsville. Most everything else ships by air. He makes a run weekly to the airport. It’s picked fresh, usually that same morning, flown in, and then driven by courier to the restaurants. “I guarantee it will get there in top absolute condition.”

At the height of his production, Weppler sold to 20-30 restaurants in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington DC, Wisconsin, Florida and other states. He’s semi-retired now and has scaled back by half. He does enough to keep three people working. “We just grow enough to satisfy what it takes three people to do,” Weppler said. He first turned over farm production to his son, Ted, then later to his and Fran’s nephew, Jeff Timpone, who’s been at the farm now for 10 years.

Growing Practices Most of the crops are grown under cover, either under plastic row covers or under crop cover cloth. A limited amount of crops are grown in raised beds inside a greenhouse. For the row covers, Weppler uses concrete reinforcing wire. He cuts it to size—it’s already shaped in half rounds from being in a roll. He and Timpone cover the wire hoops with plastic and hold the plastic down along the sides and at both ends with shovels full of soil.

Production slows from mid-December to mid-February when the weather gets too cold for many of the crops. Young greens, baby spinach and mustards continue to grow under the low hoop houses and under the cover cloth—which can protect crops down to three degrees F.

Weppler doesn’t cut and grow again. After harvesting, he reworks the bed, adds fertilizer, tops it off with dried cow manure and replants everything. He looks at it like this: after a crop has grown, it’s taken nutrients out of the soil. So, better to start fresh, with fertilizer, tilled soil and a top dressing of cow manure. This time of year it takes about five weeks from transplanting to harvesting lettuces. He starts some of the plants inside the greenhouse. Weppler sells a lot of salad packs. He tries to pack eight different things in a salad mix—not only assorted young lettuces, but Asian greens, baby spinach, mustards and radicchio.

Pests Ground cloth protects against marauding deer, nutria and quail. The cloth also helps protect against insects such as the flea beetle, which are tiny, but in massive numbers can decimate a crop.

Spotted cucumber beetle was once a problem on the farm. Weppler nipped back the population years ago by paying people to hand pick the insects and drop them into a can of water and detergent.

Weppler says there are a few small actions that can keep insect populations under control. In the spring, he explains, the plants don’t have as many nutrients. Spotted cucumber beetles are looking for plants rich in nutrient value, so they are drawn to dandelion flowers. Weppler goes along and hand picks beetles out of the dandelions, which knocks back the breeding population. “I don’t have many on the farm anymore,” he said.

Varieties Many of Weppler’s favorite vegetable varieties are European—a ringed beet from Italy, a red and green splotchy-leafed lettuce from Austria, and a pointy tomato from France. “I’ve grown about 400 varieties of tomatoes,” Weppler said. “Russia and Siberia have the best tomatoes. They grow in short seasons.” He’s whittled his favorites down to about a dozen that he grows consistently, including several colorful heirloom varieties.

French breakfast radish is Weppler’s favorite plant. Weppler Farms grow radishes year round. They are a good cash crop for him, and take up little growing space. He or Timpone plant radish seed every two weeks. There is ¾ of a pound in each of their bagged radish packs. In a roughly six-by-six section of a raised bed, they will get 20 packs a week, or roughly 960 packs per year. Weppler Farms radishes are small, with a tender texture and mild heat.

Weppler is particularly proud of his carrots. They are small, straight and sweet. He points to the soil tilth as the biggest factor. When carrots don’t have to fight for growing space they are able to grow straight, instead of forking, and they produce more sugars. Also, carrots don’t want a lot of fertilizer, he said.

Weppler has learned a lot about various crops throughout the years. “Different plants have different requirements” he said, noting that he’s gotten a lot of good advice by talking to other growers and asking questions.

Marc Staunton, one of the owners of MBS Farms in Malin, Oregon, spoke at the Klamath Water Users Fall Harvest Tour. Staunton said, he and his partners aren’t experts on growing industrial hemp, and no one is, because it is such a new crop.

“This is very young, budding, no pun intended, industry that is moving in the direction of modern agriculture and industrial agriculture, and we’ll say regulated agriculture,” Staunton said.

There are currently 55,000 registered acres in Oregon, Staunton said, with Jackson County having the largest acreage at 13,000 and Klamath County at about 3,000 registered acres.

After passage of the farm bill in November 2018, it became legal to grow industrial hemp nationwide. Some states were more prepared to take on the task of regulating industrial hemp than others, Staunton said.

“The State of Oregon and Klamath County were prepared and allowed industrial hemp in their counties,” Staunton said.

“Hemp can’t be patented like the pharmaceutical drugs and controlled by a group of people,” according to Dane Marshall, a partner in MBS Farms, and what that means is, it can be farmed by everyone.

Industrial hemp production also promotes the local economy. Hardware stores have seen a surge in sales from scissors to rubber gloves, Dane said. Industrial hemp was a diversification for the farm, but it’s also a money crop, Dane continued.

Staunton said that a hemp plant, generally speaking, is a very good plant for soil. “It’s a diverse root mass that kind of seeks out different nutrients that could be very beneficial in our crop rotations.”

“What we’re hoping for is another cash crop for this basin, another crop that we don’t have to rely as heavily on volume of acreage to produce the same dollars, or better dollars,” Staunton said.

“If we can support our community, and by community we mean the people that we’re employing, the restaurants that are feeding those people, the hardware stores like Dane mentioned, the irrigation stores, the fertilizer companies—if we can do that, and we’re doing that by less acres, then there’s a definite appeal,” Staunton said.

Licensing, Banking and Insurance Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is licensing industrial hemp, according to Lela Marshall, also a partner in MBS Farms.

The process is: pay a $1,300 fee, provide ODA with information about the entity and actually map out the field or greenhouse.

“They want to know exactly where you are, how much you’re growing and what your plan is, and then with that you have to be under .03 percent THC, and they take that very seriously,” Lela said, adding testing must be done through ODA labs.

Besides the ODA testing preharvest, MBS Farms has also done their own testing to ensure they weren’t above .03 percent because if the crop tests too high in THC, it has to be destroyed.

Banking remains an issue for hemp growers. Currently, there are very few banks that will accept money from hemp growers.

Because hemp looks like marijuana, smells like it, sometimes even tastes like it, it makes it really difficult to regulate because it closely parallels a drug, Lela said.

The problem is, even though it’s legal to grow industrial hemp, there hasn’t been any federal legislation on the regulatory side of banking. This means a lot of banks are taking the approach that they won’t accept any money being used to support cash coming from a crop that could result in a fine, Lela said.

“There’s really only one (bank) that I’ve heard of, and they have a three month wait list. So it’s pretty complicated when you get to that point, but hopefully next year, for the next growing season, we’ll be able to bank properly,” Lela said.

Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, is currently in congress and passage of this bill would allow banks lending or receiving money into their depository accounts from production of industrial hemp or marijuana from legal repercussions.

Next year there will be multi-crop insurance for hemp, but this type of insurance is based on crop history when making a claim, which is problematic with a new crop, since there is no crop history.

“Insurance companies are very conservative and would like to steer away from anything related to industrial hemp until they see more consistent regulation, so that’s another problem,” Staunton said.

Planting MBS Farms has roughly 50 acres planted of organic hemp. MBS Farms planted their hemp about the 21st of May and planting went into the first week of June. There are about 2,000 plants to the acre and a six-foot spacing between the plants.

“Most of the field here was done by transplanting. So transplanting is probably the most common approach right now,” Staunton said.

The seed is planted in the greenhouse and grows there for about 30 days, then it’s transferred to the field and planted using a spade planter—a very slow time-consuming process, Staunton said.

The benefits to transplanting are it is accurate, the plant is set in the ground, it’s covered and there is full soil penetration to the rootstock, Staunton said.

Another method used for planting was direct seeding. Direct seeding has potential because it is faster and skips the greenhouse process that is very costly and time-consuming. The difficulty right now is most seed is extremely expensive, Staunton said.

Grain drills have also been used, but they are very uncontrolled and spacing can be inaccurate compared to transplanting, Staunton said.

Growers need to get the most bang for their buck, and currently transplanting is the safest, but it’s the first year, and Staunton thinks next year there could be changes in planting.

Seed Different companies are trying to develop genetics which is basically how the plant grows, and how it produces by crossing different strains, Staunton said.

“That’s how they’re producing their genetics, and you’ll get to this point where the seesaw effect will weed out the highest, best producing,” Staunton said.

Someone in the audience said Oregon CBD went online and sold 11 million seeds, at a dollar a seed, in nine minutes.

Oregon CBD had a couple of genetic strains they developed early on—four to five years ago—and they were able to ramp up inventory and meet supply better than anybody else, Staunton said.

Irrigation MBS Farms used drip tape for irrigation. Drip tape isn’t used in the Klamath Basin because they don’t the have the high value crops like the Central Valley of California. This has made it difficult to justify using it in the past, Staunton said.

Drip tape is very expensive compared to overhead or wheel line irrigation that can irrigate larger areas at one time, but it’s not as accurate or as efficient in water use as drip, Staunton said.

“I was excited to try it because now we potentially had a crop that could justify that value,” Staunton said, and he was impressed with it, particularly the accuracy.

With drip irrigation, it is right next to the root zone, no more, no less, Staunton said, and it retained the moisture on the berm under the plastic.

With overhead irrigation there would be evaporation, but with drip tape Staunton didn’t have that evaporation, so they were irrigating less, and in turn, using less water.

There were challenges to drip irrigation. Poor water quality in the Basin requires an expensive filtration system, Staunton said, but compared to other crops grown here, hemp uses much less water.

Harvesting A full spectrum of harvesting is being attempted on hemp, Staunton said. “We have guys still out here hand clipping the tops (we call it top flower), and they’re doing that by hand.”

MBS Farms also has workers walking through the field picking the biggest flowers, clipping them off, transporting them to the shed, and hanging them to dry.

There are local hemp growers who have mechanized this process somewhat, Staunton said, but the most common way is still to hand clip the flower.

Flowers could be clipped all day every day, and never remove all the flowers from the plant, so the next step is harvesting the entire plant to extract as much of the oil as possible, Staunton said.

• Chainsaws • Machetes • Mechanized—sickle bars used in other crops like alfalfa, mounted saw blades and silage choppers that grind the whole plant

Staunton sees the future of harvest with a combine, and in the future, the field could look totally different than it does currently.

“I’m very positive that down the road this process will look a lot different because our focus of being just all oil will be a lot different,” Staunton said.

Hemp Uses “Everyone that is growing industrial hemp in this area (Klamath County) is growing it for the oil,” Staunton said.

There are other uses for industrial hemp, but there aren’t outlets currently available for it in the Klamath Basin.

The highest content for oil is in the top of the flowers. “When you’re trying to look at harvesting that plant everyone is trying to figure out how to take that mass of green and get the most content of oil you can while still making harvest somewhat easy,” Staunton said.

Past approaches have been to remove the whole plant, hang it, dry it down, then strip off the leaves and sell them to an oil extractor, Staunton said.

Most growers are searching for ways to remove the leaves in the field and dry it down in the field, or by some other drying process to have a marketable product in biomass that would be sold to an extractor.

There are numerous uses for industrial hemp besides oil, Staunton said. The industry has been limited to an extent in developing other uses because they need a reliable supply of product, but he sees that coming.

People in the audience mentioned that Nike is growing hemp to make shoes and a company in Kentucky is using hemp to make flooring.

Learning Curve Part of the learning curve this year for Staunton is the size of the plants. Large plants may not be the best idea when it comes to harvest, so tighter spacing is being considered in the future to limit growth and make the plant more manageable at harvest.

Variety is another consideration and each variety has a very different character trait. One might be really tall, and the next short and wide.

Hand Drying Hand drying entails hanging the flowers clipped from the field for a minimum of three days in good drying the weather, to extended periods of time—so long as they are in a stable environment, Staunton said.

Moisture content needs to be monitored constantly through the entire process, starting from the field to the point they are placed in containers and sent to the processor, Staunton said.

Freedom to Farm Industrial hemp does have a distinctive odor. “Other than smell and pollen, there is probably very little risk to this crop versus other crops grown,” Staunton said.

According to ODA, “Legislation adopted in 1993 and updated in 1995 and 2001, declares farm and forest practices as critical to the welfare of the Oregon economy, and establishes a right to farm law. This law protects growers from court decisions based on customary noises, smells, dust, or other nuisances associated with farming. It also limits local governments, and special districts from administratively declaring certain farm and forest products to be nuisances or trespasses (ORS 30.930).”

Is There Money to be Made on Hemp? Staunton said, there are those that view industrial hemp as a really big bubble that will eventually crash. “I think there’s some definite potential that that could happen. Like I mentioned, there’s 55,000 (registered) acres planted in the State of Oregon. The year before, I believe, there was less than 8,000 registered (acres), so that’s a huge increase in acres,” Staunton said.

The development of other markets is an unknown. There could be a shift toward more textile based product and less oil. CBD based products could eliminate opioids in hospitals for pain management, Staunton said.

“Those things are all unknown,” Staunton said, but he isn’t ready to say that industrial hemp will be a one and done.

Are you involved with the specialty crop industry? If so, have you considered writing a proposal for the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY2020) Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP)? Whether it’s a proposal you have mulled over for a while, or you recently had a great new idea pop into your head, best get that idea down in writing and sent off to your state’s department of agriculture. The deadline is January 31, 2020. The purpose of the SCBGP is to improve the competitiveness in domestic or foreign markets of US specialty crops.

Specialty crops include fruits and dried fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, Christmas trees, and nursery crops—both floriculture and horticulture. Also included in the list are culinary herbs and spices, and medicinal plants. Turf-type grass is included, as are hops, tea leaves, maple syrup, honey, cut flowers and greens, and many potted annual and perennial plants.

The following is a partial list of ineligible crops and commodities: Alfalfa, canola, eggs, dairy products, oats, wild rice, soybeans, peanuts and canola.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) website, to be considered specialty crops, eligible plants must be cultivated or managed. They must be used by people for food, medicinal purposes, and/or aesthetic gratification. Processed products shall consist of more than 50 percent of the specialty crop by weight, exclusive of added water.

Amounts are not written in stone—not yet, anyway. A pot of government money for each state is expected to come into fruition when the FY2020 Agriculture Bill is signed into law. As of this writing, that bill was being conferenced with the House spending bill.

Dollar amounts may vary from state to state. But let’s use Oregon as an example. The state is ranked sixth in the nation in specialty crop production. The anticipated amount Oregon will receive is $1.5 million for the SCBGP. (The Fiscal Year 2019 government funding pot was even larger for specialty crop grant recipients to share. In September 2019, Oregon handed out $2.1 million in grants.

Still using Oregon as an example—the following is from Oregon Department of Agriculture’s (ODA) website: “ODA and the advisory committee are looking for innovative two and a half year proposals with a suggested funding range of $25,000 to $175,000, and encourage interested parties to work regionally to submit collaborative project proposals that benefit Oregon growers and processors as well as partners in other states that share common specialty crops. Those who have received specialty crop grant funds in the past are also encouraged to apply, whether they are interested in building on an existing project or if they are proposing a new project.

“Match funding is not a requirement of this program, however applicants are highly encouraged to provide some level of match to show the importance and value of the project and to show sustainability beyond SCBGP funds.”

Those who may apply include agriculture industry associations, producer groups, processors, commodity commissions, non-profits, for profits, and local government agencies in any of the 50 States, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

The last grant cycle (FY2019) awarded $72.4 million nationwide. That money went to 56 grant recipients. (The number of sub-award projects totaled 717). Those awarded either “fund research or provide agricultural extension activities and programs to increase demand for agricultural goods of value to farmers in their respective state or territory,” according to the USDA website.

Arizona Department of Agriculture received more than $1.56 million in grant funding. One of Arizona’s recipients’ proposal title was: Farm Fresh Forks, A Vegetable Tasting Experience. The project budget was $62,071. Here is how the project was proposed: “The Yuma Fresh Vegetable Tasting Association will increase consumption of specialty crops through the Farm Fresh Forks program, a specialty crop tasting experience at a minimum of eight local restaurants. The goal is to increase nutrition knowledge and consumption of specialty crops through introducing them to the crops, cooking and preparing techniques and recipes and tastings in local restaurants.”

California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) received $22,987,649.74 to disburse. One of the grant recipients’ project title was: Irrigation and Nitrogen Management and Monitoring to Improve Nut Production While Minimizing Groundwater Nitrate Leaching. The project budget was $449,675.

California Proposal pitch: “Growers face new regulations to minimize nitrogen (N) fertilizer use and to monitor impacts on groundwater quality. This project addresses the issue by using high-frequency low-concentration (HFLC) fertigation in orchards and by performing an unprecedented whole orchard systems analysis of N dynamics. Three monitoring systems will be used to estimate nitrate loss to groundwater: 1) mass balance [nitrogen use efficiency (NUE)]; 2) water and nitrogen flux monitoring in the vadose zone; and 3) groundwater quality monitoring. Outcomes will focus on developing improved systems for assessing groundwater impacts from specific practices, developing an in-field demonstration site, and outreach to at least 5,000 orchard growers, extension advisors, and regulatory and policy decision-makers. Project success will be measured through model and field site documentation; N flux assessment from a fully instrumented, commercial, 140-acre almond orchard; employing the model to demonstrate sustainability benefits of HFLC; and adoption of tools in the agricultural industry.

Georgia Department of Agriculture received $1.3 million in grant funding. One of the grant recipients title their proposal: Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association—Georgia Grown Product Marketing to Reach National Retail Wholesalers (PMA). The project budget was $40,000.

Georgia Proposal pitch: “This project will provide Georgia specialty growers the opportunity to highlight the Georgia Grown brand and present thousands of wholesale buyers a focused platform as to the diversity and quality produce grown in Georgia. The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, working in cooperation with growers, commodity organizations and agribusiness companies across Georgia, will bring together farm and ranch producers to feature Georgia’s specialty crop fresh produce industry at the 2019 PMA Fresh Summit in Anaheim, California. Fresh Summit will host more than 21,000 produce industry leaders, including retail store and food service buyers looking for new suppliers, gathering new product information and investigating new technologies.”

In Oregon, a recipients’ proposal title: Strategically Growing the Market for Oregon Craft Cider in California. The project budget was $173,158. The proposal pitch: “Northwest Cider Association (NWCA), representing a $300 million economic impact to the state of Oregon, proposes a project to grow the market for Oregon craft cider by hosting targeted consumer and industry-focused tastings in California. NWCA, based in Portland, supports cidermakers in growing consumer demand for local, premium hard cider. Oregon is leading the nation in cider consumption, with Oregon cider synonymous with quality. However, Oregon’s market is not big enough to sustain the category growth. Despite being neighbors, California does not currently sell much Oregonmade cider, nor is California producing much cider. California’s population of 40 million people is ten times higher than Oregon and represents a huge market potential for growth for a higher quality cider coming from Oregon’s apples.”

Go to the USDA website and check under programs for the SCBGP. You’ll find links to templates, performance measures, and proposal samples.

Organizations or individuals interested in the SCBGP should contact their state department of agriculture for more information, or go to their state’s department of agriculture website.

In 2014, a small group of investors bought Queener Farm, a 40-acre plot in Scio, Oregon with over 115 heirloom and modern varieties of apple trees. Jeannie Berg and Chris Homanics operate the orchard. Transitioning a 2,000-tree heirloom apple orchard from conventional to organic has proved a challenge, although after five years, Jeannie and Chris are beginning to feel like they’re getting a handle on it. For the first year and a half they took a hands-off approach, letting the orchard sit and heal.

The previous farm managers sprayed conventional herbicides. “It took three years to get anything to grow under the trees,” Jeannie said. “We’ve had to do some things slowly over time.”

As Jeannie and Chris have discovered, managing such a diverse orchard is a true test of their skills. “It’s a lifetime project. Something you do over time,” Jeannie said about learning the traits of each tree. With the different varieties and the different rootstocks, she figures there are about 2,500 variables on the farm.

For the operators, rainy days and hot days create more work. To prevent sunscald on days over 95 degrees, when the sun is hitting the orchard at a direct angle, Chris and Jeannie use backpack sprayers loaded with a product called Surround. It’s an organic clay coating that they spray on the shiny apple varieties. It covers the honey crisp apples with white splatters. When honeycrisp are fully sugared, they are more susceptible to sunscald than some of the other varieties.

Without protection, super-hot days can cook the apples on the tree. The inside of an apple can reach 120 degrees in direct sun. “It turns them brown, starts to rot,” Jeannie said. After harvest, they will wipe the white splatters of Surround off the apples. If the weather is expected to be hot for only a short time, a spray of cool water is enough to prevent sunscald.

What can be even more damaging to apple trees and their fruit than hot days are wet days. “The Willamette Valley is so damp, fungal diseases are really the challenge. Hours of dampness leads to lesions,” Jeannie explained. But she and Chris try to stay away from copper as much as possible, even though it’s a widely-used organic fungicide. “Copper is quite toxic to the operator,” she said. When she and Chris first started working the orchard, the soil tests came back high in copper. For tree health, they rely largely on potassium bicarbonate, and yucca extract. “It’s not cheap,” Jeannie noted about the yucca. But it’s safe. Safe enough to even taste. She describes it as being like “a molasses that smells of tequila.” Yucca is reputed to help plants utilize water more effectively and help protect them against stress.

Jeannie and Chris also use some extracts of teasel and knotweed. Knotweed—yes, the obnoxious, invasive weed—is anti-bacterial, anti-cancer and anti-fungal, according to Chris. The extract has a 48-hour effective window. They use it when there is going to be more than 10 to 12 hours of moisture on the trees to fend off fungal issues.

For fertilizer and orchard clean up assistance, Chris and Jeannie release a flock of chickens into the orchard. The chickens eat larvae and debris and recycle it into fertilizer. Other fertilizer comes in the form of kelp, fish and organic milk mixtures.

To fight coddling moth (apple worm), Chris and Jeannie apply virus bodies of cydia pomonella, plus half-a-billion nematodes. In the style of European organic orchardists, Chris and Jeannie start spraying the biological control early in the season. They use low doses and spray weekly. It’s expensive, Jeannie says, but it kills the coddling moth without harming the pollinators.

To protect the pollinizers, which are so crucial to trees setting fruit, Jeannie and Chris carefully time mowing of the orchard floor. “Spacing mowing was super key to pollinators,” Jeannie said. While dandelions and wildflowers bloom on the orchard floor, Chris and Jeannie don’t mow. As the apple trees begin to blossom, they mow, which pushes the pollinizers up into the trees. By the time the trees stop blooming, the orchard floor has re-bloomed. Pollinizers can then move back down to the flowers for food.

A retired entomologist came out to the orchard to look at the insects. “He found things here that were rare,” Chris said. Besides an array of bees and hover flies, Chris has noticed bird species in the orchard, such as killdeer, that weren’t there when he and Jeannie first took over operations.

Before Queener Farm, Jeannie managed a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) vegetable farm in Independence, Oregon, where she still lives.

Chris and Jeannie are planning a new orchard. “We’ve realized a couple things,” Jeannie said. The rows in the established orchard are planted north to south. “The morning side dries off faster than the afternoon side,” she said. They will plant the rows in the new orchard east to west to alleviate that problem. The winds, which usually blow east to west, would create more air flow. Also, east to west planting would offer better sun positioning.

Out of the more than 100 varieties currently growing in the orchard, Jeannie said she’d choose about 70 of those to keep. They’ve already done a lot of top grafting to some of the trees which are most susceptible to disease. Those trees just aren’t cost effective to grow organically, Jeannie said. Some of them aren’t even producing. They’ve hired a grafter with 40-years of experience. He cuts 2/3 of the tree away and grafts a new variety onto the trunk. They had 200 trees grafted in 2014, 150 in 2015 and 50 more in 2018. “We could probably do another four hundred,” Jeannie said.

A 15-acre chunk of Queener Farm is leased to a farmer who grows organic hazelnuts. “It makes for a more interesting and diverse farm,” Jeannie said.

Chris is a plant breeder and a seed saver, as well as a board member of the Fruit Growers Society. He’s also involved with the Dry Farming Collaborative, which is doing work with dryland tomato, squash, melon and potato varieties. Chris was orcharding up near Suquamish, Washington, before heading to Scio. He calls what he and Jeannie are doing at Queener Farm “ecological orcharding.”

The farm is a bustling community hub on Saturdays, the only day it’s open to the public. It’s a time to catch up with local happenings and news. Some of it is bad news: The Stayton cannery is “restructuring.” Hundreds of local employees are facing a lay-off, perhaps permanently. Some of the row-crop farmers are left stuck with large stands of unharvested corn and no more cannery market. But there’s also good news: The organic hazelnut farmer across the road swept his 10-year-old orchard for nuts the day before.

The customers tend to arrive at the farm in small packs. Jeanie greets one group of you-pickers after another. She hands customers a sheet of paper that explains blemishes they may see on the organically-grown apples. “Leave apples in bins that have flaws you’re not comfortable with,” she instructs them. She and Chris will later press the flawed apples into cider.

Jeannie helps Pat Fyke, a handicapped customer, pick out some honeycrisp apples to eat fresh, and two perfect heirloom Belle de Bokoop apples for Pat to cook whole with a pork roast.

Queener Farm offers more than apples. In season, they sell red, black, white and pink currents, as well as red and green gooseberries, pears, heirloom squash and vegetables. The farm is open to the public June through Thanksgiving. Locals are invited to join an apple club. Members pick up their boxes of apples at the farm every other week throughout the growing season. The farm delivers bulk orders of heirloom apples and seasonal produce to local restaurants, co-ops, and small grocery stores in Eugene, Salem and Portland.

Chris, who lives at the farm, really likes the idea of creating community—chatting, sharing ideas, and generally getting to know the neighbors. “Everyday happenings are important,” Chris said.

He’s been pleased to observe the influx of younger people interested in farming. He thinks it’s great when neighbors and customers bring their children to the orchard. The children enjoy looking for interesting rocks and insects. Chris enjoys watching them horse around and play. He loves to hear the sound of their exuberant laughter.

“We’re raising a community,” Chris said about the farm. “It’s the heartbeat of the earth kind of idea.”

With approximately 25,000 named varieties of apples in the world, it’s hard to choose favorites, but Chris and Jeannie, who are always looking for the very best apples for organic growing, have managed to come up with this partial list:

Belle de Bokoop is a variety that comes up in conversation with Chris and Jeannie over and over. It’s a tart, greenish-yellow skinned apple. Great for baking. The trees have a classic heirloom look.

Redfree is a PRI and co-op series apple. It comes from a disease-resistant breeding program cooperative among several universities.

Enrollment in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Market Facilitation Program will be open through December 6, 2019.

The program, for both specialty and non-specialty crop producers will provide up to $14.5 billion in direct payments. This USDA relief strategy was developed to assist farmers who continue to suffer economic damages due to trade retaliation in some of their export markets.

In May, President Donald Trump directed Sonny Perdue, Agriculture Secretary to craft a relief strategy in line with the estimated impacts of unjustified retaliatory tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods and other trade disruptions. The Market Facilitation Program (MFP), Food Purchase and Distribution Program and Agricultural Trade Promotion Program are designed to assist agricultural producers as trade negotiations continue.

MFP payments will be made to producers of certain non-specialty crops and specialty crops along with dairy and hog producers.

Payments from this program will be made to producers of almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts as well as many other specialty crops. Each crop will receive a payment based in 2019 acres in production. Payments will be made in up to three tranches, with the second and third tranches evaluated as market conditions and trade opportunities evolve. If conditions warrant, the second and third tranches will be made in November and early January 2020.

MFP payments are limited to a combined $250,000 for non-specialty crops per person or legal entity. MFP payments are also limited to a combined $250,000 for dairy and hog producers and a combined $250,000 for specialty crop producers. However, no applicant can receive more than $500,000. Eligible applicants must also have an AGI for tax years 2015, 2016, and 2017 of less than $900,000, or 75 percent of the person’s or legal entity’s average AGI for those tax years must have been derived from farming and ranching. Applicants must also comply with the provisions of the Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation regulations.

MFP assistance for 2019 crops is based on a single county payment rate multiplied by a farm’s total plantings to the MFP-eligible crops in aggregate in 2019. Those per acre payments are not dependent on which of those crops are planted in 2019. A producer’s total payment-eligible plantings cannot exceed total 2018 plantings.

More information can be found on, including payment information, program application and locating their local Farm Service Agency Office. Producers are requested to contact their local office to make an appointment.

Almond Board of California, California Walnut Commission, American Pistachio Growers and Blue Diamond are among the 48 organizations participating in the Agricultural Trade Promotion Program announced this summer to help growers expand to new markets. ATP is one of three programs set up to assist agricultural producers while work is done to address long-standing market access barriers.

USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service will administer the Agricultural Trade Promotion Program (ATP) under authorities of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC).

The ATP will provide cost-share assistance to eligible U.S. organizations for activities such as consumer advertising, public relations, point-of-sale demonstrations, participation in trade fairs and exhibits, market research, and technical assistance, USDA awarded $100 million to 48 organizations through the ATP recently to help U.S. farmers and ranchers identify and access new export markets.

The 48 recipients are among the cooperator organizations that applied for $200 million in ATP funds in 2018 that were awarded earlier this year. As part of a new round of support for farmers impacted by unjustified retaliation and trade disruption, those groups had the opportunity to be considered for additional support for their work to boost exports for U.S. agriculture, food, fish, and forestry products.

Already, since the $200 million in assistance was provided, U.S. exporters have had significant success. These funds will continue to generate sales and business for U.S. producers and exporters many times over as promotional activity continues for the next couple of years.

The list of ATP funding recipients is available at:

The organic produce market has had tremendous growth over the last five years. But could the sector’s rapid expansion be damaging its own prices?

A few years ago demand for organic produce was expanding faster than the industry was growing supply. The telltale signs were rising prices alongside rising volumes. Between 2013 and 2015, retail prices for the top seven organic produce items rose by an unweighted average of 1.3 percent per year. Recently however, there are indications that growth in organic movement has changed as retail prices have declined by an annual unweighted average of 0.4 percent in 2016-2018.

In spite of softer prices, retail volume growth has slowed for these top-selling organic products. In 2013-2015, retail volume rose by an unweighted annual average of 13.8 percent. In 2016-2018, retail volume growth slowed to 8.9 percent per year. Growth in organic berry volumes is a notable exception, as volume growth was higher in 2016-2018, but the rate of growth ticked lower in 2017 and 2018.

At Rabo AgriFinance, we dove into analysis mode to make sense of the numbers. The data suggest that things have changed and will continue to change. It is likely that for some fresh produce crops, short-run demand by consumers who strictly buy organic has been satisfied by increasing supplies. The value-chain must now move additional supplies to consumers with a different demand profile. This second group—the majority of U.S. consumers—are willing to buy organic produce some of the time, but are much more price sensitive than strict organic consumers. As organic supplies have increased, this price sensitivity has resulted in weaker organic prices.

Reported organic shipping-point volumes were higher for most crops in 2018, and annual increases in shipping-point volume have accelerated for some fresh produce items. Organic apple, orange, strawberry and bell pepper movement have all shown continued acceleration in growth. In 2010-2012, average annual growth in volumes for apples, strawberries and bell peppers were 6 percent, 14 percent, and 145 percent, respectively. From 2016 to 2018, average annual reported volume growth was 14 percent, 26 percent, and 185 percent, respectively. Annual growth in organic blueberry, cantaloupe, and grape tomato volumes continues, but growth rates have moderated in recent years (See Figure 1).

The continued growth in organic volumes has now begun to weigh negatively on shipping-point prices. During the 2016-2018 period, seven of the eight organic produce items we compared had declines in average annual price. Table grapes were the exception, but they were also the only crop that had a reduction in average annual volume. However, percentage volume gains have been much higher than the percentage price declines, resulting in increased revenues for shippers, and indicating a high level of price elasticity for organic produce. We also note that the price declines in 2016-2018 followed sharp price increases during the 2010-2015 period (See Figure 2).

Due to the increased yield risk and labor costs of organic produce production, relative to conventionally-grown produce, growers/shippers expect to receive a premium price. The premium level needed varies depending on the specific crop, location and grower. Without an adequate premium to offset the increased risk and cost, producers will find it challenging to justify organic production. Retailers are demanding increased organic volumes, but retail prices are being lowered—in some cases—to adequately move the higher volumes. As organic produce continues to become more mainstream and supplies continue to increase, the organic market will continue to more closely resemble the conventionally-grown market. Over-supply will cause immediate—and sometimes extreme—declines in price. These changes are already leading to decreased organic premiums.

Of the crops in which adequate data allowed comparison, half showed clear reductions in organic premiums. Premiums for organic apples, blueberries, pears, strawberries and bell peppers have come under pressure, while organic premiums are holding up better for cantaloupe, table grapes, oranges and grape tomatoes (See Figure 3).

Reported shipping-point movement and prices for many organic crops have only become significant since 2016. Organic premiums for this group of crops are compared in Figure 4. Organic premiums for cauliflower, celery, kale, spinach and sweet corn appear to be trending positive. Artichoke, green leaf lettuce, iceberg lettuce and red leaf lettuce organic premiums have weakened. For other crops, any discernable trend is harder to see.

To aid growers deciding whether to expand more acres into organic production, we categorized the opportunity and risk levels for crops. Crops in the Positive category could experience short-run organic supply expansion and most likely maintain suitable organic price premiums. The Neutral category crops may reach undesirable premium levels if supply expansion occurs too rapidly. Crops in the Caution category are experiencing—or are approaching—premium levels that do not adequately compensate suppliers for the increased risk and cost of organic production (See Table 1).

Strategic opportunities still exist for crops that fall in the Neutral or Caution categories—which we determined by the annual averages for organic premium pricing. There are still seasonal opportunities, in which organic premiums remain significantly high. For example, organic premiums for blueberries averaged 45 percent in 2018 on a weekly volume-weighted basis. There were nine weeks, however, in which premiums rose to above 90 percent and three weeks in which they were above 100 percent. The opportunity to take advantage of these market opportunities depends heavily on the specific growing region, which influences the ability to target particular market windows.

Another consideration is that the presented data are averages across all varieties, pack sizes and grades. There may be opportunities for crops in the Caution category when more specific agro-economic conditions are considered.

The level of price premium needed to compensate for increased yield risk and production cost will also vary by grower/supplier. We tend to use a minimum of 40 percent premium as a rule-of-thumb, but some producers may need more, while others will be adequately compensated with less. Growers who have implemented strategies that effectively lower their yield risk in organic production will have a stronger incentive to continue to increase organic production—even in the short-run—for crops listed in our ‘Caution’ category. Shippers who maintain organic premiums at levels higher than competitors—through branding, quality of product, or quality of service—will have greater incentive to continue expanding organic offerings. And they will be better able to compensate their growers.

Driven by consumer and retailer-centric demand forces, as well as regulatory pressures that favor organic production, we expect organic produce production to continue to increase, and that long-run opportunities will continue to exist in the space. Growers will have to continue to adapt to effectively take advantage of changes in the market.

Further out, as more millennial consumers grow their disposable income and start families, it is likely that the demand for strict, organic-only produce purchases will continue to grow; especially given the continued expansion of organic promotion by retailers. However, with greater financial responsibility, comes the potential of increasing price sensitivity for this group of consumers as well. Generation Z consumers will ultimately add fuel to these trends.

Organic produce availability has now become mainstream, which means that the organic produce market will continue to more closely resemble the traditionally-grown produce market. Price strength—or weakness—has and will become most heavily influenced by supply-side gaps and gluts. Technological advances and continued improvements in production practices will help ensure long-run profitability for adaptive suppliers. Figuring out how to produce organically at a unit cost that is similar to conventional production is the evasive but long-run goal.

While all growers should strive to use integrated weed management practices to control unwanted vegetation, organic farmers are more reliant on the strategy than most. The first step in building any successful weed management system is to properly identify the species that are present. This will allow growers to avoid sites populated with difficult-to-control weeds, such as perennials, and to properly select the types and timing of management measures that target weeds when they are most susceptible to control. Recurring scouting efforts will identify control successes and failures and can be used to document changes in the composition of weed communities over time. Many good guides exist to assist growers, consultants and members of allied industries with this task including:

A variety of smartphone apps, such as PlantNet and iNaturalist, among others, allow the viewer to screen a picture of an unknown plant against a database of curated images for identification. The apps are not perfect, and users should doublecheck results against trusted sources. Recommendations for improving chances of a successful ID include: focusing on distinctive features, minimizing background distractions, and submitting multiple images of the unknown specimens. County, state and university personnel are also good resources for growers to assist in documenting unwanted plants on their properties.

Cover crops and mulches are valuable tools for protecting soil health; they can also be effective strategies for preventing weed seed germination or for suppressing weed seedling emergence. They may also support populations of arthropods and other organisms that feed on weed seed. However, living mulches that are not successfully terminated may end up competing directly with crops resulting in yield loss. Insufficient cover crop biomass accumulation may support weed development by preserving soil moisture needed for weed growth and development and by preventing the successful use of other control tools such as cultivation or flaming. Make sure that the cover crop seed you purchase is free of weedy contaminants to avoid bringing new problems into a site (the same holds true for manure and compost).

Weed seed germination and subsequent seedling destruction in advance of crop planting (also known as pre-germination or stale seedbed techniques) can be useful for reducing the numbers of weeds that can compete directly with the crop. The timing of control operations is crucial as many species can grow quickly and outpace management efforts (e.g. Palmer amaranth), especially when weather events delay entry into fields. This is a concern as re-rooting/re-sprouting potential increases as weeds grow taller and accumulate biomass. Plants that escape control measures can directly impact crops by reducing yields and harvest efficiency; they also have effects that can span seasons if they reach reproductive maturity and propagules enter the seedbank.

The suppressive effects of the commodities, themselves, can be maximized by preparing and planting into as smooth a seedbed as possible to facilitate even germination. Seeding depth, seeding rate and row spacing also play important roles in achieving a competitive crop. The use of transplants to establish a height differential between crops and their weedy counterparts can also be an effective tool for suppressing unwanted competitors. Rotating between crops with different characteristics and/or a fallow season that allows for aggressive weed management can diversify the timing and intensity of disturbances that are applied to weed communities.

With respect to physical weed control, cultivation is an effective practice for managing annual species; rhizomatous perennial weeds, like field bindweed and johnsongrass, are not likely to respond to shallow soil disturbance and can even become more widely spread via root fragment dispersal. While many cultivation tools are designed to remove weed seedlings as close to the crop row as possible, torsion and finger weeders can remove weeds from in between crop plants. Although some weeds are likely to remain, within- and between-row soil disturbance can reduce the time needed to conduct subsequent hand-weeding operations. Where weed seed densities are exceptionally high, deep plowing can be used to bury propagules below optimal germination depths. However, some deeply buried seed may be more protected from fluctuations in temperature and water environments and can remain viable longer than more shallowly buried seed. To avoid returning germinable seed to the surface seedbank, deep plowing should only be used infrequently, depending on the longevity of the target species. Propane flame weeders facilitate damage by causing the sap in plant cells to expand, which then ruptures the cell walls. Best results are achieved when weeds are small (less than two to three inches in height or diameter); broadleaf weeds are, typically, more sensitive to flaming as grass meristems are located below the ground and are usually protected from the heat. Avoid use on or around dried vegetation to prevent fires.

Organic-approved herbicides are all contact herbicides, meaning that they only damage plant tissue that they are directly applied to. Consequently, high spray volumes (often 50 to 60 gallons per acre (GPA) or more) are required to ensure adequate coverage. As such, these products may be more cost-effective as spot sprays as opposed to broadcast applications. If using organic herbicides for weed control, be sure to read the label and select rates appropriately based on weed species composition and plant size; newly emerged weeds will be the most sensitive to these treatments. Check the solubility of the herbicide in water and make sure to regularly agitate mixtures that display separation. Assume that repeat applications will be necessary and avoid drift to prevent injury to desirable plants.

Regardless of which strategies or combinations of strategies are employed, try not to let weeds reach reproductive maturity. Ultimately, the best way to manage weeds across seasons is to continuously start clean and stay clean. It is also important to remember that weed shifts can occur in response to any management practice, and not just herbicides. While the evolution of herbicide resistance is the most noticeable development to agricultural forces directed at weeds, unwanted vegetation can adapt to all measures that are applied, repeatedly, over space and time. For example, close mowing can select for weeds in lawns that are prostrate in habit (so as to avoid mower blades) or that possess a perennial lifecycle (and have the nutrient reserves to regrow following defoliation). Diversifying crop production and weed management strategies as much as possible is a good way to reduce the selective pressures that allow systems to become dominated by one or a few weed species.

Farmers looking for disease resistant cucurbits now have more choices thanks to the release of new cucumber and melon varieties by Cornell University, the result of years of research by public plant breeders and organic farmers. These varieties are a result of participatory breeding efforts focused on cucurbits most in need of improvement, and exhibit exceptional resistance to evolving diseases as well as production and culinary characteristics important to organic farmers.

“Our approach to plant breeding involves a close collaboration with farmers, regional seed companies, and other researchers to test varieties in the environment of their intended use,” says Michael Mazourek with the Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University. “In the case of these cucurbit varieties, they were all bred with the needs of organic farmers in mind.”

Pathogens emerge and evolve quickly, and breeders struggle to stay ahead with new resistant varieties. Downy mildew and bacterial wilt are two devastating diseases that too often wipe out entire cucurbit crops. While conventional cucumber growers rely on synthetic chemical inputs, such as neonicotinoid seed treatments and sprays, organic growers don’t have (or want) that option and instead rely even more on protecting crops from the inside out: through plant genetics resistant to diseases.

“The beauty of our success is that these high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties are as beneficial to conventional growers as they are to organic,” Mazourek adds.

The varieties now available were developed with support from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), housed within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Partnering with Cornell University on the Eastern Sustainable Organic Cucurbit Research Project (ESOcuc) were Auburn University, North Carolina State University, and Organic Seed Alliance. Farmers, extension agents, and seed companies along the East Coast also played an important role.

The four objectives of ESOcuc were to evaluate the most popular cucurbit varieties for yield and pest and disease resistance; breed improved varieties; examine on-farm management strategies to overcome environmental and economic challenges; and make data available to farmers through field days, webinars, and other resources.

Farmer-breeder Edmund Frost says he can’t keep up with the demand for seed that he grows and sells of DMR401, a downy-mildew resistant (DMR) slicing cucumber variety that was completed through ESOcuc. Frost helped Mazourek test this variety and related DMR lines from Cornell on his farm for four years to collect data on how it compares to other commercial varieties on the market.

“There’s really nothing else like it,” says Frost, an organic farmer and researcher based in Louisa, Virginia, who also operates a seed cooperative called Common Wealth Seed Growers. “I’m excited to get this variety into the hands of more growers. Trials up and down the East Coast continue to show that, in terms of resistance, DMR401 stands out as the best available.” The variety even beat those developed by the biggest industry players, including Monsanto’s Seminis (now owned by Bayer).

DMR401 is an open-pollinated (OP) variety that was bred and trialed in organic systems. Because it is an OP with no seed-saving restrictions, growers are encouraged to make their own selections to further adapt the genetics to their local farm conditions and climate. The variety grew out of an earlier release, DMR264, which was funded in part through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).

“The great arc of continued public plant breeding funding is crucial,” says Mazourek. “Key programs like AFRI and OREI are essential to our success as public breeders so that we can develop new cultivars like DMR401 that have characteristics farmers urgently need.”

In some cases, Mazourek explains, private funds have followed public investment. One example is the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which awarded a Seed Matters fellowship to Cornell PhD candidate Lauren Brzozowski. This fellowship allowed her to work on DMR401 until it was ready for the marketplace.

DMR401 is now available for purchase through Common Wealth Seed Growers, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and High Mowing Organic Seeds.

When Zaid Kurdieh met Michael Mazourek at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture five years ago, the first thing out of his mouth was: “Michael, we need better cucumbers.” Thus began a breeding partnership that quickly turned into a friendship.

Kurdieh is the operator of Norwich Meadows Farm, an 80-acre diversified vegetable operation in Norwich, New York, that serves 1,000 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscribers and six farmers markets in New York City. Increasingly chefs and restaurants are major purchasers, now making up about half of his sales. Cucumbers are one of the farm’s most important crops because of the diversity they offer.

“We work with a lot of chefs, and one of the things we’re able to do is introduce them to new flavors and textures—entirely new cucumbers they’ve never heard of before—which causes an explosion in interest,” Kurdieh says.

“Our first breeding goal when we started working with Cornell was to achieve better flavor,” Kurdieh adds, noting his Middle Eastern origin and disappointment with everything in the market when he moved back to the U.S. over 35 years ago. “I couldn’t find a cucumber with good flavor, so that was the impetus: to find the real deal.”

Mazourek and Kurdieh first went to the USDA collections to get 50 varieties of Middle Eastern cucumbers. They grew them out and selected for flavor. Meanwhile, disease issues began to accelerate on Kurdieh’s farm and on others’ operations in the region.

Kurdieh grows cucumbers in high tunnels, 10-acres worth, which can make managing pests and diseases more challenging. Controlling cucumber beetles is particularly important as they transmit bacterial wilt. Mazourek explains that there is a lot of water moving through the plant and the bacteria ends up clogging the vascular system, killing the plants.

Conventional growers rely on neonicotinoid seed treatments and sprays to control the disease but fungicides are expensive and not always effective, as fungicide resistance can also emerge with the disease. Neonicotinoids are the most widely used pesticide and frequently make headlines because of growing concerns about their harmful impact on insect pollinators. Certified organic growers aren’t allowed to use synthetic chemicals like neonics to manage pests and diseases.

Mazourek’s breeding team has made swift progress in developing hybrid varieties that are routinely tested under organic conditions and in high tunnels. Two varieties will be released soon, and, according to Kurdieh, they contain characteristics—including good flavor—that are superior to what’s currently available. The varieties also help conventional growers who want to cut input costs or are experiencing fungicide resistance to chemical controls.

Kurdieh and Mazourek say the project is ongoing. The long-term breeding goal is to achieve an even bigger package of desired characteristics that go beyond flavor and disease resistance to eventually include insect resistance.

“This is the most fun I’ve had farming in years,” Kurdieh says. “The experimentation keeps me going.”

Kurdieh says another reason he’s excited about organic plant breeding is that it helps him meet the organic seed requirement under the organic standards. Organic farmers are required to use organic seed when commercially available, but when an equivalent variety isn’t available, organic growers can use conventional varieties that aren’t genetically engineered or treated with a pesticide seed treatment, like neonics.

“More investments in organic breeding will help me and my fellow farmers who need access to more organic seed,” Kurdieh explains. “We grow over 1,000 varieties of vegetables and my organic certifier is always encouraging me to source more organic seed. We prefer buying organic seed but it isn’t always available.”

Downy mildew is also wiping out melons. ‘Trifecta’ was first released in 2015 and consistently ranked highest for yield, quality, and DMR in Cornell’s trials.

The variety was named by Frost, who identified the variety as a standout among several experimental melon lines from Cornell, and was most excited about the variety’s ability to consistently rank high in three targeted breeding goals: yield, quality, and DMR.

“It’s among the best downy-mildew resistance we’ve seen,” says Mazourek. “We made it a priority to distribute the variety through organic seed companies operating in the Southeast because there is an urgency in the region for varieties that reliably demonstrate resistance.”

Frost first noticed the seedstock that became ‘Trifecta’ for its eating quality in 2012 trials at his farm. In 2014, Frost received a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, administered by the USDA, to test melon, cucumber and squash varieties in late-planted conditions when downy mildew is most intense. Trifecta again stood out for its excellent eating quality and yield—even under levels of DM pressure that defoliated most commercial melon varieties. The variety also exhibited good bacterial wilt resistance in the trial, and has done so in several trials Frost has conducted since then.

Frost recently received a grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation to continue work on bacterial wilt and downy mildew resistance in cucumber and muskmelon seedstocks, including new slicing and pickling cucumber varieties he is developing to resist both diseases.

‘Trifecta’ is currently available for sale through Common Wealth Seed Growers and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

As mentioned, ESOcuc is funded through the USDA’s competitive grant program focused on organic agriculture, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI). Organic plant breeding relies heavily on the OREI program, which is reauthorized as part of the farm bill approximately every five years. Fortunately, the 2018 Farm Bill more than doubled the amount of funding available for organic research. Over the course of the next farm bill, OREI funding will increase from $20 million in 2019 to $50 million by 2023. The importance of these research dollars to the growth and success of organic agriculture cannot be overstated.

“So little public breeding underway is focused on the needs of organic farmers,” says Frost. “There’s so much room for improvement in terms of the varieties we’re using that, with a small investment, and with time and energy, we’ll be able to make a big impact on agriculture by coming up with varieties that are better suited to our regions, disease pressures, and organic practices.”

Frost also believes in the power of participatory breeding, adding efficiency and value to these types of partnerships.

“Michael Mazourek has been an important mentor to me,” says Frost. “Farmers provide a helpful perspective to plant breeders and the efforts and ideas of university researchers in turn helps us as growers.”

Mazourek echoes this sentiment, pointing to the results these collaborations yield in the form of superior varieties now available to farmers.

“All of our successes with DMR are owed to farmer input,” says Mazourek. “We took moderately resistant material that we had at Cornell, moderately resistant material identified by organic farmers, and people are seeing the literal cross-pollination of these partnerships in our DMR varieties.”

Effective management of navel orangeworm requires an integrated approach to pest management. This is especially true in organic nut crops where insecticides that are industry standards in convention orchards are not available. This puts added emphasis on the need for variety selection, winter sanitation, timely harvest, and mating disruption.

Mating disruption works by using dispensers to flood an orchard with synthetically-produced pheromone, thus interrupting the ability of male moths to find and mate with females. Reductions in eggs and larvae occur if females fail to mate or if there is a delay in when mating occurs.

There are currently two mating disruption products registered for use in organic nut crops in California. The first is Cidetrak NOW Meso from Trécé. The ‘Meso’ dispenser looks like a foot-long strip of rubber that releases pheromone passively throughout the season. The emitters are typically hung in the orchard at a rate of 20 per acre, with the label allowing a range of 15 to 28. Dispensers are hung in the orchard prior to moth emergence in the spring. Pheromone is released throughout the season for approximately 150 to 180 days and there is no need to recover the emitters at the end of the season.

The second product is called Semios NOW Eco from Semios. This product releases pheromone from pressurized aerosol canisters contained within dispensers. The dispensers are placed in the tree at a rate of 1 per acre prior to moth emergence in the spring. The standard rate for pheromone puff by the dispenser is at 15-minute intervals when moths are active. The timing of pheromone release is controlled remotely via a wireless network that allows the dispensers to modify daily or hourly rates based on pest pressure, weather conditions, crop phenology, and seasonal phenology of navel orangeworm. Moth activity is tracked using camera traps that are remotely monitored over a wireless network. The system also includes weather stations, a password-protected grower computer interface to monitor moths and weather, and degree-day models. Dispenser installation, maintenance and removal is provided by the manufacturer.

Trials by the University of California have shown that both mating disruption systems are effective within conventionally-grown almond orchards. During 2017, side-by-side comparison trials using 40-acre plots in three Kern County orchards were funded by the Almond Board. They showed that Cidetrak NOW Meso and Semios NOW Extra (the conventional equivalent of Semios NOW Eco) reduced captures of male moths in pheromone traps by 93 and 90 percent, respectively. The difficulty of males to find pheromone traps served as an indicator that the systems were interfering with the use of pheromone as a way for males to find females. At harvest, these two systems reduced overall damage by 46 percent, including 22.3 percent reductions for Nonpareil, 59.7 percent reductions for Monterey, and 63.5 percent reductions for Fritz across all three locations.

Similar results were found during 2017 and 2018 as part of a Pest Management Alliance Project that was funded by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, also in almonds. This project did side-by-side comparisons of orchards that were managed conventionally, typically using sanitation plus one or two insecticide applications, versus a neighboring orchard using the same management program plus mating disruption. At sites in Lost Hills (2018) and Ballico (2018), Cidetrak NOW Meso reduced male captures in traps by 100.0 and 94.0 percent, which translated into 41.9 and 50.0 percent reductions in the pounds of damage kernels per acre at harvest, respectively. At sites in Wasco (2017 and 2018) and Turlock (2017 and 2018), Semios NOW reduced male captures by 94.7 to 100.0 percent with percentage reductions the pounds of damaged kernels averaging 63.9 percent.

A separate set of demonstrations in Modesto during 2018 evaluated the use of Cidetrak NOW Meso in ~25 acre orchards. Across all three varieties, male captures were reduced by 96.4 percent and damage was reduced by 60-90 percent at the center of each plot, although overall NOW nut damage was less than 1 percent.

Economic analysis of data from all research trials showed that mating disruption typically paid for itself. This was due to a decrease in yield losses from damaged kernels, and due to improved quality assessments that define price premiums at the huller. As an example of how this worked, imagine a 2,500 pound per acre conventional orchard with 3 percent damage. The grower might typically receive $2.79 per pound ($2.75 base price plus a $0.04 cent bonus) for a total value of $6,875 per acre. If damage were reduced by 50 percent (typical for mating disruption), the grower would now have 1.5 percent damage. The grower would get paid for another 37.5 pounds of undamaged kernels, and the entire load might receive $2.89 per pound ($2.75 base price plus $0.14 bonus) for a total value of $7,333 per acre. This is an increase of $358 per acre, which is two to three times the cost of using any mating disruption product. In hindsight across all research sites, the cost of mating disruption exceeded the return on investment if damage without mating disruption was under 1 percent, broke even if damage was around 1.5 to 2 percent, and very quickly turned into a positive return on investment any time damage exceeded 2 percent.

Organic growers considering mating disruption should develop their own cost-benefit analysis. This is especially true considering that organic almond orchards typically have reduced yields, but higher per-pound prices than the previous example. Growers should also consider other benefits of mating disruption, such as increased crop exportability due to decreased risk of aflatoxins, increased ability to sell in-shell nuts, or the value of marketing the sustainability of production practices.

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Individual orchard conditions should also be considered when determining the fit for a mating disruption system. This includes the size and orientation of the orchard as well as the surrounding landscape. Effective mating disruption assumes that a solid plume of pheromone can be maintained within the orchard. This means that when implementing mating disruption, bigger is better. Efficacy is also increased when orchards are shaped like squares or rectangles. Efficacy is reduced as orchards become longer and skinnier, especially in areas known for high winds that can blow pheromone off-site.

Orientation of the orchard within the landscape should also be considered. This is especially true because mating disruption cannot control gravid moths that fly into the orchard after mating elsewhere. Mating disruption works best when the surrounding landscape does not contain navel orangeworm hosts, or where the neighboring growers have effective sanitation and spray programs. The ability of navel orangeworm to move back and forth among neighboring orchards makes communication with neighbors essential when trying to control this pest at a landscape scale. In an ideal situation, the organic grower using mating disruption would be surrounded by neighbors who are also using mating disruption to contribute to an even larger, contiguous pheromone plume.

For more information on mating disruption, consult with the University of California Integrated Pest Management Guidelines found at the UC IPM Web site ( Once at the site, click on Agricultural Pests, followed by Almonds, Pistachios or Walnuts. Additional information can also be provided by your local UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor.

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