OSU helps organic berry and vegetable farms stay competitive

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Bernadine Strik checks weed-preventing mats around blueberry bushes at OSU's research farm in Aurora. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)
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Research focuses on controlling weeds, increasing yields and using fertilizer wisely

Oregon's 353 certified organic farms earned $233 million in revenue in 2011. Blueberries accounted for $5.5 million of that. Since 2007, Oregon State University has been conducting experiments to help blueberry growers improve their bottom line. Its research has concluded that plants grown on raised beds have higher yields than those on flat ground; plants mulched with compost and sawdust or with weed mats produce greater yields than those mulched with just sawdust; and weed management costs are less when weed mats are used and highest when compost and sawdust are combined as a mulch. OSU found that the highest yielding management combinations improved cumulative net returns by $7,825 per acre over three years compared with the poorest performing treatments. As a result, Oregon's blueberry growers rolled out weed mats on more than 80 percent of their acreage that they planted in 2011 compared with less than 10 percent in 2006.

OSU has also turned its attention to organic blackberries, which accounted for nearly $400,000 of Oregon's organic sales in 2011. OSU scientists are looking at the fertilizer and irrigation requirements of the plants, the best way to organically manage weeds without reducing yield and quality, and how to keep harvesting machines from also picking up insects. Additionally, they're examining how the cultivar, harvest methods, storage and processing conditions affect nutritional properties. Although focused on organic production, findings from the study will also benefit conventional growers. So far OSU has found that machine-harvested yields of organic blackberries are similar to those of well-managed conventional fields. They also found that weedy plots have half the yield of plots covered with weed mats.

Other OSU faculty are developing new varieties of fruits and vegetables that lend themselves to organic methods. They've also studied ways to help organic potato growers combat pests without chemicals. Oregon farmers sold $17 million of organic spuds in 2011.

OSU researchers have also developed an online calculator to help small farmers use cover crops and organic fertilizers efficiently. More than 2,400 people have registered to use the tool, more than 450 of whom are from Oregon. Users hail from at least 60 countries and manage more than 160,000 acres. If they save or earn $50 per acre through reduced fertilizer costs or increased quality and yields on just a quarter of the 160,000 acres, that would mean an extra $2 million in their pockets.

Sources: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service's 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey; Bernadine Strik, berry crops specialist with the OSU Extension Service; Nick Andrews, small farms expert with OSU Extension.

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