NY Organic Growers Meet Challenges, Make Strides

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Helen Margaret Griffiths New York Correspondent

ITHACA N.Y. — Organic fruit and vegetable growers in New York had a challenging growing season in 2012, according to those who participated in the recent Cornell Organic Production and Marketing Work Team meeting.

The producers’ list of woes included a terrible apple year, flea beetles with resistance to pyrethroids in Madison County, an infestation of tarnish plant bugs in Chenango County potatoes, a fairly common occurrence of downy mildew, and the spotted wing drosophila.

It was a good year for cucurbits, in general; however, “it was the worst pickle year in 30 years,” according to Abby Seaman, a senior Extension associate for New York State IPM at Cornell University in Geneva.

The meeting was held both on-site at Cornell’s Ithaca campus and via webinar.

The work team was launched about 15 years ago in response to an increase in organic farming in the region and the need for collaboration between the researchers and organic farmers.

Until recently, the winter meeting also included dairy, livestock and field crops; however, the group has become too large to make that practical, so the fruit and vegetable meeting is now held separately.

A dairy, livestock and field crops meeting is scheduled for Jan. 8 in Geneva.

The fruit and vegetable meeting covered a wide array of topics, but as each speaker had only 12 minutes, they were only able to scratch the surface.

Two presenters addressed some of the economic aspects of organic production.

Brian Caldwell, a research support specialist with Cornell’s Department of Horticulture, discussed the results from an economic study of a four-year rotation project in which high input, intermediate, bio-extensive and ridge tillage systems were compared.

Knowing and understanding the economics of your farming system is important, but Caldwell said, “Those farming three to five acres are an underserved audience.”

The study on which he reported was a rotation of winter squash, cabbage, lettuce and potato. The high input system resulted in the highest net returns per acre or labor hour, whereas the bio-extensive approach led to lower returns per labor hour. Whole farm net returns per hour were fairly similar for all the systems, even when yield and returns per acre differed widely.

Caldwell recommended “The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook,” by Vermont farmer Richard Wiswall. Additional information on the study is available on Caldwell’s website, www.hort.cornell.edu/extension/organic/ocs/vege/pdfs/economic_performance.pdf.

Brian Henehan, a retired senior research associate with Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, identified some of the opportunities and barriers to organic production in New York state.

“Organic farmers are in the middle being squeezed,” he said.

From a study performed a few years ago as part of a USDA-funded project, he and a student identified some of the restrictions to organic production, among them cost and complexity of certification.

The complete study is available at http://dyson.cornell.edu/outreach/extensionpdf/2010/Cornell-Dyson-eb1013.pdf.

Henehan said there were opportunities in organic food processing and that early and late production using season-extension tools such as high tunnels could provide avenues for growers to become economically solvent.

The latter is an approach that a number of organic growers in the Finger Lakes region have successfully adopted.

According to the USDA 2011 organic production survey, the state’s certified organic farms sold a total of $107 million in organically produced commodities, ranking it third in the country.

But “organic is still a small share of the total New York production,” Henehan said.

Justine Vanden Heuvel, an associate professor in Cornell’s Department of Horticulture, discussed the development of a course taught at Cornell which features methods of growing organic grapes and winemaking.

Organic grape production for wine is in its infancy. In the Northeast, growing grapes organically is difficult due to issues with powdery and downy mildew.

However, a promising development is the release of a hybrid suited for organic production in New York. Hybrid NY95.0301.01 is dark red and has good resistance for both downy and powdery mildew. It is available from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia.

The release is from the program of Bruce Reisch, professor of grapevine breeding at Cornell University in Geneva, who will announce the winning name for the cultivar at the upcoming viticulture conference in Rochester from Feb. 6-8.

In 2012, a block of about 500 grape vines planted at the Cornell organic orchard in Ithaca was certified organic through NOFA-NY. The vineyard, which is about half an acre in size, is unique in that it was both designed and is managed by students.

Michael Mazourek, the Calvin N. Keeney assistant professor of plant breeding and genetics, focuses his research on developing new pepper, cucurbit and pea cultivars with specific emphasis on identifying those suitable for organic production.

Mazourek discussed the release of two new white PMR cucumber cultivars — Silver Slicer, available from Fedco Seeds, and a white-skinned pickling cucumber, Salt and Pepper, from Johnny’s Seeds.

The recently released Honeynut, a small butternut winter squash with good powdery mildew resistance, has been well received by the organic community and specialty chefs, he said.

Mazourek has a number of ongoing projects, including the development of pepper with resistance to Phytophthora capsici, a pathogen that causes blight and fruit rot.

Mazourek and field researcher Michael Glos are involved in the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a group that addresses the seed and plant breeding needs of organic farmers by bringing together researchers and organic farmers in the Northern America.

“We need to know how the varieties do on grower farms and not just at the Cornell research farm and are in need of participants to trial pepper, cucumber, butternut squash, and heat tolerant snap peas,” Mazourek said.

Any growers interested in participating should check the website http://eorganic.info/novic/, or contact Glos at mag22<\@>cornell.edu.

Several speakers addressed diseases and pests that plague organic growers.

Meg McGrath, associate professor of plant pathology and plant microbe biology at Cornell’s Long Island Research Laboratory in Riverhead, has been evaluating cultivars and biopesticides/organic compounds for response to and control of late blight isolate US-23, which was the prevalent isolate during the 2012 season.

Late blight is an issue for all growers of tomatoes, but organic growers have little in their tool box compared with conventional producers.

Of the cultivars evaluated, Mountain Magic, Mountain Merit, Defiant and Iron Lady (a recent Cornell University and North Carolina State University collaborative release) showed good resistance.

Of the chemicals and biopesticides evaluated, the copper-based products were the most effective, McGrath said.

Cucurbit downy mildew is another challenge for growers.

“Downy mildew has been a disaster for our cucumber production,” said Lou Lego of Elderberry Pond Farm in Auburn, N.Y.

With funding from a Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant, Lego constructed a high tunnel with an air filtration system that was able to block downy mildew and also late blight spores.

Although 2012 wasn’t the worst year for cucurbit downey mildew, the air filtration appears to work well, Lego said.

“The plants were huge, extremely healthy. In fact, they didn’t look real, more like fake plants from A.C.Moore!” he said.

Lego said the health of the plants was likely not a result of simply controlling downy mildew.

Lego used 3M Filtrete air filters, which cost about $10 apiece, to construct the tunnel. He said he hopes it will last at least a few seasons.

Thrips, tiny insects with fringed wings, have become an issue for growers of a number of crops in New York state.

With funding from a NESARE grant, Carol Glenister of IPM Laboratories in Locke, N.Y., performed some field trials with a western New York grower of pepper to evaluate the role of guardian plants along with the naturally occurring predator of thirps, orius, also known as the pirate bug.

Marigolds supported thrip control in the field, but Glenister wondered if growers would see this as an attractive control method due to the extra work associated with marigold production and subsequent transplanting to the field.

A revised version of The Resource Guide for Organic Insect and Disease Management (http://web.pppmb.cals.cornell.edu/resourceguide/) is being produced and will be available as a hardcopy and online.

The new version will include chapters on onion, pea, beet and carrot production, along with four additional materials fact sheets.

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