Category Archives: organic farms

Organic Tomato Farm’s Soils Produce High Yields During Terrible Drought

Today’s post is reprinted by permission of Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook, who is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Long-time readers of this site know that healthy organic soils retain moisture far better during drought-stressed conditions. Today’s post offers a pretty profound example of that principle in action this past summer during California’s drought.

Charles Benbrook reports about an organic tomato farm in California and its amazing success even during last summer’s terrible drought. The numbers he includes in this article of tomato yields and rainfall are astounding in a positive good-news way for producers of every kind, everywhere. He attributes this tomato production “miracle” to the organic soil health of the long-standing farm. (Although, I suspect because it is “Northern California-coastal” it is also receiving some moisture in the way of fogs.) Then, he warns growers that if they wish to be resilient in future weather-stresses expected from climate change, they need to establish similar soils in their own growing fields.

It’s a win-win.

Better tasting tomatoes, lower input costs, and crop resiliency.

It is better to let Nature do the work for us, instead of destroying the natural systems and then repairing the damage to get the yields we’re after.
—Kay M.


Promoting Global Food Security One Crop of Tomatoes at a Time

By Chuck Benbrook

In early September I visited a remarkable organic farm on the coast of California. This farm has been in organic production for about 30 years, and its harvests of mostly organic tomatoes have been marketed through a variety of outlets in Northern California.

I arrived on the day picking had just begun on a sloping tomato field about 6 acres in size. The crop was exceptionally clean, with virtually no insect damage and few weeds. Minimal, organically approved control measures had been used, including applications of sulfur and releases of trichogramma (beneficial wasps), along with many hours of hand weeding.

One of every dozen-plus fruits had minor, cosmetic blemishing on the skin, typically where the tomatoes contacted the soil. Otherwise, the tomatoes were picture perfect. I can also vouch for their organoleptic quality, from a first-hand eating experience at a dinner during my stay. These tomatoes also, no doubt, contain markedly higher levels of health-promoting phenolic acids and Vitamin C, for reasons discussed in an earlier blog (“A Tale of Two Tomatoes,” February 23, 2013).

The grower has since reported that the field produced about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre.

Farmers in other tomato-producing regions often produce substantially more per acre.  My friend and colleague Madeline Mellinger runs Glades Crop Care (GCC), South Florida’s major independent crop consulting firm.  She and the GCC staff scout and advise farmers on pest management across about 11,000 acres of tomatoes each year.  In their neck of the woods, conventionally grown tomato yields average 50,000 pounds per acre, and in all but unusual years, range from 35,000 to 65,000 pounds/acre. Yields of 60,000 pounds per acre are common.

So what’s the big deal about a 30,000 pound per acre organic tomato yield in sunny California, when Florida (and some other California) growers often produce twice that per acre?

This was a dryland field of organic tomatoes – no, none, zero supplemental irrigation had been applied.  The field was planted in April.  Detailed weather data is accessible from a nearby weather station, which I accessed upon return to my office.

On August 6th and 7th, the last measurable rainfall had fallen in the area (0.02 inches, or two one-hundredths of an inch, i.e. almost none).  July rainfall totaled 0.16 inch, and 0.04 inch fell in both May and June. A far-below average 0.45 inch fell in April, and only 1.12 inches came in March, usually one of the year’s wettest months.

Total precipitation for the 2014 production season was 1.83 inches.  On California’s irrigated fresh market tomato fields, around 30” of irrigation water is applied to bring a crop to market, and according to the USDA, average yields are about 35,000 pounds per acre.

Organic production + 1.83 inches of rainfall = 30,000 pounds of tomatoes.

Conventional production + 30 inches of irrigation water = 35,000 pounds of tomatoes.

If a drought-weary California is forced to look for new ways to conserve water, the performance of this organic farm is both impressive and hopeful, given that it produced over 16,000 pounds of tomatoes per inch of rainfall.  On a typical, irrigated, fresh market tomato field in California, experienced growers harvest about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes per inch of irrigation water, and somewhat less than 1,000 pounds per inch of rainfall-plus-irrigation water.

How could 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre be harvested on a field receiving so little rainfall?

It’s all about the soil. Over the last 30-plus years, this field has been in a complex rotation, with ample amounts of added organic material and routine cover cropping. The organic matter content of the soil has been increased about two-fold – from around 1.5% to about 3% — promoting rapid water infiltration (when it rains), as well as enhancing the soil’s water holding capacity.

So what does this un-irrigated, organic tomato field have to do with feeding the world?

Governments around the world are urging people to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least four servings per day (the USDA recommendation is 5-8 servings/day). The population of California is currently 38 million, so each and everyday, the good citizens of the State should be consuming at least 152,000,000 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Surely, mankind does not live by tomatoes alone, but for the sake of making an important point, bear with me.

According to the USDA, one serving of fresh tomatoes weighs 90 grams, or 0.19842 pound (i.e., there are about five servings in one pound of tomatoes).  Accordingly, 1,005 acres of similarly managed, organic tomatoes yielding, on average, 30,000 pounds per acre, would produce enough tomatoes to feed 38 million Californians four servings of this vegetable for one day.  Year-round, at the same yield level, only 366,943 acres would be needed to assure 38 million Californians get their four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The surface area of California is about 101 million acres, of which about 30 million acres are classified as farmland.  About 6 million acres in California are regarded as “prime” farmland. Over 500,000 acres of California land are planted to cotton most years, and another 1.5 million produce hay.  Clearly, finding 366,943 acres to produce enough fruits and vegetables (F+Vs) for all Californians should not be a major problem, at least not for a very long time.

For 314 million Americans, and the 7 billion on Planet Earth, less than 3% of available, high quality agricultural land would be required to assure production of at least four servings of F+Vs a day, per capita, year round.

Doing so, and getting the tomatoes, citrus, berries, and potatoes to the people who need them, including the poor, remains an enormous challenge, but not because of land shortages, lower yields on organic farms, or even persistent drought. In years when drought, or too much rain and flooding, or an untimely freeze, reduces fruit and vegetable production in one region, other areas can pick up at least some of the slack.  And through new methods to preserve and store F+Vs, the nation could (and probably will someday) create a strategic F+V reserve.

As climate change and severe drought become more commonplace, the importance of building soil quality as a hedge against catastrophic crop failure will grow.  Experience and insights gained on long-term, well-managed organic farms will provide a benchmark of what can be accomplished and how healthier, richer soil can serve as a buffer against climate extremes. And this will promote global food security, one field at a time.


Photo via FlickrCC Mr.TinDC.

A Taste Of Farming In Maine

You can’t get more land-locked than Nebraska, where I grew up. So I find going to Maine and seeing the very different ways of life and livelihoods through food in that state fascinating. Mainers also exhibit a special vibe, a vibe that feels very real, genuine, simple and good.

Here are a few photos from early September in Maine to help you get a feel for what I felt while there.

It was pure luck to stumble upon the Brunswick, Maine farmers market, the oldest farmers market in the state, other than Portland’s. Two women were selling lobsters for $4.49 a pound, less than hamburger at today’s prices. Much of this trip was about lobster, eating it, watching the hard working lobstermen, and seeing the lobster traps set up. A neighbor acquaintance here in Boulder who grew up in Maine likes to say that “You knew who the poor kids were in school because they had lobster in their lunch buckets.”

This is the fella that I enjoyed visiting with the most at the Brunswick market. His name is Dick Keough and he farms on seven acres, with four hoop houses. I noticed that he was selling baby lettuces so I asked if they were for those who have winter gardens in Maine, knowing that the legendary four season gardening expert, Eliot Coleman, hails from these parts. My suspicions proved correct, as Keough is a big winter gardener and is a friend of Coleman’s. He said that they use eight (or more) layers of plastic in the coldest winter time periods, including bubble wrap – in their winter hoop houses. A key piece of knowledge is that there are 27 winter vegetables that can tolerate being frozen, so if you stick with those in your winter hoop gardens in Maine, and figure out the art and science balanced with the right amount of attentiveness, winter vegetable growing there can be a success.

When I asked Keough why he had such strong nice fall rhubarb, he credited fertilizing it with Espoma Plant-Tone which he uses for his other vegetables, too. Plant-Tone is an all-organic fertilizer containing beneficial soil microbes. Keough is a seasoned gardening expert who has participated in the Brunswick farmers market for 27 years, and he told me that it is obvious to see how Maine’s climate is changing. He said that in recent years he only uses a snowblower about three times per winter, whereas this area used to get lots of snow all winter-long.

Other interesting things that I noticed at the Brunswick farmers market were the low cost for eggs at only four dollar per dozen. Here in Boulder at our farmers market they often cost six dollars per dozen. One stand was selling their own home made cider vinegar. One stand sold grass-fed beef. I spoke with its farmer, Dennis Wilk of “King and I Angus” and he explained to me that nearly all beef raised in the region is “grass-fed” due to the nature of the land, the small farm sizes, and, I suppose, the lack of organized large-scale industrial feedlots and cattle markets. How nifty is that?

Dick Keough told me that sometime, I must allow a day to visit Pineland Farms in New Gloucester. It is a 5,000-acre working farm that demonstrates responsible farming techniques.

This scene is near the children’s garden at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens at Boothbay. Though the 270-acre garden is relatively new, it has already become one of the main tourist attractions along the coast.

This is a stack of lobster cages in Portland near two of our favorite lobster/fish shacks, The Porthole, and J’s Oyster. Yummm.

Popham Beach was reasonably uncrowded and we walked its entire length. This was the view of an island right across from it that had a house on it. Years ago I read the 1896 book, The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett who captured the mood of Maine island living so well. I stared and stared at the island and the home, trying to imagine what it would be like to live there. I must re-read Jewett’s book sometime soon. Maine is all about a “mood”, especially if you live there in its difficult weather and moody forest all the year-round. It is a very special place.

Is Organic Corn the Way to Go Next Year?

Let’s face it. Input costs for seeds and chemicals cost a lot when growing field corn.

Will the new farm bill step up to the plate and cover these costs with its new higher price floors?

Is it worth it?

What are the options?

Is it time to switch to growing organic corn?

Or, might policy increase the demand for corn and soy through biofuel policies – to pick up this over-production slack?

Or, should government conservation programs step up and pay more to idle land? (That is not the plan as far as I know.)

Today, let’s take a look at what Chad Hart over at Iowa State is expecting in negative returns per acre to grow corn this year and next. Then, let’s take a look at profit margins for growing organic corn from previous USDA data.


From Iowa State’s Hart:
Based on our ISU estimated production costs, corn margins are a negative $225 per acre and soybean margins are negative $100 per acre. After several years of significant profits for Iowa crops, these margin losses are large. And the margins don’t improve much as we look at the 2015 crops. For corn, the futures market is showing enough carry to push the projected 2015 season average price to roughly $3.50 per bushel. But that’s still $1 per bushel below projected 2015 production costs. Soybean futures for the 2015 crop aren’t provided nearly the same boost. The projected 2015 season average soybean price based on current futures is $9 per bushel. That’s $2 per bushel below projected production costs.


From the USDA:

In 2010, U.S. producers saw average returns of $307 per acre for conventional corn, compared with $557 per acre for organic corn, primarily because higher organic corn prices more than offset lower organic corn yields. Total operating and ownership costs per acre (seed, fertilizer, chemicals, custom operations, fuel, repairs, interest, hired labor, capital recovery of machinery and equipment, taxes, and insurance) were not significantly different between organic and conventional corn, although many of the individual cost components differed. Three major components of operating costs—seed, fertilizer, and chemicals—are lower for organic corn than for conventional corn, while some components of ownership costs—the capital recovery of machinery and equipment, and taxes and insurance—are higher for organic corn. Although the acres planted to organic corn nearly tripled between 2001 and 2010, organic corn accounted for less than 1 percent of total 2010 corn acres.


It will be interesting to see what the producers decide and how acreage numbers look next year. And it will be interesting to see if there will be more farms coming available for sale in corn country.

Inputs required to grow organic corn are less expensive, safer, and promote soil health microbial systems which then retain water so that less rainfall and/or irrigation is required.

One last enticement to grow organic corn at some point in the future is this. There are breeders working on pollen-blocking corn so that organic seed corn can be resistant to GMO variety contamination.

Leaf Illustrations and Charts to Help Diagnose Plant Nutrient Deficiencies

For the farmer or gardener, it is important to be able to read your plant. The seasoned grower develops an intuitive sense over time in response to plant signals of stress. The key is observing and being able to notice unhealthy leaves, and developing the ability to understand what the plant’s leaf is telling you. Something to note is that a young leaf’s message differs from an old leaf’s message. In this post, I have assembled a number of good graphics to help you do just that. While there is some overlap between the illustrations, they should be helpful as a whole in helping you figure out your specific problem.

PLANT LEAF CHART OF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES


Credit: Twitter @FarmerRaviVKV “Plants speak to us through their leaves what they want. Farmers must keenly understand the language of his plants.”


DIAGNOSING NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES CHART


Credit: Twitter @trouttroller Day 2 of #canoLAB14. John Mayko with a great slide depicting location of nutrient deficiency symptoms.


SIMPLE PLANT DEFICIENCY GUIDE


Credit: Twitter @JSKProperty. Plant deficiency guide – Some possible problems because of nutrient deficiency or even too much of any one nutrient.


CORN LEAF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY ILLUSTRATION


Credit: farmwifediary.blogspot


CHART OF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY SYMPTOMS IN PLANTS



Credit: Atlantis Hydroponics.
For more charts showing the inter-relationships between nutrients (excess-induced deficiencies) see this PDF, also from Atlantis Hydroponics.


LEAF DEFICIENCY GUIDE (MAPLE LEAVES)





Credit: CANNA.


NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY FLOWCHART – OLD AND NEW LEAVES – CHLOROSIS AND NECROSIS


Credit: UNKNOWN


NUTRIENT ANTAGONISMS CHART


Credit: UNKNOWN


NUTRIENT DISORDERS MARIJUANA LEAVES



Credit: mjforum


DEFICIENCIES AND ABUNDANCE OF FERTILIZATION ELEMENTS (MARIJUANA LEAVES)



Credit: OCK.PEACE.ORG


NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY SYMPTOMS – Citrus


Credit: Twitter @247Garden. Nutrient deficiency symptoms at a glance! #growing #gardening #hydroponics #green Courtesy of NATESC and IPCC.


AQUATIC PLANTS – LEAF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY


Credit: Zapins at Aquatic Plant Central. Plant Deficiency Picture Diagram for aquatic plants.


CHART EXPLAINING LEAF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY


Credit: Hawaii.edu. Plant Nutritional Deficiencies Symptoms chart.


If you have any links to other great graphics on this subject, please leave them in the comments.

A Barrier Net Instead of Pesticides or Greenhouses Proves Successful in Africa for Growing Vegetables

In Kenya and Tanzania, farm producers are turning to a physical barrier to keep bugs out instead of using chemicals. Called Eco-Friendly Nets or Agronets, they can save growers 90 percent in pesticide costs and allow the farm to be classified as organic.

The nets are used for growing tomatoes, cabbages, kales, spinach, capsicum, and other vegetables.

They cost much less than constructing a greenhouse, and just may produce healthier crops than a greenhouse. Farmers using them have drastically increased their output of tomatoes since they help create a micro-climate which increases the heat and lessens the time required for maturity, in addition to restricting pests.

The nets are affordable for many of the small scale farmers.

AgroNet is a family of clear netting products developed by A to Z Textile Mills based in Arusha for use in horticulture—vegetables, fruit and ornamentals.


Sources:

http://www.freshplaza.com/article/124804/Kenya-Forget-greenhouses,-Agronet-technology-is-the-in-thing

http://www.freshplaza.com/article/124716/Tanzanian-vegetable-growers-use-netting-technology-to-control-pests