We were proud to be featured in the Organic Link’s new monthly newsletter. Download the entire PDF here (The State of the Art of Organic Fruit Research), or read the excerpt featuring us below.
Organic citrus in Florida tests growers
Matt & Ben McLean, Uncle Matt’s Organic
Matt McLean is CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic in Clermont, Florida where he manages 1,000 acres of organic citrus. He farms with his father Ben Jr.; his brother-in-law, Alex Howell; and his brother Ben III, who holds a masters in Horticultural Sciences with an emphasis on fruit crops from the University of Florida. Ben heads Uncle Matt’s Research and Development Department.
The McLean brothers’ transition to organic production in 1999 was the natural complement to a production system pioneered by their father and grandfather that reduced off -farm inputs and limited pesticide use. The emerging organic market opportunities created by adoption of national organic standards helped persuade them to certify their operation, enabling the McLeans to find a market niche and manage their own brand.
Growing citrus in Florida carries with it a particular set of challenges, many shared by conventional and organic growers. Citrus canker is a century old problem in the region and every grower struggles with fertility management, in particular the appropriate levels of nitrogen to apply in Florida’s sandy soils. The recent emergence of the greening disease (a bacteria transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid, which damages a tree’s circulatory system and causes irregular fruit ripening) is also worrying growers in Florida and elsewhere. Organic fruit growers face particular challenges around weed control, simply because they do not have access to the synthetic herbicides available to conventional growers.
“We really don’t have economically viable, commercially available herbicide programs yet. So most of the weeds that we remove are either through mechanical cultivation or hand crews, and that’s just really expensive to do,” explains Ben McLean.
Like many small and medium sized farm operations, the McLeans conduct informal research on their acreage. At present they are focused on cover cropping the weeds that thrive in their groves.
“Let the weeds grow up. Do not mow frequently. Let them grow up tall. Th en lightly till them into the soil. Lightly, and yes, they are building organic matter and helping us with nitrogen,” says Ben McLean.
Among the most pressing needs… is funding for a national, 10-to-20- year study of ecological practices in perennial fruit crops.
which absolutely must be controlled. Other insects seem to be problems created by conventional production systems.
“Once we started working under organic conditions, we found that it was a relatively small number of arthropods that were really challenging growers and that needed new control techniques,” Swezey says.
In strawberries, lygus and spider mites are two insect pests that cannot be ignored. Lygus bugs cause distorted, unmarketable fruit and spider mites compromise photosynthesis, which can kill plants. Swezey says when the organic industry was just emerging, there were no organically approved control techniques available. He says his research helped growers develop eff ective controls.
The McLeans say there is little, if any, formal organic citrus production research underway in their region. They are working to interest researchers at the University of Florida and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in studying the role of sulfur as a nutrient to help fruit trees resist pests. They are also hoping to advance research into the multiple environmental benefits provided by organic production methods. Another possible area of study involves seeking organically certified materials that can be applied to citrus post harvest to extend shelf life in the marketplace. Ben McLean says, so far, none of these projects have received funding. He says the research universities and federal research programs have been cooperative in helping him implement his own research and to analyze data he has collected in his studies, but there is a gap when it comes to researchers initiating projects.
“Organic is so small in Florida that they don’t have the funding or the time or support behind them today to justify engaging an organic grower and trying to initiate a research project,” says Ben McLean.
There needs to be a strong, long-term focus on evaluating organic weed control methods with a similar approach needed on soil nutrients, says McLean.
“Those things have been done in the conventional industry, and they have them down to a science. The industry, the extension personnel, the ARS personnel, they can tell you how much you’ll spend per acre and what materials you need to have available. There are dozens of peer reviewed, published papers on timing and application methods and returns on investment. We are way behind on those two. That’s what we
need,” Ben McLean says. “We don’t believe in inventing the research questions and just using the farms as a place to do the work. We really want farmers’ opinions.”