The project was established to determine whether commercially purchased lily bulbs, imported from Holland and previously used for cut flower production, could be planted in the field, allowed to grow and recycled for cut flower production in the greenhouse.
Blue Moon Growers produces about 30,000 stems of high-end, Grade A Oriental and Asiatic lilies a year for distribution and sale to retail florists in Montana. The product typically retails for $7 a stem. The bulbs, purchased through Dutch brokers and shipped weekly to Montana, are traditionally used once for flower production then discarded.
However, shipping costs are high, Dutch bulbs are often diseased and the supply is erratic. To mitigate these problems and reduce dependence on imported bulbs, Blue Moon plans to recycle the spent bulbs for future cut flower production.
The bulbs were planted in prepared fields using two different methods, one involving single or groups of bulbs planted single file down a row, the other, called “lily sod,” where matted old-growth bulb rectangles were planted intact. The bulbs were sprinkle irrigated weekly, depending on soil moisture, and weeds were rogued or roto-tilled, except for occasional squirts of Roundup to spot control Canada thistle. No chemicals were needed for insects. Deer were allowed to forage on developing buds, which saved labor on pruning rows.
Once bulbs matured to market-quality blooms they were dug by hand, sorted, rinsed, checked for disease and stored in moist peat moss inside ventilated bags at 38-40 degrees F. The bulbs were later planted in the greenhouse for cut flower production alongside commercial quality bulbs from Holland for comparison.
The results of the recycled bulbs: higher quality than the imported Dutch bulbs, much healthier bulbs, which means less chemical use or disease spread, and a marketable bud size and stem strength comparable or superior to the imported bulbs. Also, the time from planting to flowering in the greenhouse was the same as for the control bulbs.
“This is important,” says project coordinator Laura Smith, “in that the recycled bulbs can be inserted in the yearly greenhouse program with predictable and reliable results, key ingredients in the success or failure of any greenhouse operation.”
Smith cited two limiting factors, neither directly related to the efficacy of the bulbs themselves: 1) erratic weather, including severe frost, that slowed growth, and 2) the time and labor required for planting and harvesting, which she could reduce by purchasing a commercial bulb planter and harvester.
While the latter limit will preclude Smith’s incorporating the recycled bulb program into her operation for now, she says that acquiring a mechanical planter and harvester and an appropriate tract would greatly facilitate Blue Moon Bulbs’ operation.
The largest benefit of recycling bulbs is the increased bulb quality that followed replanting from the fields.
The project also discovered that it could dig the bulbs in the early spring (March or April), shortening the time bulbs are held in coolers or freezers compared with the Dutch bulbs. In a normal year, bulbs planted in December for Easter cut flower production have been stored in Holland for 13 months.
“Our study demonstrates that bulbs dug in March or April and stored until December are of equal or superior quality and have been in storage for eight months,” says project coordinator Smith, “thereby reducing long-term storage damage like Basal Rot prevalent in Dutch-grown bulbs.”
In addition to the saved storage time and the attendant reduction in disease, the bulb-recycling practice reduces freight costs, which add significantly to the cost of each Dutch-grown bulb.
Extrapolating Blue Moon Bulbs’ experience to the broader Western agricultural landscape, Smith says her SARE grant demonstrates the importance and necessity of developing small, sustainable niche agricultural ventures in the urbanizing West. In the Gallatin Valley of Montana, as in many other areas of the Rocky Mountain states, rapid transition from the historical ag-based economy to an urban and suburban environment is breaking up large farms and land continuity, making traditional farming more difficult and less economical.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
As far as is known, Blue Moon Bulbs is the only commercial bulb producer in Montana, so no other farmers or producers have adopted the practice. But for anyone pondering embarking on a bulb-producing venture, Blue Moon offers these tips:
· Plant Asiatic bulbs for the landscape market. They are more productive and have the ability to increase in both size and number.
· Harvest twice, once in the spring for fall landscape planting and once in the fall for spring landscaping.
· If recycling bulbs, replant the bulbs as lily sod, allow them to grow two years, harvest them in the spring or fall and sell the bulbs into the landscape market or store them for cut flower production.
· Use a pre-emergent application of Treflan herbicide at 7.5 pounds per acre, then follow up with cultivation between rows.
· Use dormant oil sprays for aphid control (nothing was needed for control on the project).
· Monitor for aphids and rogue virus-infected plants.
· When lifting bulbs, inspection and rouging diseased bulbs is better than using a preventative fungicide dip before storage.
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
To help overcome the limits of inadequate planting and harvesting equipment, the grant recipient recommends that SARE provide assistance in borrowing or renting equipment.
DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS
Blue Moon was a stop on a summer 2000 tour of about 30 growers, agronomists and ag marketers from South Korea and Thailand interested in sustainable and organic farming. The operation hosts field trip classes for horticultural students from Montana State University, has made presentations at MSU on greenhouse marketing and participated in meetings of the Gallatin Growers Association, a group of small growers involved in organic and sustainable farming.
Blue Moon Bulbs was the only producer involved in the project, and there was little interaction with neighboring small grain, alfalfa and livestock producers. But Blue Moon has established relationships and shared methods and ideas with other local greenhouses and nurseries, which benefits the entire growing community.