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Organic Conference Educates Growers

by Jeannette Warnert, public information representative, University of California

Carolyn Foxe of C&C Vermiculture discusses her organic vermiculture operation with tour members.
Carolyn Foxe of C&C Vermiculture discusses her organic vermiculture operation with tour members.
Along with scientific solutions and novel ideas, a sense of hope for the future of organic agriculture was conveyed to farmers at the Organic Farming Conference in the San Joaquin Valley June 29-30 in Reedley, California.

Successful organic farmers, brokers of organic foods and business people who create organic inputs reminded participants that organic farmers serve a market that commercial agriculture cannot satisfy, and that market is growing."There is a strong future for organic farms," says UC Small Farm Program farm advisor Richard Molinar. "But there are also many challenges to face on the way to producing and marketing organic food."

Helping farmers overcome challenges was Molinar's goal when he set out to create the valley's first organic farming conference. He teamed up with UC Cooperative Extension, California Certified Organic Farmers, the UC Small Farm Center and Reedley College to develop an event that drew more than 100 participants. "Organic farmers are up against a lot," Molinar said. "We wanted to send them back to the farm with concrete information to put to use on their farming operations, and also the desire to maintain their commitment to natural, sustainable farming practices."

The farmers' commitment to sustainable production was galvanized by the conference's keynote speaker John Ikerd, professor emeritus of the University of Missouri and an outspoken critic of the trend in America toward large, conventional corporate farming.

Ikerd said corporate farming has served neither the farmer nor the consumer. Corporate farms increase production, which drives down prices for farmers and eliminates the connection between the farmer and the land. The environment suffers, he said, when farming systems characterized by specialization, standardization and mechanization rely on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Consolidation results in failing rural communities, he said, and leaves consumers with less nutritious, less flavorful foods.

"For farming to be sustainable, farmers must love the land they farm and each farmer can only love so much land," Ikerd said. The crowd expressed their approval of Ikerd with a spontaneous and sustained standing ovation.

"It was very validating to me to know that I am on track with someone who has done the research," said Mark McAfee, a Kerman farmer who produces organic apples, almonds, alfalfa and soon, organic milk. "My farm is a good example of sustainable agriculture."

Sessions and Tours

Conference participants spent the first afternoon in 25 breakout sessions categorized in five subject areas: vegetables, fruits and vines, soil/compost/nutrition, marketing and general. A diversity of speakers from UC Davis, UC Cooperative Extension, the UC Kearney Agricultural Center, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, Fresno State University and several private companies gave farmers the opportunity to select topics to meet their specific needs.

Three tours were organized for the second day to further tailor the conference to participants' interests. One tour began at the UC Kearney Agricultural Center, where integrated pest management plant pathologist Jim Stapleton and UC Davis entomologist Charlie Summers reviewed research that shows growing tomatoes over reflective mulches is an effective method of enhancing productivity by repelling aphids that transmit plant diseases.

The shade of towering pecan trees welcomed the group to its second stop, C & C Vermiculture, a worm composting and consulting business near Visalia. Two years ago, Carolyn Foxe and Charmaine Harris began using red worms to compost organic material on the berms between pecan trees at the Harris Ranch. The worms expedite the composting process, transforming such inputs as dairy manure, green waste, grape pomace, gin trash and other materials into a nutrient- and microbe-dense soil amendment.

This worm separator machine was custom-built for C&C Vermiculture.
This worm separator machine was custom-built for C&C Vermiculture.
Tour participants were faced with a stark contrast at New Era Farms of Visalia, a 60-acre facility where dairy manure is composted on a much larger scale. Heat waves blurred the horizon and visitors squeezed into a sliver of shade from a parked compost turner as Ralph Jurgens described how his operation creates and mixes custom blends of compost for individual farmers. Depending on the chemistry of his client's soil, a fraction of limestone, gypsum, potassium or micronutrients might be mixed into the compost after its final turn.

At the Good Bugs Insectary east of Visalia, Nick Macris explained how Aphytis wasps are reared and marketed to citrus growers for red scale control. Two-foot-long pod shaped squash are inoculated with scale. Aphytis that are later sprinkled on sting the scale and lay eggs that will hatch and be harvested for sale to farmers.

Another group of conference participants visited several successful organic farms, including the T & D Willey Farms in Madera County, where owner Tom Willey demonstrated equipment he uses to lay plastic for soil solarization and form his vegetable planting beds. The group visited Sherman Thomas Farm, where farm manager Mike Braga led a tour of its organic fruit and nut orchards. He also demonstrated a propane weed burner and showed the group an on-farm dehydrator.

The conference wasn't only for small-scale farmers. The final tour visited four large-scale organic operations, where as many as 3,000 acres of cropland are devoted to organic production. On the organic portion of John Diener's West Side farm, there were 20 acres of French fillet beans, 50 acres of sweet corn in staggered plantings and a large field of Mexican corn destined for organic tortillas.

"One of the differences we saw at the large farms was that some are farming other fields conventionally as well," Molinar said. "Organic production on the West Side was on a larger scale, but the principles and practices were virtually the same as with smaller growers."

Molinar said the conference planning team will reassemble to hold a second organic farming conference at Reedley College in May 2001.