Jenny Maloney

The Evolution of Organic Farming in the 21st Century

A few days before heading off to the Organic Grower Summit, I checked out my backyard garden to make sure that the recent rainstorm had left my plants safe. At first glance, everything looked great and the plants had benefited from the rain. But, as I took a further look, I noticed tiny imported cabbage worms that had invaded my broccoli plants. After thirty minutes of picking off worms, I thought ahead to the challenges that organic growers face when trying to get a crop to market without various synthetic tools to address pests.

Globally, organic acreage averages somewhere between 50-60 million acres, with Australia, Argentina and the U.S. leading the way. In the U.S., farms and ranches reached $7.6 billion in certified organic commodity sales, which was up from $6.2 billion the previous year (USDA 2016 Certified Organic Survey) and averaged around 5 million certified organic acres. These sales break down into 56% crops and 44% livestock. In the fruit and vegetable sector, there has been growth in specific crops, and organic fruit and vegetable sales are over $3 billion, with apples, lettuce and strawberries as the leading categories.

In the U.S., laws around organics are covered by the National Organic Program (NOP) within the U.S.D.A. According to NOP, “organic is a labeling term for food or other agricultural products that have been produced using cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that support the cycling of on farm resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity in accordance with the USDA organic regulations….Only products that have been certified as meeting the USDA’s requirements for organic production and handling may carry the USDA Organic Seal.”

Jenny Maloney, Food Chain Sustainability Manager, Bayer Crop Science
Jenny Maloney, Food Chain Sustainability Manager, Bayer Crop Science
Jenny Maloney,
Food Chain Sustainability Manager, Bayer Crop Science

Those products allowed for use are listed in the “National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances,” and provides guidance on the tools that organic growers can use to deal with fertility, pests, feed and other input needs.

Just recently, the Organic Grower Summit brought together 800 growers, packers, shippers, input providers and buyers of organic fruits and vegetables. While there was a breadth of organic approved products to deal with pests and fertility, it was also evident there is still more need for technology and innovation for organic growers. We had the opportunity to speak to several growers, and get a better understanding of what was working on farm, and areas for opportunity.

One of the growers was Amy Kunugi, General Manager for Nature Fresh Organics Southern Colorado Farms. Amy and her team grow organic carrots, kale, and red and yellow beets. If you are like me and have a child that likes organic baby food with carrots, chances are they were grown under Amy’s watchful eye. The farm that Amy manages is in Southern Colorado has elevations over 7,000 feet, and winter temperatures that can dip anywhere from 20 to 40 below. I asked her about how they deal with pests on farm from an organic production perspective. “Fertility and weed control…those are the biggest issues,” she says.

While crop rotation, cold winters and good soil help with their organic crops, pesky weeds are one of the biggest problems they face. When I thought of weeds, I thought of them as more of a nuisance, or a visual issue, but weeds can be a challenge for any grower. In organic production, the current tools that are approved for use aren’t as efficacious as synthetic products, so there is a lot of weeding that is done with human labor, by hand. Weeds compete for water, nutrients and sunlight. As Amy noted, if not controlled, they can shade out the crops they grow. Lamb’s quarter and pigweed are two of their notable weeds which they control with hand weeding, but she is always looking for innovative tools to help control weeds. Quinoa husks that contain saponins are one of the tools researchers are looking at to control weeds in organic production, but there is room and demand for additional products.

Another challenge that organic growers have to deal with is controlling diseases. Bayer has been participating in the organic market with a tool called Serenade, which can be used to combat fungal and bacterial diseases. Another interesting application is to improve root health, allowing crops to access to nutrients in the soil. Combining these applications can provide useful tools to manage around stress tolerance, disease protection and better nutrient uptake.

Serenade® ASO and Opti are two of these tools designed to protect against the effects of soil and foliar bacterial and fungal diseases. Tools like Serenade can support organic growers in several ways. Protection from disease is provided through contact activity which stops fungal and bacterial spores from growing. In addition, through plant microbe interactions with the roots, Serenade treatments result in better root development, increased nutrient uptake and improved stress tolerance. This can lead to increased quality and shelf life for fruits and vegetables.

What we saw at the show was there are a number of options on the market, but those tools are more limited than what’s available to a conventional grower. It is important that companies continue to innovate and come up with new solutions so that farmers can grow organically and still deal with pests on farm.

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