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Michigan Organic 


January 11, 2010




Inside Organics - Open the Henhouse Doors! by Harriet Behar

After more than eight years of focused debate, the National Organic Program recently put in place clear and quantifiable regulations detailing pasture access for ruminant animals.  The discussion on outdoor access for poultry has been going on for just as long, but was overshadowed by the problem of organic confinement dairies.  There are many similarities in the debate between the access to pasture for ruminants and the access to outdoors for poultry.   Both the confinement dairy and poultry folks state that their animals can be better cared for within a controlled environment. 
Contrary to the belief that all large organic farms are “bad actors” and small family run farms are always the best model, I believe that the lack of outdoor access for chickens is not a big versus small issue, nor a corporate versus family farm issue, either.  It is true that on a smaller scale it is easier to provide the outside access required in our organic regulation, but large farms who want to meet the regulation can do it with some forethought when planning their buildings and system.  When we focus the debate on large versus small we lose sight of the real issue.

The real question is whether an industrial model is one that should be embraced by the organic community.  Those in favor state that the efficiencies that come with large, confinement poultry houses offer organic food at a “more reasonable” price, making it more available to the general public and not just for the affluent in our society.  Many also state that the welfare and health of the birds can be better maintained in a controlled environment, rather than the great outdoors which brings the danger of coccidiosis, avian flu, and other wild bird transmitted diseases.  Does it make sense to provide the consumer a more reasonably priced product, at the expense of lowered standards?  Does this really increase the demand for organic products, or leave organic food open to criticism that it is not any better than conventional production?  Is the difference between organic and non organic only the non use of the most toxic materials, or is it also a type of production that respects and nurtures natural systems, including the natural behavior of animals?

There are two parts to this discussion.  First, what does the regulation actually say, and what interpretation best meets the rule’s true meaning?  Second, what type of poultry production model fits not just the wording, but is compatible with the general understanding of what organic agriculture is?  The regulation is quite general, stating only that access to the outdoors is necessary for poultry.  What does this mean?  One small door at the end of a 1,000 foot long building?  An outside area with a wooden floor, roof and screens, in other words an enclosed porch area?  How about just having open windows when the weather is nice?  I believe these narrow interpretations are very far off the mark of what was intended when the regulation was written, and absolutely do not meet the expectation of the organic consumer.

The organic egg business has grown rapidly in the past 10 years. Many conventional egg producers entered the marketplace by transitioning their current large confinement chicken houses to organic by taking out cages and allowing the birds to “free range” within the buildings and changing their diet to organic feed.  Their buildings did not have enough land around them to offer an outside run area, especially for the large numbers of birds in each house.  Other producers saw a business opportunity and purchased bankrupt conventional poultry houses at a good price. With a little bit of remodeling were ready for “organic” production.  They cannot offer their birds outside runs where the birds get direct sunshine, scratch and dust themselves and generally express their “chickeness.”  It is amazing to me that a minimally modified, failed industrial system of poultry production has been so easily accepted as organic.  These large producers have stated at National Organic Standards Board meetings that they provide the majority of the organic eggs in the United States.  If outside access would be mandated, they say they would go out of business and there would be great disruption to the organic marketplace. Should this rationale be used for the continued allowance of these confinement operations? 

The National Organic Program interpretation that a small enclosed porch is “outside access” has been in place for almost a decade.  Organic certification agencies (it seems, with the approval of the NOP) bestow organic certification on operations that do not have any outdoor access at all for their birds.  Other operations offer small pens for many thousands of birds, where there are few doors and the birds rarely venture outside.  The regulation does not give certifiers the authority to require more doors, larger pens, or even placing food and water outside for a few weeks to get the birds accustomed to being outside. 

Many egg laying birds are raised in pullet houses where they do not go outside, which is explained to be needed in order to allow the vaccinations they have received to become effective.  When they are moved to the new house where they mature and become egg layers, they have no familiarity with sky, wind, sun, soil or living plants.  Putting a few feeders and waterers outside an open door should be sufficient incentive to get them outside.  But if a certifier mandates this, a producer could appeal the requirement and would probably not have to perform this task.  The regulation as currently written does not give support to actually having the birds outside, only that the birds have “access” to the outdoors.

In addressing these issues it does not matter who owns or operates the facility, how large the operation is, nor how many birds they have.  What does matter is that the system in place respects the need for these creatures to breathe fresh air, scratch in the dirt, eat bugs, and flap their wings.  Any size operation can set up rotationally grazed areas, offering fresh greens to the birds periodically, while at the same time lessening their exposure to soil borne diseases.  Vaccinations are useful for the vast majority of the wild bird diseases, and providing both indoor and outdoor living areas lessens the rapid spread of disease that can happen in high density enclosed confinement houses.  There are examples around the country of viable organic commercial poultry operations where the birds spend time outside as weather permits.  These birds are healthy and productive.  The producers are making an acceptable living and the consumer is truly getting a superior product.  The confinement model of livestock production is not compatible with organic agriculture and should be rejected.

Organic agriculture is about finding a better way to farm that mimics as much as possible the elegant natural systems around us.  The excitement of being an organic farmer comes from experimenting with ways to enhance our environment and integrating agriculture with nature.  Organic ruminant livestock has a quantifiable and clear regulation detailing what “access to pasture” means.  It is time for the National Organic Program to put a date on ending the allowance of organic confinement poultry operations and provide all non ruminant animals the opportunity to be outdoors.

Source: MOSES, The Organic Broadcaster, http://www.mosesorganic.org/broadcastercurrent.html#inside



Soil Trace Elements and the Organic Farmer, by Gary Zimmer


Just like in the production of a grass-fed animal, quality and care is what the consumer pays for and supports the farmer to provide.  Crop and organic dairy production are the same: the consumer is paying for a “system” of farming along with great tasting, nutritious food. Is there a perfect way for everyone? I believe that the consumer is paying me for nutrient rich, tasty, cleanly raised foods following a sustainable farming method.
 A common sense plan needs:
1)  Testing of both soils and plants.
2) A plan for maintaining and building mineral levels for many nutrients, including traces.
3) A monitoring system that over time watches for extreme excesses and maintains soil levels and ratios. This is also true for major elements like potassium, which at extreme levels can cause many problems.

Read Full Article at MOSES, The Organic Broadcaster, http://www.mosesorganic.org/broadcastercurrent.html#inside



Organic Labeling Videos


The Minnesota Department of Agriculture just released the first of a series of six videos, to help consumers cut through the confusion of organic labeling.  Meg Moynihan, the MDA organic specialist, wanders through store aisles, picking up products, and exploring and explaining the details of labels on organic products. The videos can be found on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/mnagriculture.



Disaster Assistant Program


2010 Ag Security Disaster Declaration Counties


 Important information for any plant producer who may have had a 10% yield loss from average in 2010.


Almost all lower Michigan and nearly half of the UP lie in the current 2010 Secretary of Agriculture Disaster County Declarations for the 2010 production year.  Producers in these counties, who had a 10% Yield loss on one crop of significance, are eligible for the Supplemental Revenue or SURE program.  Fundamentally SURE works in concert with crop insurance to provide an additional 15% coverage on a whole farm (all crops combined) calculation.  Producers did not need to collect on crop insurance to be “in-the-money” on SURE.  SURE covers all crops including fruits, vegetables, grains, forage crops, perennials, ornamentals, greenhouse, nursery and other horticultural crops.  Revenue is calculated by “Yield X Price”.   Depending on the crop, prices are determined by USDA from National, State or Local prices both for the “SURE Guarantee” and for the “SURE Actual Revenue”.  Yields are determined from the producers actual production.  SURE pays 60% of the difference between the “SURE Guarantee” and  the “Actual Revenue”.  The “SURE Guarantee” cannot be more than  90% of the “Expected Revenue”.  $100,000 is the maximum payment per producer. 

Source: Roger Betz, SW MI District Extension Farm Management, https://www.msu.edu/user/betz/

For more information on SURE visit, http://www.fsa.usda.gov/FSA/webapp?area=home&subject=diap&topic=sure.







Pruning High-Density Orchards by Terence Robinson, Cornell University


Modern high-density orchard systems such as the tall spindle are based on simple pruning concepts that include minimal pruning in the early years and limb-renewal pruning at maturity.


Pruning is always a matter of compromise, since pruning has both positive and negative effects. The benefits of proper pruning include improved light penetration into the canopy, containment of tree size, renewal of bearing surface and improved spray penetration into the canopy.


Young trees


One of the most significant differences between the tall spindle and the more traditional central-leader tree management is that the tree is not headed at planting, whether it is a whip or a feathered tree. The lack of heading allows development of a tall and more slender tree more quickly, and also results in earlier flowering – since pruning delays flowering.


Another of the important techniques is limb bending. When limb bending is combined with the lack of heading in young trees, significant early cropping can be achieved in the second year. With the tall spindle, all of the feathers should be tied or weighted below the horizontal soon after planting to induce cropping and prevent them from developing into substantial lower scaffolds. The pendant position results in a weak fruiting branch instead of a scaffold branch.


This simple change in tree management allows for long-term cropping of many feathers and little invasive pruning for the first five years. After the initial tying or weighting down of feathers at planting, new lateral branches that arise along the leader do not need to be tied down. In most climates, if moderate vigor lateral shoots arising along the leader are not pruned, they will bend below horizontal in the third year and a natural balance between vigor and cropping will be established without additional limb positioning.


Mature trees


When tall spindle trees pass year five, they are considered mature; a simple repetitive pruning process of limb renewal is implemented which is fast, has a minimal number of cuts, results in good light distribution and is easily taught. The tall spindle is essentially a 10-foot trunk with small fruiting branches inserted all along its length.


The basic tree structure can be developed in only three years, since the central leader is not cut (headed) at planting. The pruning of the tall spindle tree can be simplified into three steps.


Limiting tree height. The leader is not headed at planting or for the first 4-5 years until mature tree height has been achieved. Usually, in year six – after heavy cropping in the top has begun – the leader is cut annually to a small side branch at the optimum height, where light interception is maximized without causing excessive shading of the lower canopy. Our experiments have shown this height to be about 90 percent of the between-row distance.


Branch caliper management. When a lateral branch in the tall spindle tree gets too long or too big in diameter, it is removed – allowing a smaller replacement branch to develop. To limit the negative effects of pruning on vegetative vigor, we limit the number of branches to be removed each year to just two. However, if this is repeated annually the tree never develops any large branches and continues from an early to an old age to have only small fruitful branches, which give the tree a narrow, slender shape.


To assure the development of a replacement branch, the large branch should be removed with an angled or beveled cut so that a small stub of the lower portion of the branch remains. From this stub a flat, weak replacement branch often grows.


After trees reach maturity, lower branches, including some of the original feathers, become too large and are systematically removed. As the trees age, the top of the tree tends to overgrow the bottom. To prevent this problem and to maintain good light distribution and good fruit quality, the top of the tree must be kept narrower than the bottom of the tree. Maintaining a conic shape as the trees age is critical to maintaining good light exposure and fruit quality in the bottom of the tree.


A successful approach to managing the tops of trees has been to annually remove one to two of the larger upper branches using a bevel cut. If the replacement shoots, which arise from these cuts, are left unheaded they will naturally bend down with the crop. When this style of pruning is repeated annually, the top of the tree can be composed completely of young fruitful branches. The younger branches do not cause as much shade as larger, older branches, and are naturally shorter than the bottom branches – thus maintaining the conic shape of the tree.


Columnarizing or simplifying the fruiting branches. The remaining branches in the tree should be columnarized or simplified (secondary side branches larger than one half of the diameter of the branch should be removed, leaving each branch as a long fruiting column) to improve fruit coloring.


A columnar branch covered with spurs and fruit will cast less shade on the lower part of the tree than a complex branch. When columnarized branches become too long or too large in diameter, they are removed through the annual removal of one to two large branches per tree.


The key objectives for a new high-density orchard are to maximize yield in the early years and still efficiently produce large yields of high-quality fruit after the trees are mature. Since large branches contribute to the development of large trees, the tall spindle trees – which have no large scaffold branches – remain small and easily managed for many years.


The removal of whole branches instead of heading back branches helps limit the adverse effects of pruning on tree vegetative vigor while maintaining a balance of vegetative growth and cropping. Although these principles apply specifically to the tall spindle system, they can be applied to all other apple growing systems.


Source: The Fruit Growers New.com, January 2011 Issue, http://fruitgrowersnews.com



Finding Right Genes Could Speed Up Apple Breeding by Matt Milkovich, The Fruit Growers News.com


In the last decade or so, apple varieties – even traditional varieties like Red Delicious – have gotten better. Traits like taste and pressure have improved. Tools that weren’t available even 10 years ago – 1-MCP, Retain, CA storage – along with a greater understanding of the best ways to grow, harvest and store fruit, have increased the quality of apples in general, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.


As helpful as those new tools have been, they haven’t managed to speed up the breeding process. It still takes years for a breeder to learn if an apple variety has the right characteristics for the marketplace. Even if it does, decades can go by before the variety is ready to be marketed and sold. From the first cross to the final release, the entire process can take up to 30 years. Growers and retailers don’t want to wait that long.


As a cherry breeder for Michigan State University, Amy Iezzoni is familiar with the frustrations and long waits apple breeders experience. If there were some way to test a variety for its commercial potential beforehand, instead of waiting years for seedlings to grow, it would save a lot of time and money. Such testing would allow a breeder like  Iezzoni to concentrate her resources on more promising varieties, and pump those out faster than has happened in the past.


The secret to speeding up the breeding process most likely lies within the apple’s genes. The genetic approach is new to apple breeding, but Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, expects to see more of it in the next few years.


So does Iezzoni, who’s also director of the RosBREED project. RosBREED is a collaborative effort to speed up the development of fruit in the Rosaceae family. Apples, peaches, cherries and strawberries are part of that family and share many genetic traits.


USDA provided $7.2 million to fund RosBREED – matched by in-kind funding from participating institutions and organizations, for a total budget of $14.4 million. Twenty-seven people from 12 universities are participating in the project, which is in the process of surveying breeders, growers, packers, shippers and everybody else in the chain about what kind of traits they’re looking for in rosaceous fruit. It will take some time for all the data to be compiled, but the end result should give breeders better direction in the future. Some of the data will be ready by the time RosBREED participants meet in East Lansing, Mich., in March, Iezzoni said.


Of great help to apple-breeding efforts: The apple genome (the totality of its genetic information) was just recently sequenced. This breakthrough will “allow scientists to more rapidly identify which genes provide desirable characteristics to the fruit and which genes and gene variants provide disease or drought resistance to the plant,” according to Washington State University.


There’s still a huge gap, however, between sequencing the apple genome and the practical application of that knowledge. Iezzoni and others are starting to close that gap, looking for the “jewels in the genome” – genes that control traits like flavor and texture, she said.


Of course, genetically modifying fruit is not without controversy. Some people are “freaked out” by the idea, considering it unsafe, but attitudes seem to be improving. The genetic approach has so much potential, it’s not something that can be easily discarded, said Kate Evans, the head of Washington State University’s apple breeding program.


David Bedford, an apple breeder with the University of Minnesota, said the apple varieties currently in the marketplace represent only a “tiny bandwidth” of the potential in the fruit’s germplasm. We might see some very interesting apples in the future, he said.


Source: The Fruit Growers New.com, January 2011 Issue, http://fruitgrowersnews.com

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