Organic Farming in the Pacific Northwest w/ Sarah Del Moro
Interview with Sarah Del Moro, Crop Advisor at Wilbur-Ellis
This week, we take a look at organic farming in the Pacific Northwest with special guest Sarah Del Moro. Sarah is a crop advisor for Wilbur-Ellis and works out of Prosser, Washington. She specializes in organic production, including plant nutrition and plant physiology. In our interview, Sarah discusses three of the most successful organic crops grown in the Pacific Northwest: hops, blueberries and apples.
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TOM: Welcome today to another episode of Organics Unpacked. Today’s guest is Sarah Del Moro. Sarah is a crop advisor for Wilbur-Ellis out of Prosser, Washington, specializing in organic production.
INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower — an interview podcast where we hear from the top experts in the commercial organic industry — with a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field. You will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you ad-free by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. To learn more about Avé Organics, visit our program notes. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
TOM: Sarah, welcome to Organics Unpacked.
SARAH: Thanks, Tom. Glad to be here.
Organic Farming in Washington State
TOM: It’s really good to have you here, Sarah. So, Sarah, I’m really interested in organic production in Washington. To the listening audience, Sarah gave me a tour of some of the sites and crops a few months back, and I just found it absolutely intriguing. A guy from the Midwest that sees corn and beans almost all the time — almost every day — got to see some really interesting stuff. So, Sarah, give us a little bit of background on what you do for organic farmers and what kind of crops you work with in the state of Washington.
SARAH: Sure. Yeah, well, thanks for that intro, Tom. I’m happy to be here and talk to anyone. Yeah, in Washington state, we have a lot of diverse fruit crops, so that’s a big area of interest. As many people are aware, Washington has a large density of apple production, so it’s pretty much our state’s number-one crop. And we have other tree fruits, as well, including cherries and pears, apricots and diverse stone fruits. A large amount of blueberries, as well, are produced here, especially in the organic sector. We also have a diverse number of produce, row crops, and all of them do get produced organically, as well. And hops too, that was another fun tour to go on. We’re kind of known in the Pacific Northwest for hop production, as well, for beer and other ingredients and nutraceuticals.
Organic Hops Production
TOM: Well, always wanting to start with the most interesting crop, let’s talk about hops.
SARAH: Sure, yeah.
TOM: I mean I’ve seen hops driving down the road, but to be in a field and see them and what part of the plant they harvest and everything. But what makes hop production different from the way they’re grown, conventional agriculture to organic agriculture, Sarah?
SARAH: Oh, yeah. Well, hops are a very nutrient-demanding crop, and they put on such a huge amount of biomass every year. Probably it’s only comparison would maybe be a corn crop, but it’s an extreme amount of annual biomass from a perennial root structure. So I think that’s probably the main differentiator in methods of production for an organic hopyard compared to a conventional hopyard. It has to deal with a lot of nutrients, so soil nutrients/fertilizer.
TOM: So, in a conventional crop, how are they applied to a perennial crop like hops?
SARAH: So conventional hops, like how fertilizer is mostly used?
SARAH: I mean they’re very nitrogen-demanding, so a lot of protein. The crop itself is interesting because it’s considered an oil crop. It is meant to be harvested for things like terpenes and phenols and other flavonoids and just a whole suite of plant phytochemicals. So that is actually quite complex and can be different depending on how the crop is fertilized. So it’s very nitrogen-heavy. There are a lot of liquid nutrients applied for the nitrogen source. It’s a lot of commodity UAN-32, so urea ammonium nitrate 32%. That’s probably a big fraction of the fertilizer used, and it varies from there.
TOM: So is it applied through irrigation?
SARAH: That’s right. Through drip irrigation, yeah.
Nitrogen & Organic Hops
TOM: Okay, so thinking of producing it organically, first off, it seems like organic nitrogen is always a struggle, getting something there. Then, to get it on a perennial crop that you are looking at irrigating must even make it more challenging. How do you do that?
SARAH: That’s a good question. So it is very much about timing, and having the ability to fertigate helps us in that way because we can just apply as the crop needs it and time our nitrogen applications to match crop uptake closely. So, in organics, yeah, that can be probably one of the biggest challenges too: nitrogen timing. So that’s a big factor of consideration in organic hop production. We utilize dry compost in organics, and we utilize liquid nutrient sources, as well. So, in organic hop production, the types of nitrogen fertilizer involve compost — so dry composted sources of various kinds from just raw to pelletized versions — and the liquid portion is also a big area for us. We still like to use a lot of liquid nutrient sources in organics, and that’s really common. Probably similar mostly to California and other areas where there’s a lot of fertigation happening.
TOM: So it must increase the cost of raising hops, to use those specialized nitrogen sources instead of, like you said, UAN. What is the cost of organic hops versus maybe commercially-grown hops?
SARAH: So it varies a lot, and it varies by hop type just as much as anything. There’s a huge varietal interaction in that equation, and pest management plays a big part, as well. But yeah, I would say, just generally speaking, you can usually assume there’s about a threefold increase or so to an organic per-unit nitrogen cost, just generally. Now, that’s changing a lot right now because of our current supply chain conditions, and that ratio and relationship is fluctuating somewhat.
TOM: Well, the next time I buy organic beer, now I’ll know why it’s a little more expensive, right?
SARAH: Oh, yeah. It should be, right? And yeah, that is the way it works.
Organic Blueberry Production
TOM: So the next crop I wanted to talk to you about, Sarah, was blueberries. When I was out, I’d never seen blueberries grown before, right? Kid from Iowa. Never seen blueberries grown, but I was really intrigued by, I think, just the level of management that goes into blueberries.
SARAH: Yeah, they’re an intense crop. From even a year before they’re planted or more, they’re intense, so irrigation, soil preparation, especially in our area. Blueberries are grown in the Midwest, of course, quite well, like a lot in Missouri and Arkansas, as well. But that high organic matter, higher clay soil, it’s so much different than out here, as well, so that we have typically lower organic matter, more sand-content soils. And they do require a whole lot of adjustment, the biggest one being pH actually. We have high pH soils. Blueberries need a low pH to grow in, and that’s one of the biggest inputs we manage out here.
TOM: So, again, kind of compare and contrast conventionally-raised blueberries with organic blueberries. What are some of the similarities and the main differences?
SARAH: That’s a really fun topic to start to get into, especially as it relates to just a lot of the work that I do, those differences and similarities in pest management and fertility. So a large amount of the blueberry crop in Eastern Washington is organic. The majority of the crop grown here is organic when it comes to blueberries, and so that dominates a lot of the methods we use. So fertilizer sources are a huge difference, and we are always under the requirement, as well, with blueberries to look for more ammonium and urea-based sources of nitrogen. They cannot utilize nitrate very efficiently, and then nitrate accumulation in the soil from a lack of uptake can cause a lot of other detrimental effects to their root system and the microbiome and other things.
But that being said, there’s a huge benefit in organic fertilizer sources in that we usually don’t get — or not in most cases will we get — a huge accumulation of nitrate. We still see that trend happening. A lot of the time, everything kind of goes to nitrate in the fertilizer world, and every form of nitrogen will get there. And depending on how that biology is working in the soil, there are differences there. We’ll see that happening usually a lot less in organic production. But yeah, a lot of the other tactics that we use for pest management, there are some big differences there, but we’re fortunate in Eastern Washington to not have a lot of pests to manage. We don’t have as many fungal pathogens to address out here. We have a very favorable climate to organically produce the produce and blueberries and fruit crops in general. That’s a huge advantage regionally that plays into some of the decisions we make.
TOM: Is that largely because of just the humidity, Sarah? What makes your climate especially good?
SARAH: Yeah, the humidity is a big factor, that we don’t have the annual precipitation. We’re usually at anywhere from eight inches to 10 to 12 inches of precipitation a year in most of our regions here east of the Cascades. It’s not representative, I would say, of maybe Wenatchee. Yakima gets slightly more, but where I’m working is closer to the Columbia Basin region: a very dry, arid, semi-arid region. It’s amazing what we can grow with irrigation water, so that’s a huge asset to us in our region.
Nitrogen & Organic Blueberries
TOM: So blueberries, again, are they a heavy user of nitrogen?
SARAH: Yeah, they’re considered. I would say yes, in just conventional terms, that they are relatively more intense nitrogen users than other fruit crops.
TOM: So you talked about: they’re not very tolerant of certain nitrogen forms. What type of nitrogen do you use on blueberry crops? Organic blueberries?
SARAH: So I’ll start with just what we’re doing conventionally first. That seems like a good starting place. Often, we’re looking for sources of urea, or ammonium sulfate is really common. Those are the things that the blueberry plant more efficiently uses based on its physiology and where its natural habitat is, so organic sources are really beneficial for blueberries in that way. It’s almost all liquid fertilizer, even in organics, and that is usually sourced from corn steep liquor-based fertilizers. There are different manure extractions and slurries. There are emulsions, fish sources and just different organic sources for liquid. Soy protein hydrolysate, for nitrogen only, that’s another one, but the main ones for nitrogen only are usually corn steep liquor, soy protein hydrolysate or some concentrated forms of animal-based liquid sources.
TOM: It seems like those products would be hard to get on. How do you get them on the blueberry crop?
SARAH: Yeah, that is a huge challenge in blueberries, that we have to fertilize based on the number of irrigation sets that we can physically achieve. So we’re limited. Our fertility program is entirely limited by how much irrigation we’re putting on. We don’t want to over-irrigate just to apply fertilizers. So irrigation is our number-one concern, and fertilizers take a backseat to that in most cases. That’s the main challenge.
TOM: I seem to remember that you talked about having to uncover the rows at times to fertilize. Is that right? To kind of push back the mulch?
SARAH: Yeah, I hesitated earlier on talking about how everything organic is a liquid, for the most part, out here. Everything in blueberries is mostly applied as a liquid form because of the cost that is required in removing and replacing the weed mat. So we use a fabric weed mat in most of the production areas in our region. There are a few exceptions to that, but the cost, really, of a labor crew to remove that weed mat from the planted row — and then to have a dry fertilizer application in the row and then go back and recover — it exceeds the value often that we see from a dry fertilizer application. So it’s only every few years that that’s done, or it’s opportunistic. If they have to replace the weed mat, then we go in with dry, just to have that opportunity to help adjust the soil pH with some elemental sulfur and just do some things that are more economical than our liquid scenario that we’re in.
TOM: Always a challenge you don’t think about, right?
SARAH: There’s always something. It’s ‘whack-a-mole’ for the most part.
Organic Apple Production
TOM: So when we were looking, standing in that field this summer, we were looking at blueberries, and then right next to it were the apples, right? So let’s talk a little bit about organic apples because there are a lot of apples, obviously, that come out of the state of Washington. Do you have any idea of what percent of those are grown organically?
SARAH: I’m a little less in tune with that, and it’s such a fluctuating number, as well. So it’s regionally divided, as well. So a lot more of the apples in the Columbia Basin area, or what we call Lower Yakima Valley, are produced organically than apples produced in the Northern or Western districts, up near Wenatchee and other places. And a lot of that, again, is from climate. We take advantage of climate. It varies tremendously by the apple variety, as well. If it’s a club variety or one of these very proprietary high-demand varieties, then the novelty of having it organic is less valuable than the novelty of an organic Gala, just as an example. So it varies widely by variety too.
TOM: So a novice question: is it once organic or inorganic apple always? I mean, if you have an apple orchard, right? I mean, for years and years, can you go between organic and inorganic apples? Like here, we have like a three-year period. Can you do that in an apple orchard too?
SARAH: Well, we still have that same 36-month rule on transitional time from a conventional block to an organic block. I don’t see it happening very often in a mature apple orchard. Most of the time, if that’s already certified organic, they’re going to leave it that way, the exceptions being only if there are some major pest issues that really cannot be controlled for in that block. But most of the time, we don’t run into any issues with keeping something organically-produced in organic production, and that’s from my own perspective, of course. When we rip out a block or change varieties or change planting density, what have you, on those development decisions, then, usually, blocks start out as a conventional in a conventional situation for various reasons. Maybe the grower wants to fumigate, or there are also some economics to capture conventional nutrients for a young tree. That’s also not always the case. If it’s an organic acre, there’s value in keeping it that way and capturing an early organic market.
Lifespan of Organic Apples, Blueberries & Hops
TOM: So how long does an apple orchard last, Sarah?
SARAH: Oh, well, I’ve seen some that are decades old. They’re a tree. Trees are long-lived. I mean they’ll live longer than we can. The lifetime and depreciation of an orchard has a lot more to do with the market. And yeah, I would say, for apples, it has a lot more to do with the market. If it’s cherries, it can have a lot more to do with something like a virus.
TOM: So, as the tree matures after a certain point in time, I assume the production goes down?
SARAH: It depends. Pruning becomes more difficult. Pruning for adequate fruiting sites on that tree becomes a little more challenging as you get a lot of mature wood and the tree structure continues to shape and wood and diameter and trunk size continue. But actually, I mean, most mature trees have a very positive relationship with how much bearing wood they have and how much crop capacity they have with good structure. So I think a lot of that tends to be on horticultural decisions, management decisions of the tree at that point. I’ve seen very productive orchards that are 40 years old.
TOM: So, going backwards, then, what’s the lifetime of a blueberry stand?
SARAH: Blueberries, so that’s another interesting consideration. They are differently structured plants, so they have the ability to spread. They’re a bush, so just totally different from an apple. An apple is going to form a trunk, and it’s not really going to spread. They’ll have suckers. They can naturally spread that way, but blueberries are a bush. So they also can be quite long-lived if you want to consider just the life of the crown. In commercial agriculture, I would say that the blueberry lifespan is probably a bit less than in its natural environment. In glade kind of areas where they normally are found, they can just continue on as a bush and spread almost forever. So it would probably be a very long-lived plant. So, commercially, their crown is sort of restricted and managed to be in a certain planted area. And that can eventually cause some decline as the crown becomes unhealthy, so that underground portion. Unhealthy or old, the dead parts of the crown can cause rot and different things. It’s a huge root system — crown system — often shallow. So there are some considerations there, but I’ve known of some blueberry plantings in Western Oregon that are also decades old. It can be quite long-lived.
TOM: So, going back to where we started, how about hops?
SARAH: Oh, hops also. Yeah, hops can live, I mean, a long time. It’s a similar situation. The hop plant has that crown system underground, and that crown is considered the plant. It’s a rhizomatous plant. It produces rhizomes, which are also considered that same plant, but it gets confusing after a while. One rhizome can turn into a new crown, and so on and so forth, so similar to the progression of a bush. But the plant itself — those hopyards — I’ve seen hopyards that are 50 years old. This is very rare nowadays because hopyards have encountered a recent surge in the craft brewing segment market with demand for new varieties. So that’s just taken over, and most of the varieties that we used 20 years ago are no longer used today. So there’s a huge shift. That’s largely the reason for new hopyards. But same thing: viruses commercially can take over and depreciate a hopyard quickly. But if it’s in a natural environment, there are some wild-type hops that are just growing in ditches and everything. They have basically been there. They could have been there 100 years.
TOM: Is hops a native to Washington?
SARAH: So yes and no. There are native wild types in almost every region of the world. They’re a very, very old plant, so it depends on where your relative definition of native comes from because this is like a millennia-old plant. But yes, for the most part, yes, North America has a lot of native hops.
Organic Food in the Pacific Northwest
TOM: Interesting. So, switching gears, Sarah, I know that Washington’s kind of a special place for the organic setting. People probably have a little bit of a different mindset about food and how it’s produced there, so let’s talk about Washington and the Pacific Northwest. How do farmers and consumers maybe approach organic foods or sustainably-raised foods differently than maybe what the rest of the United States would be like?
SARAH: This is such a great question. So a little background: I certainly have some opinions on this, just from working in organics for so many years and being from the PNW, as well. I grew up in Oregon and went to college at Oregon State University and got a master’s degree in soil science from there. I’ve worked in organics from the soil side to the consumer side. It’s the same relationship that does exist in other states. I’ve also lived and worked in other states like Missouri. People desire that connection to food. A lot of the organic consumers are based in metropolitan areas, so cities. That’s a huge density. There’s some data out there on that. But even if you just go to grocery stores that are in Seattle and then come to grocery stores that are in Prosser, you’re going to see that the general trend is that there are more organic offerings in those urban centers, largely driven by consumer interest in having a safety net and having a little connection, I believe, to agriculture. So those people who are farthest from agriculture and least connected see this as a hard scenario, like how do you decide what to eat? Food is so important to everything we do. We all eat. One thing that urban centers have figured out is food as an art form. There are a lot of different restaurants with great places in urban centers everywhere.
There’s also the absolute opposite of that in urban centers, which is just whatever you can eat, basically, to get by. So it’s both of those things, all in a confluence in one place. Whereas in the rural areas, things are a little different. We’re more connected to our farms. We’re a bit more understanding of how agriculture works, and so there’s maybe a little less apprehension over a conventionally-produced piece of food, whatever it may be. But I definitely see that we have a strong demand in our state for organically-produced food, and we also have a bit more ease of production for organic food than a lot of places that deal with more pathogens or environmental restrictions to producing it. There’s a lot of interest in the nutritional aspects too. I mean, similar to what your guest Dr. Gene Lester was talking about, with just the nutritional value and the various quality of organic food, that does matter to people out here. We always look at it intensely. We’re always looking for how to price things. That’s another aspect of organic production. How does any farm actually maintain the quality of not only what they’re producing, but the land they’re producing it on? We can’t treat a farm like a manufacturing facility. Soil is very different in that way, so we can’t really control everything that happens there. So those are some things that dominate conversations in Washington state about organic production.
TOM: I always think it’s weird that for us that are embedded in agriculture day in and day out — maybe our parents farmed or whatever — we tend to take our food very much for granted. I mean we know where it comes from, right? But we don’t really think about: what if it were produced differently? And I think, oftentimes, people that are more removed from agriculture tend to think more about: is this the best kind of food for me? It just seems strange to me how that works out.
SARAH: It’s an interesting truth, yeah. There are different and more questions that come from someone removed from an industry, the difference here being this weird area where everyone needs to eat. No matter what, they’re attached to this food. They’re attached to that farm, one way or another. So I think they realize that more and more, and people do realize this more and more. That’s something I think is a very positive thing that’s happening.
Resilience of Organic Production
TOM: I think there’s a lot of research that needs to be done on nutrient density, and does it matter and what matters. Yeah, going back to one of my earlier guests, as you mentioned, when does it matter? What crops does it matter under? There are just so many things that are yet to be figured out in the food system. But one last question I would have for you, Sarah, is that farmers that are using organic production, are they finding a difference in their operation in resilience or insect management? What are the benefits they’re getting out other than selling an organic crop?
SARAH: So this question about the resilience of organic production, I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with both conventional and organic farms, sometimes both on the same farm. And it’s a really good example of what the differences are, where we can compare blocks of apples or blueberries that are produced conventionally right next to the same one organically. In our region — and this is what’s fun about working at Wilbur-Ellis too — there’s a lot of crossover tactics that we use. So soft chemistry is a big term that we rely on here. We’re very understanding of the value of beneficial insects, and that is used across the board in organic and conventional. But in organic, we are forced to use softer chemicals, and that’s a positive for all the beneficial insects. Obviously, there are some things, still, that we have to be careful of, and that’s generally just balance. It’s about balance. We still can’t overuse things in organics and have a perfect situation, but there are things that organic crops dealt with better this year that we got to see firsthand that we don’t normally. Some of that was related to the extreme heat that we had. There were a lot of very significant differences in resilience of the tree or the blueberry bush or the hopyard from all the primary and secondary things that were affecting us from that heat event. And some of the secondary things were diseases, spider mites, various pests that occurred, and I’ve never had it exemplified better than ever before than 2021 in that resilience because of how hot we got. We got up to 115 degrees for several days in a row. Irrigation was just difficult. The crops were not transpiring.
The soil was usually saturated in most places with attempts to just kind of keep water on the crop. It was a wonderful example of how a lot of organic production and organic crops can handle different things that are happening environmentally. So another facet to that is the nutrition side. Now, this is my favorite area to work in: plant nutrition and plant physiology. So the nutrition side is interesting because a lot of our tactics for delivering, let’s say, calcium to an apple — this is a huge area — calcium in blueberries and cherries are similar. They need to get more calcium into the fruit. It improves quality directly, so one of the best ways to do that is by using the right form of calcium and taking advantage of research that’s been done already on calcium mobility through a plant. How we do that is making the best possible environment for roots because calcium uptake has a direct correlation with new root tips in that the physiology of plants and calcium uptake is very linked to root health. Another one is when we apply foliar calcium, we actually use an organic foliar calcium for everything, whether it’s conventional or organic. One of the reasons why is because we have seen better uptake of that calcium molecule by using an organic formulation that has amino acids in it, and there is a whole body of research that supports this too, with the mineral nutrition of plants and how plants react to things. Glycine, for example, is an amino acid molecule — the smallest one that plants can take in with calcium — and it’s known to improve calcium mobility through a plant and into fruit. So those are tactics that we use and are considered organic that are hugely beneficial to all crop production. But where they’re used the most on the organic acre is where we get to see them exemplified even more.
TOM: So some of those tactics that you’re using in organic farming are really paying off in resilience and improved production.
SARAH: Yes, yes.
What You Should Know about Wilbur-Ellis
TOM: Well, Sarah, obviously, the farmers in your area, especially the organic farmers, are lucky to have you and Wilbur-Ellis there at their side and helping them out. What a great resource. If you had two minutes alone with a farmer, and you’re sitting in a coffee shop, and they want to know: Sarah, why should I choose Wilbur-Ellis for my organic farming needs? In two minutes, what would you want them to know about Wilbur-Ellis and their approach to organic production?
SARAH: Sure. Yeah, I would say that I usually bring up that I farm myself, as well. I do have a small farm, as well, and the value from Wilbur-Ellis in organic farming has to do with three main things. So one is the leverage in organic nutrient supply. That is an issue, that many suppliers that aren’t focused on organic production just simply don’t have an offering. So we have more than 100 different kinds of organic fertilizers that fit a farm’s certain needs, so we can actually be prescriptive with organic farming. We care. Wilbur-Ellis cares about things that are not just fertilizer and chemicals. We care a lot about what technologies may help a farm place fertilizer better, so we’re utilizing technologies that help us map the soil like soil optics. We’re using technologies that help us identify the microbiome and the species in the microbiome, so soil sampling practices, best agricultural practices. We love cover cropping and the idea of green mulch for plants. So we really promote these things that aren’t normal for a retailer, that are hugely impactful to the health of the farm, as well as their bottom line. And lastly, we just have an amazing team of people. I work with people from California, from Wilbur-Ellis in Oregon, in Michigan, in these different regions where everyone focuses on organic production and/or just sustainable farming. Specialty crops, too, is a big deal. So Wilbur-Ellis has this team of people. We offer services, as well, in organic certification audits, regulatory and sustainability certifications. That’s a huge deal, and that’s a huge part of the work for a farm to take on when considering organic production. So we help along the way with more than just the fertilizer and the chemical option. My favorite part about Wilbur-Ellis, personally, is all of the fertilizer and the nutrient options and the services that are provided around cover crops and mulching and these different tactics.
TOM: Yeah, it is unusual that an ag retailer takes such a holistic approach to anything, but certainly it sounds like Wilbur-Ellis takes a nice, holistic approach to organic farming, regardless of the crop.
SARAH: That’s a great way of putting it, Tom. Yeah, holistic and wholesome involvement and understanding at a very deep level, that just helping the soil produce and helping the farmer with the soil is a huge aspect of what we do.
TOM: Well, Sarah, thanks for joining us. You bring a totally different perspective coming from the Pacific Northwest. One of those places that when you talk about organic production, it always comes up, but it’s really nice to have an expert talk about it. Hope you’ll come back on Organics Unpacked again soon and talk about another subject, and we’ll invite you back soon.
SARAH: Well, thank you very much, Tom. I’d be happy to. And I’m always learning, as well, and enjoy the podcast, so I’ll be staying tuned.
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