Growers who farm organically have traditionally relied heavily on labor to get rid of weeds and even pests. Now all that is beginning to change. Even conventional growers are looking closely at the innovative biologically based methods that are emerging in organic farming.
PHOTO BY SCOTT BAUER.
"There is more of an understanding of the interaction of microbes at the cellular level ... and companies are building products that augment natural systems rather than control and kill," says Bill Wolf, president of Virginia-based Wolf, DiMatteo & Associates, organic consultants that work with government, food companies, food processors, and large and small growers. "Organic farming is beginning to shift from a mechanistic view to a biological one," he says.
This trend is not a passing fad, he notes. It is a substantial one that is happening on many levels, from the small organic grower to large branded food companies. And it's no longer being used exclusively in the organic world; Wolf is seeing a trend of conventional growers taking an interest in the efficacy of these and other organic methods.
For example, Driscoll's, a large berry producer, devotes a minority of its total California acreage to certified organic berries, but Wolf says, "They use organic practices in their nonorganic acres because they work." Some practices are low-tech, such as using compost tea and green manure to suppress weeds and disease, but conventional growers are also increasingly making use of other organic practices, like seaweed sprays to enhance plant growth.
"Organic methods have been at the forefront of finding biological relationships and introducing practices that lead to acceptance in all agriculture," says Wolf.
Here are some of the hottest products and ideas to emerge in organic farming this year.
Biopesticides lead the way
Perhaps the biggest growth area is in biopesticides. One of this year's breakthrough products, Grandevo, promises to help organic farmers control pests and has the potential to also be embraced by conventional agriculture, which has been looking for ways to reduce maximum residue limits (MRLs) in produce.
Grandevo, a broad-spectrum bioinsecticide, was launched by Davis, Calif.-based Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. (www.marronebio.com).
Pam Marrone, company founder and CEO, says Grandevo is an insecticide/miticide created using a new species of bacteria discovered by USDA-ARS researchers (Chromobacterium subtsugae). The bioinsecticide is easy on beneficial insects, she notes, making it an ideal addition to IRM/IPM programs.
Ozein, a food-grade antimicrobial sanitation system, uses ozonated water instead of bleach or hydrogen peroxide to wash and sanitize fruits and vegetables against E. coli, salmonella and all known bacteria, viruses, yeasts, molds and mildew.
PHOTO BY NATURAL FORCES, LLC.
In a targeted test in Florida it was found to be highly effective in killing invasive citrus pests. It was then tried on other fruit and vegetable crops and was effective in killing harmful insects including Asian citrus psyllids, armyworms, whiteflies, leaf miners, pepper weevils, thrips and mites. The bacterial insecticide, which is low-risk to beneficial insects, is lethal to sucking and chewing bugs; it causes stomach disruption when ingested, killing the insect in two to five days. It also reduces reproduction and stops eggs from hatching. Grandevo is ideal for use in field and greenhouse applications and is tolerance exempt on food crops, a key benefit for exported crops.
"This is going to be a great new tool for both organic and conventional growers," says Marrone. The biological insecticide is both AMRI and NOP listed and comes in a spray-dried powder form packed in 5-pound packages. Spray rate is 1 to 3 pounds per acre.
"Our formulation is very biodegradable," Marrone says, adding that one spraying provides about three weeks of pest control. "It is the same rate as for a traditional chemical," she notes. The label is very broad and can be used on all fruits and vegetables, flowers and ornamental plants. The company also plans to introduce Grandevo to the turf industry.
"There really is no other organic product that has this kind of control and efficacy," says Marrone, noting that the company has filed patents for the formulation.
Marrone Bio Innovations has three other organic products in its pipeline: a contact bioinsecticide (to be launched in the next eight months) and two new herbicides, one Marrone calls an "organic Roundup," a bacteria that when applied to the roots moves through the plant systemically and kills from the roots up. "We hope to have that in the market by next year," she says.
Ozein, a food-grade antimicrobial sanitation system.
PHOTO BY NATURAL FORCES, LLC.
North Carolina-based Natural Forces, LLC (www.naturalforcesllc.com
) has launched Ozein, a food-grade antimicrobial sanitation system. The system uses ozonated water instead of bleach or hydrogen peroxide to wash and sanitize fruits and vegetables against E. coli, salmonella and all known bacteria, viruses, yeasts, molds and mildew. There are no byproducts or residue left on the product after the process, says Devlin Reynolds, president of Natural Forces.
"This type of sanitation has been safely used in the fish, wine and beverage bottling industries for years, but it is a new idea for our industry," he notes.
Ozonated water is FDA approved for direct food contact as an antimicrobial agent, and is an extremely effective surface sanitizer, Reynolds says. Sanitizers using ozone are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and are approved by the USDA for organic production for postharvest use.
This fall, Virginia-based Thorvin, Inc. (www.thorvin.com) will introduce a line of organic seaweed fertilizers for improving nutrient density and quality of crops. The fertilizers, which are OMRI listed for organic production, come in a granular formulation and include natural nitrogen in a non-burning form. The seaweed is harvested from an Icelandic fjord and dried at low temperatures using geothermal energy to preserve its nutrient makeup. It is applied to vegetable and field crops at 200 to 400 pounds per acre.
It's a war out there when it comes to protecting organic corn from pollen drifts from genetically engineered field crops. Iowa-based Blue River Hybrids (www.blueriverorgseed.com) recently launched an innovative arsenal to help block GE contamination and color impurities. The company's seed product, PuraMaize, is a corn seed with a natural gene blocking system that impedes fertilization from GE and blue corn pollen.
The science behind PuraMaize, according to the product fact sheet, was 10 years in the making. It was created using traditional plant breeding (not genetic engineering) using tropical varieties of corn.
The PuraMaize variety, planted in side-by-side field tests with GE corn, strongly prefers its own pollen and eliminates almost all contamination. PuraMaize hybrids will be available for the 2013 planting seasons in the 101 to 114-day range and perform well under organic farming conditions.
The biggest trend in organic seed variety is color, says Patty Buskirk, general manager and owner of Terra Organics (www.terraorganics.com) in Maxwell, Calif.
Buskirk says consumers are demanding a rainbow of color in everything from carrots and Swiss chard to pumpkins and even cauliflower.
"Some of them are so unusual in color - such as the 'peppermint' celery that is red-striped - people ask if they are genetically engineered, but they are not. They are heirloom varieties," explains Buskirk. The company's product line includes more than 3,000 varieties of organic seeds.
The company sells wholesale seeds through its dealer network to commercial growers, as well as to hobby trade and the home garden market.
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.