As consumers request more organic produce to fill their plates, an increasing number of growers are adding acreage to their operations or are transitioning to organic production to supply the demand.
However, organic crop management requires a highly integrative approach and a delicate balance of plant systems to make sure crops are strong and healthy enough to reduce the threat of pests and diseases.
Here, Vicki Morrone, Organic Farming Specialist at Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems, addresses the top challenges organic growers face and what steps you can take to manage those challenges more effectively.
When asked about the No. 1 challenge facing organic growers today, Morrone names weed management without hesitation.
“Weed management is a challenge in that growers acknowledge the potential harm to soil from over-tillage, but they also understand the implications if they don’t manage their weeds in a timely way,” she says.
As a result, Morrone says a lot of research is being done with reduced tillage systems, and combining different weeder systems such as finger tines and basket weeders, implements that have a minimal plowing effect on the soil but can still adequately manage weeds.
Strip till, a technique used in combination with cover crops, is one technique Morrone is currently researching with Dan Brainard from Michigan State University in collaboration with Cornell University and the University of Maine, with a goal to help control weeds with reduced tillage in organic systems.
“Strip tillage opens up a strip in between the cover crops, creating access to soil for planting your crop. Then the tillage cover crop provides a mulch around the crop and you are not disturbing the soil as much,” she says.
Morrone also mentions spring tillage as an option for weed management, which (combined with the use of winter-killed cover crops) can be an effective control for weeds and bed preparation.
“You can use that pass to incorporate manure into the soil, and it also opens up the soil to provide a flush of oxygen in the spring, which aids the soil microorganisms, giving them a kick-start to stimulate growth and reproduction,” she explains.
Marrone also says the use of cover crops is one of the most important tools for organic growers to have in their toolkit.
“They offer an abundance of benefits, from building soil organic matter, reducing erosion, loosening heavy soil, biofumigation using various mustards, contributing nitrogen through legumes, and reducing nitrogen leaching,” she says.
In Michigan, Morrone says buckwheat is a valuable cover crop for growers in that it has a short window of growth in the warm months — ideal for Michigan conditions — providing four months of biomass production.
“After six weeks in the summer, it starts to flower, and those flowers are really valuable to pollinators,” she explains. “Those pollinators can include bees and other beneficial insects. Those beneficial insects are not only looking for the caterpillars to sting, but they’re also looking for a nectar source, and that nectar source can come from flowering cover crops like clover and buckwheat.”
Pest And Disease Control
According to Morrone, pest and disease control in organic systems is more than just a checklist of which insecticides or fungicides are certified — it involves a whole library of tools and begins with building your soil health.
“This requires not just making sure there are enough nutrients in the soil, but also building the organic matter so there is good water-holding capacity, good drainage, and you get a stronger crop,” she says. “A stronger crop means it’s more resilient to outbreaks of pests and periods of drought.”
Variety selection is another way to manage disease, and it’s important to make sure you’ve selected varieties that are resistant to pests specific to your region, Morrone says.
Understanding how pests attack the crop as well as their lifecycle also might improve management, trying to break their cycle.
“Understanding the pests’ behavior, learning how to monitor them, how and when to scout, and at what population levels you should be reacting are all questions to ask,” Morrone says.
She also suggests using tools such as floating row covers to help control pests in crops like leafy greens and small transplants before they start to flower. While the row covers will have to be taken off for pollination, they can help control pests such as insects or birds, and can help retain heat during cooler times of the year.
The Role Of Biocontrols
The use of biocontrols is another control option for vegetable growers, but Morrone says they come with their own set of challenges for open-field production.
“If you’re ordering beneficial insects, your timing for purchasing has to be correct. You have to make sure they’re healthy when you get them; and when you release them, your pest population has to be adequate to keep them around,” she says.
High temperatures also may be a concern for the health of some beneficials, and it is important to create a buffer zone where they can rest in the heat of the day.
“Because parasitoids are not preying on the insects and they’re just reproducing in them, they need a food source,” she explains, “and that food source comes in the form of nectar from flowers. For this reason, it’s important to have a buffer zone of flowering plants within the farm area or garden area so the insects can hang out in the heat of the day and have a food source.”
Marketing And The Benefits Of Certification
Another challenge some organic growers are facing is competition in pricing with other growers who are not certified, but are selling their produce as organic.
“Those that have been long-term certified are being hurt by this, because often these new farmers are connected to food hubs and different local food distribution groups, and they say ‘my food is organic’ and they’ll retail it to the less savvy consumer who does not realize the difference between certified and not,” she explains.
Growers who have gone through the time and expense to get certified are not getting the benefit of accessing the buyer seeking organic produce. As a result, Morrone says they are not getting the price premium they are entitled to as an organic grower.
If growers who are producing organically are worried about the cost associated with certification, Morrone suggests applying to one of USDA’s organic certification cost share programs, which can provide up to 75% of their costs with a cap of $750.
More information can be found at https://is.gd/organic_cost_share.