The main purpose of this project is evaluate a completely new method of renovating cranberry farms by employing technology utilized in other sectors of agriculture. No one has ever tried planting rooted cranberry cuttings with a no-till transplanter. Cranberry growers have only used a traditional transplanter, going into in a deep clean sand surface. As with no-till in conventional crops, adoption must be preceded by a change in the ‘mind set’ that the soil surface must be clean and free of residue. If successful, my on-farm research and demonstration project will provide real-life results that can be showcased to the grower community.
If no-till transplanting is a viable method of changing varieties for growers, it could revolutionize the renovation of cranberry bogs. It will reduce the resource intensity of sand use and excavation of soil that comes with traditional renovation. It will reduce renovation costs by as much as 75 percent per acre.
Cranberries are the number one food crop in MA with a $69 million farm gate value, supporting more than 60,000 acres of open space and providing over 6,900 jobs. Over 60 percent of the nearly 400 cranberry growers produce on no more than 20 acres, making the industry made up of many individual small family farms. Cranberries are economically important to the state and the region; however, many Massachusetts cranberry bogs are still producing on the same vine/varieties that were planted over 100 years ago. Cranberry growers who wish to remain profitable must renovate their older producing acreage to more high-yielding large-fruited varieties. This will not only improve yields, but will allow growers to produce the specific type of berries needed to grow the market. Roughly fifty percent of the planted acreage in Massachusetts is native small fruit varieties which are low yielding and have limited utilization in the marketplace. The manufacturing of sweeten dried cranberries, a targeted segment of the marketplace, requires a specific size and quality of fruit produced by the newer hybrids varieties. Renovation is both a resource and capital intensive process. Traditional renovations involve removing the existing vine and soil, creating a disposal challenge for the volume of soil in excess of 1,000-2,000 cubic yards per to be removed. New layer of sand (a nonrenewable resource) is applied at a depth of 6-10” using roughly 1,100 cubic yards of sand per acre, at a cost of almost $14,300 per acre (includes transportation costs). Sand has historically been used as a propagation medium for traditional vine cuttings, but is questionable if needed for rooted cuttings that I am using in this project. If sand is available on-site, it can still cost $5,000 per acre to screen and spread. Additionally growers will replace the irrigation system as a result of damage caused by the construction activities in the renovation process, at a cost of $2,000-3,000 per acre.
My project will evaluate two innovative techniques that may offer an approach that is not so disruptive to the environment or destroy the soil microorganisms, does not require the heavy use of limited sand resources, is cost effective and will provide an important tool to promote the long term economic results required for cranberry farms to be remain viable.
The project set out to determine if no-till renovation was possible from a mechanical, horticultural and economic perspective. The project took place on 2 plots of roughly equal size. One consisted of the variety Howes and the second a vigorous vegetative variety called Whiting Randell’s. Total area of project was .93 acre.
In consultation with my advisor we evaluated using a few different options to kill off the existing vegetation. Glyphosate was ultimately chosen for its broad spectrum kill and ability to translocate throughout plant. A main concern was that we did not want to experience any regrowth of the old cranberry varieties which would jeopardize the purity of the bed if it contained more than one variety.
The first step in the project was to kill the existing cranberry vines and weeds. We sprayed the plots with Glyphosate on May 9, 2018. Our Advisor made a site visit on May 14 to discuss the effectiveness and to trouble shoot why we did not experience the dieback expected. There was some cooler then average weather following the application which slowed the effectiveness of the spray. We began to see dieback on the 10-14days following application. A second Glyphosate application was made on May 23, 2019, this was followed by warmer than normal temperatures and the plots died back very quickly.
I mowed the first plot of Howe variety on June 6 with a traditional flail mower. The result created a perfect bed of mulch that could easily transplant through. The vines were mowed to about 2 inches above the soil and mower pulverized the dead vines leaving little residue. The plot that contained the Randell Vines was more of a challenge as the Randell vines where extremely thick. On June 12 we had a local farmer come in with a traditional hay mower to mow the Randell plot. The vine was extremely thick and had to be windrowed and physically removed from the bog. We did not weigh the volume of materials but was estimated to be about 4 tons. In perfect conditions these vines would have been baled with a hay baler for easy removal, but because of the plot size we had to mechanically remove them with a thumb on the front of a loader which created a lot of disturbance of the soil. Fortunately this was the plot we intended to use as a sand plot and we were able to regrade the plot with sand.
The rooted plugs arrived on June 6. Planting of the Howe plot commenced on June 11 and was completed on June 13. After the vine removal on the Randell we hauled sand to the plot and spread about 2-3 inches over the vine stubble. The sand was spread with a tracked skid steer. We planted the Randell plot June 19-20.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
Many of our tours happened by word of mouth, that spread like a wildfire. Our home overlooks the bog we conducted the project on. While in my home I would suddenly see someone walking around the bog. Often it was a grower who had heard about the project and wanted to stop by to see what I was up to. I conducted about a twenty tours with growers including 2 out of state growers who travelled from WI and RI to see the project.
I conducted tours for the Ag Scientist at Ocean Spray Cranberries who want to understand the application. Ocean Spray’s sustainability manager also came to see how the project worked and wishes to conduct further studies on the carbon sequestration this type of renovation could result in verse a traditional renovation.
I had 5 growers stop by to see the actual transplanting while it was happening and even volunteering to sit on the transplanter to experience it firsthand.
In mid-August the MA Commissioner of Agriculture had contacted me about hosting a tour for the Governor to see how innovation can be applied in the cranberry industry. I conducted site visit for Commission of Agricultural Resources John Lebeaux, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton and Governor Charlie Baker. The Governor had recently signed an Environmental Bond Bill which contained funding for an Agricultural Innovation Center which would seed projects like this.
I am trying to schedule a grower presentation of the project at the UMass Cranberry Station extension update scheduled for January 30.
Mechanical: There is a need to make some slight modifications to a transplanter to properly place the rooted cutting. First I would attach a pre-slice coulter that would cut the turf layer at least 6 inches in front of the coulters that open the turf. Second the wheels that close the furrow need additional down pressure to insure the furrow is properly closed to maintain soil contact with the rooted cutting.
Horticultural: I clearly saw a difference in the plant growth response in the true No-till without sand applied verse the plot that had 2-3” of sand applied. The sanded plots responded to nitrogen fertilizer quicker and developed runner growth exceeding the non-sanded plot. I hypothesize that the woody material that was left behind from the old vines may have depleted nitrogen as it was degraded through the soil microorganisms. I did not account for this in my fertilizer applications. I would suggest that nitrogen needs to be increased above Extension recommendations for normal sand plantings. I adjusted nitrogen levels towards the end of the season, but it was too late to achieve optimum growth. I expect to see vigorous growth the second year.
Weed control of perennial weeds also created a challenge. We had reemergence of poison ivy, poverty grass, running bramble and saw brier. The saw brier reemergence was in perfect rows through the slices made by the coulter of the transplanter. One option for bogs with significant perennial weeds is to conduct the kill off the prior fall after harvest or even take a crop loose the prior year by killing off all vegetation a year prior to the actual planting. This of course impacts the economic model as you would lose an additional year of crop, so would have to be taken in account. Another option is to be more aggressive with selective herbicide applications during the first growing season.
Maintain Varietal Purity: The Glyphosate applications did successfully kill off the existing vine and we did not witness any regrowth of the old variety. This was a critical aspect in maintaining varietal purity and ultimately productivity of the bed.
Economics: The final cost of the renovation was 1/3 of that of conventional renovation. I am convinced with proper fertilization you can achieve the same vine growth and achieve full production within the same time period as traditional renovation, but that will only be proven 2 years after the end of this contract.
No-till transplanting for bog renovation can mechanically be done with transplanter modifications I mentioned above.
As a result of the confidence I have the utilization of no-till transplanting for bog renovation, I applied to the Massachusetts Agricultural Climate Resiliency and Efficiencies grant Program to fund the purchase of a no-till transplanter. We expect to be notified of the possibility of this funding in early 2019.
We proved that horticulturally this method could work with changes in fertilization and perennial weed management.
Economically we proved the initial capital cost is one third that of traditional renovation. The final economic benefit will be determined by the amount of time the bog reached full production and able to achieve its first marketable crop.