OSU helps organic berry farms improve their bottom line

OSU's Bernadine Strik checks weed-preventing mats around blueberry bushes.
Bernadine Strik checks weed-preventing mats around blueberry bushes at OSU's research farm in Aurora. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)

Research focuses on controlling weeds, increasing yields and using fertilizer wisely

Oregon berry farms face extra costs that their conventional counterparts don't. It's more expensive, for example, to buy organically approved fertilizers and to control weeds. But that's not stopping them. Organic blueberry acreage in Oregon increased from about 60 acres in 2006 to 750 acres in 2011. As more organic growers jump on the blueberry bandwagon, OSU is helping them improve their bottom line.

Its research on organic blueberries has found that plants grown on raised beds had an average 27 percent higher yield than those on flat ground. Researchers also found that plants mulched with compost and sawdust or with weed mat produce greater yields than those mulched with just sawdust; and weed management costs are less when weed mat is 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 mat mulch on more than 80 percent of their acreage they planted from 2011 to 2013 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 has the only certified organic blackberry research plot in the world. On its 1-acre field, OSU scientists are looking at the best types of fertilizer to apply, the best way to organically manage weeds without reducing yield and quality, and whether fruit can be machine-harvested in these organic systems for high yield and quality. Additionally, they're examining how the cultivar, harvest methods, storage and processing conditions affect nutritional properties. 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 mat mulch. Although focused on organic production, findings from the study will also benefit conventional growers.

Sources: USDA's 2011 Certified Organic Production Survey; Bernadine Strik, berry crops specialist with the OSU Extension Service.

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