Growing Practices In-Depth
Overview. Organic on our farm is a system of growing food that goes beyond just not using synthetic fertilizers and harmful chemicals. We strive to build healthy soil as a basis for plant and human health. A biologically active soil will provide plants the minerals and nutrients they need to be healthy, and in turn provide us with nutrient rich food.
We also work to create a healthy, diverse ecosystem on our farm. We've planted native prairie strips to provide habitat for pollinators and other insects. We have left wooded areas around the perimeter to provide habitat for birds and other animals. We lose some berries every year to birds and our plants sustain some damage from deer and other wildlife, but we view that as part of growing food in a living environment as opposed to a sterile one.
Weeds. In general, all of our weeding is done by hand (yes on hands and knees pulling weeds) and with a string trimmer (aka weed whip). Over the past couple years we have trialed using vinegar in the blueberry fields to kill a particularly challenging weed, Canada thistle. Click here to read more about that project. This year (2018) we are going to trial using landscape fabric in our blueberry fields to smother out weeds and cut down on the amount of time we spend hand weeding using the weed whip. In our strawberry fields we use plastic to control weeds. While we we don't like using plastic and the waste it creates once we are done using, we view it as a necessary tradeoff which frankly helps make our farm viable. Without the plastic, we would spend an incredible amount of time weeding our strawberries, which means we either couldn't grow them organically or the price would be twice what it is currently.
Insects. There are "organic" pesticides that are allowed under the organic standards. They are naturally occurring compounds that are made by other plants or animals to protect themselves. We use these products very sparingly and use all other strategies we have to control insects before using an organic pesticide. While we believe they are much less harmful than the pesticides used in conventional agriculture, we prefer to play it safe and not expose our fruit, our employees, or our customers to any pesticides.
A relatively new invasive pest called the Spotted Wing Drosophila (SWD) is causing a lot of damage in blueberries in Minnesota and all across the U.S. Sadly, this new insect has led to a significant increase in the amount of pesticides sprayed on blueberries, both locally and nationally. It is now common to hear blueberry growers and university researchers state that growing blueberries organically, without using organic pesticides is impossible. We believe that it is not impossible, but needless to say it has become very difficult. We employ a variety of preventative measures to keep the population of SWD low on our farm. We only consider using an organic pesticide as an absolute last resort to stave off a crop failure caused by SWD.
Diseases. Bacteria and fungi are all around us. There are always going to be times when growing fruit that the weather and conditions are right to allow a fungal disease outbreak to take hold in the field. Our first strategy to combat disease started before we planted our blueberries. We chose to plant our blueberries on a hill to ensure good air circulation. The quicker the plant's leaves dry out, the less time a fungal disease has to get established. Our second strategy is to focus on growing healthy plants. Healthy plants can fight off, or at least lessen, the severity of disease outbreaks. We then aggressively prune out all dead or diseased branches to keep diseases from spreading in our blueberry patch. Even with all these efforts, disease outbreaks can and will happen. This represents the inherent risk in farming and also what makes farming so much fun and so challenging, giving us the opportunity to constantly learn and grow and try new things.