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Maximizing Organic Yields

The public's enthusiasm for organic produce seems to be as strong as ever, but the economic downturn is leading many consumers to opt for cheaper non-organic store brands. Until the economy recovers (and we have to assume it will someday), it is hard to see the upward sales trends for organics being able to continue.

From a cost standpoint, organics are almost always at a disadvantage. The extra efforts involved in production and often lower yields mean that organics must be priced higher in stores. And at a time when so many home budgets are under strain, it's hard to pay extra for healthier food, no matter what benefits there may be to bodies or the environment.

For organic farmers, this is the time to look carefully at their input costs and crop yields, and consider strategies for squeezing the most out of their valuable improved soils. After many years of working with growers that employ microbial additives, I am convinced that adding the right types of mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacteria is a cost-effective method for getting higher performance from organic fields. Taking into account the price of better-quality inoculants, the best candidates are higher-value crops such as grapes, fruit trees, citrus, berries, and vegetables.

I recall a very skeptical master gardener who set up a test-control comparison of Roma tomatoes. He harvested about 50 tomatoes from a chemically fertilized plant (a good normal yield for him).... and 180 from an identical mycorrhizal-inoculated plant. He was amazed, but I think the 180 was simply the tomato plant performing at or near its full genetic potential. Those are the kind of yield increases that organic growers must aim for in order to price-compete.

This concept of yielding at full genetic potential requires a plant to be free from nutritional and moisture shortages - no essential minor or trace elements can be absent from its diet, drainage must be ideal, and diseases/pathogens must be controlled. Well, guess what - each of those issues are precisely the proven benefits of mycorrhizal fungi, which not only bring nutrients to their host plants but greatly improve and protect the soil surrounding the roots. These functions all reduce production limitations - a key point to recognize. The famous image of a barrel with staves at differing heights is appropriate - capacity is limited to the lowest opening. Plant yields can be limited by a wide variety of factors.

To quote Dr. M. Habte of the Department of Agronomy & Soil Science at the University of Hawaii, "Global interest in the fungi has now reached a point whereby any discussion of agricultural bio-technology that does not include the role of vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi is considered incomplete."

But it's not the end-all to simply introduce mycorrhizal spores to crop plantings. If some trace element is absent from the soil, then the foraging fungi cannot bring it to the host plant. Therefore, a grower should apply rock dusts that contain a broad spectrum of elements along with organic fertilizers, use limited-or no-till practices as much as possible to avoid disrupting the soil biota, and always strive to maintain large populations of beneficial microbes in soil. They need to think microscopically.

Finally, the guesswork needs to be removed from biological-organic agriculture. Bio-assays should be performed as routinely as are soil tests that measure the presence/absence of chemical elements. See our web site for a link to a good soil lab.

There is no reason that biologically-active soils cannot outperform lifeless chemically-treated soils.

Good growing, my friends,

Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics

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