After enjoying many seasons of consistently strong returns, almond growers have seen prices soften in recent years, leading many to consider farming some of their crop organically. But there are several considerations growers should take into account before making the move, says University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Adviser Roger Duncan.
Speaking on his home turf at a recent seminar at the Stanislaus Ag Center co-presented by the Organic Fertilizer Association of California and the American Society of Agronomy’s Certified Crop Adviser program, Duncan said those growers considering the move should have one overriding thought they must keep in mind.
“You can produce just as high-quality an almond in an organic system as you can in a conventional system,” he said. “It just takes a lot more time, more effort, and more money.”
Growers are going to need to spend a lot more time monitoring their crops. Actually, Duncan wishes that all growers — organic and conventional — would take more time for such tasks as scouting for pests. By getting ahead of potential problems, such as a pest infestation, growers can avoid much more serious problems later on.
It’s vital for growers who are making the move to organic farming to realize that monitoring will become even more important because they must avoid those serious problems because they won’t have the same tools to take care of them as they had in the past. “They simply won’t have as big of a hammer,” said Duncan.
In addition, scouting doesn’t stop when harvest begins. In fact, right now — during harvest season — is a great time to find out what’s going on in your orchards. You will need to really get to know the Big Three of almond pests, says Duncan (See photos). Part of the reason it’s so critical to know the Big Three — navel orangeworm (NOW), peach twig borer, and ants — so well, he says, is that each needs to be treated very differently.
For example, by making the effort to examine those rejects and really learn what problems you have, you can use the proper strategy for NOW control. That strategy is pretty much the same for organic farming as it is conventional because much of it is cultural, he says. It means improving winter sanitation and earlier harvest. For treatment, the organic insecticide Entrust (spinosad, Dow AgroSciences) is pretty much on par with Lorsban (chlorpyrifos, Dow).
It will also take more effort to learn the ins and outs of various products, says Duncan. Organic growers have much greater responsibility to find out what can and can’t be applied to their orchards. For example, if you have San Jose scale, some growers might simply spray oil, thinking it’s not a pesticide per se. “But not every oil is organically acceptable,” he says. “Sure, most are, but it shows how important it is to check with an organic certifier to make sure it is acceptable. Don’t assume.”
It all comes down to the bottom line, so growers making the move to organic farming must realize that not only are the materials — everything from fertilizers to herbicides — generally more expensive, they require more applications because the formulations are generally not as intense. Besides that, all that extra monitoring, what with the cost of labor, isn’t cheap either.
Besides the increased cost, Duncan emphasizes that growers must realize that farming organically has a steep learning curve. For instance, one of the toughest problems for organic growers of all stripes — weeds — requires a new mind-set. (And maybe a bit of the old, see “Start Conventionally.”) There are currently no residual organic herbicides. As for fungicides, sulfur works well on almond rust, but other than that, organic fungicides generally aren’t nearly as powerful, as reliable, or as long lasting as conventional fungicides.
The good news for those who go organic? Besides the hopefully higher returns, growers will learn that almond trees can take a lot more than most think. Look at mites, for example. “In our area, I am convinced that many almond orchards could go without mite sprays at all, or maybe just hitting the edges or hot spots,” says Duncan. “I think almond trees are much more tolerant of mites than almond growers are.”
This may go against conventional thinking — pardon the pun — but University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Roger Duncan says growers who intend to farm their almonds organically should consider starting out farming them conventionally. This isn’t for those people who grow organically for philosophical reasons, who can’t abide using products that aren’t organically approved, but for those who opt to farm organically as purely a business decision.
Because if it’s a business decision, it’s really a no-brainer. Why? Because when it comes to farming almonds organically — or most crops for that matter — one of the most vexing problems is weed control. Or, as Duncan puts it: “Weeds put the pest in pest management for organic orchards.”
Organic growers don’t have the option of using such products as glyphosate or pre-emergent herbicides to take care of weeds, which are especially damaging to young orchards. As trees mature, their canopies will shade out a lot of weeds. There’s no financial drawback to starting out conventionally because you don’t really have much of a crop to sell those first three years anyway, which is the length of time needed to transition your orchard from conventional to organic.
In addition, unless you’re planting on virgin ground, you’re likely going to run into nasty replant problems. You’re going to want to fumigate that soil prior to planting, which will take care of nasty parasitic nematodes and worrisome weed seed.
“Your trees will literally be twice as big by the end of the first year if the ground is fumigated and all weeds are eliminated — there’s such a difference in how those trees grow without competition,” says Duncan, who makes his position on the matter crystal clear. “If I was going to farm almonds organically, I would start out conventionally.”