Ratcheting up commercial organic high-bush blueberry production systems

Final Report for ONE03-016

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2003: $9,380.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $22,500.00
Region: Northeast
State: New Jersey
Project Leader:
William Sciarappa
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
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Project Information


(Note to the reader: Data, graphs, and supporting material specific to this project are not posted here because of format limitatins. The full report with all the background material is available from the Northeast SARE office. Send e-mail to [email protected] and ask for the final report for ONE03-016)

Two blueberry farms in central New Jersey were used as research and demonstration sites for farmers transitioning in organic production, to educate farm advisors in applying new sustainable practices, and to inform consumers on health, nutrition and environment issues. The project leader coordinated on-farm trials in cooperation with the Rutgers Blueberry Working Group to initiate an integrated pest management system in developing new biological tools and best management practices. Commercial levels of pest management for blueberry maggot, oriental beetle, and several key diseases on organically grown blueberries was shown to increase the quality and quantity of organic berries grown in the Northeast. The applied research program showed:

1. A high level of efficacy for spinosad against blueberry maggot adults.

2. An effective mating disruption program against Oriental beetle with dispersible pheromone dispensers.

3. Acceptable weed management with fine fescue cover in walkways and plasticulture in plant rows.

4. Promising disease suppression by several organically oriented fungicides.


Before this SARE-sponsored research project, there was no complete organic production system for highbush blueberry in the eastern U.S., and there was no sizeable commercial-scale farm for such experimentation. This project was needed to bridge small-plot research into commercialized practices without considerable economic risk. The principal insect problems engaged were blueberry maggot and oriental beetle. The key disease problems were botrytis, mummyberry and anthracnose. Both critical pest groups are much more easily controlled in conventional production systems or in drier regions like the West Coast.

While New Jersey and Michigan are nationwide leaders in blueberry harvest, the organic segment is less than two percent. California, Washington, and Oregon are in the process of planting more organic acreage. These states may increasingly penetrate Northeastern markets over the next ten years in both organic and mainstream market segments. Regional sustainability will be enhanced by learning how to increase organic production in the Northeast and maintain the current premium prices.

This project also addresses environmental concerns in rapidly suburbanizing areas by devising an organic blueberry production system that is commercially viable without undue risk from pest problems and without undue chemical stress to our environment. Mutual co-existence of such a open space enterprise amidst rapid suburbanization preserves farmland, increases small farm prosperity, conserves natural resources, enhances quality of life, and allows better community connection with the land.

Solutions for these production problems were researched on a twenty-acre certified farm called Blueberry Acres, which has another forty acres of abandoned blueberry bushes available for testing, and at a second site called Emery's Berry Patch. Our blueberry research group, grower partners, and grant supporters such as Northeast SARE allowed us to construct key components of a model farm system to show to our many interested growers considering organic transition on both small farm and large farms. An effective cultural, sanitation, and fertility baseline was established throughout the study sites. To increase the quantity and quality of organically produced highbush blueberry, quasi-commercial trials were implemented to control blueberry maggot, oriental beetle, botrytis, mummyberry, and anthracnose disease. By setting this larger stage and showcasing real-world successes, we sought to better engage extension advisors and better inform producers and consumers.

Project Objectives:

In order to increase quantity and quality of organically produced highbush blueberry, large-scale trials were implemented to suppress/manage/control key pests within an integrated and economically viable system. As a research and education project, the main program outreach objectives were to solve several key agricultural problems, expand extension capabilities, and educate growers. The specific production targets were:

1. Incorporate effective cultural baselines encompassing soil health, fertility, sanitation, water usage and weed management with mulches.

2. Determine an appropriate IPM program using OMRI approved insecticides spinosad, pyrethrum and neem against blueberry maggot.

3. Create a pheromone trapping system for oriental beetle.

4. Assess new management tools for disease suppression.

5. Build an organic production program to ratchet up towards an expanded regional program.


Materials and methods:

The general farm layout at Blueberry Acres was conducive to combining both a commercial u-pick blueberry business on one half of the farm and allowing the sister half to be used for trial work - both comparative halves are equally divided by a macadam farm road for customer traffic only, and both have the same aged varieties, soil, climate and pest pressures. Also there is a remote 40 acre block a quarter-mile away separated from both these ten-acre halves by treelines, meadows and streams. This situation affords additional research opportunity related to this specific project as well as several others already in progress, such as pruning and restoration of heirloom varieties.

The 40-acre site at Emery's Berry Patch offered research opportunities in weed control, trickle irrigation, perimeter spray strategies, and new crop establishment Within these large commercial blocks available, our Blueberry Research Working Group worked with commercial grower equipment that included a mechanical cultivator, tractor, spray equipment, and Korvan harvester. With the help of both commercial work crews and over 20 volunteers, we were able to conduct the following trials:

A. Blueberry Maggot Field Spray Trial. Four organic insecticides were evaluated: GF-120 NF Naturalyte Fruit Fly Bait (20 fl oz/ac), PyGanic (32 fl oz/ac), AgroNeem (64 oz/ac; Agro Logistic Systems, Diamond Bar, CA) and Entrust (2 oz/ac), in a field spray trial to assess blueberry maggot control. This study was conducted in a recently abandoned blueberry field - Blueberry Acres, located in Tinton Falls, NJ. Blueberry bushes were approximately 2 m in height and spaced 1.2 m within and 2.7 m between rows. Treatment plots were 30.5 m by 91.4 m, approximately 0.28 ha. Treatments were replicated three times. Each insecticide, except GF-120, was mixed with 25 gal of water/acre and sprayed using a commercial (air blast) mist blower to both sides of bushes. GF-120 was mixed at a ratio of 1:5 with water for 120 oz of mix/acre, and applied to one side of every row using an ATV Olive Fruit Fly Sprayer (PBM Supply & Mfg, Chico, CA). This ATV sprayer had a 25 gal tank, a non-adjustable 100 psi pump, and two nozzles from airblast sprayers consisting of discs (D-3 orifice) without the core.

Insecticides were applied on 7, 15, 22, and 29 Jul 2003. Adult blueberry maggot fly presence was assessed twice a week for six weeks using four Pherocon AM traps baited with ammonium acetate (Great Lakes IPM, Vestaburg, MI) per plot. Larval presence was determined on three dates (24 and 31 Jul, and 12 Aug) by randomly selecting 1,000 berries in center rows from each plot and boiling fruit (Pickett and Spicer 1931) or Polk (microwave). Maggots extracted from these samples were counted.

B. Oriental Beetle Mating Disruption, 2003. Three trials were conducted in 0.8 ha plots of highbush blueberry, located in Hammonton, New Egypt, and Tinton Falls, NJ. Plots contained either plastic dispensers or red rubber septa loaded with 1 and 0.1 g of the oriental beetle sex pheromone, respectively. Plastic dispensers and red rubber septa were placed in plots on 2 July and deployed at a rate of 50/ha.

Populations of oriental beetles were assessed using four Japanese beetle traps per plot, baited with the oriental beetle sex pheromone to capture males. Traps were hung on 29 June, and after an initial 4 day pre-treatment check, were inspected at weekly intervals until 14 August. Pheromone lures in traps were replaced after three to four weeks. Four replicates were completed.

C. Botrytis control. Efficacy evaluations were made on the number of infested flowers at bloom, and percent infection of the flower blossoms and fruit clusters. Two studies were conducted at Blueberry Acres and two studies were conducted at Emery's Berry Patch. The treatments compared were a well-water check, compost tea foliar spray, compost tea soil drench, oxidate 1 percent solution, sulphur, bordeau mixture, sodium bicarbonate, neem and Serenade. The foliar sprays were applied at 25 gpa with labeled rates of active ingredient.

D. Anthracnose control trials - disease levels were visually assessed by placing clamshell pints of freshly picked blueberries in the lab and checking disease development on a daily basis. There were pre-harvest sprays of hydrogen dioxide or other OMRI labeled fungicides on replicated strips. Twenty-five pints per replicate are planned for mid-season varieties and laboratory trials were used for late season harvests.

E. Observations of other pests and their damage include aphids, weevils, and lepidopterous larvae.

Research results and discussion:

Several cultural approaches were implemented and found initially effective in this long-term study. In restoring abandoned blueberry blocks into organically approved programs through bush-hogging old plants, regrowth has been very vigorous and relatively free of scale, aphids, and diseases. In initiating a regular mowing regime on walkways of established plantings, native grasses and orchardgrass have shown to dominate broadleaf weeds and serve well for foot and machine traffic. In new plantings, two species of fine fescue show good growth and suppression of crabgrass and foxtail weeds over two seasons. The installation of trickle irrigation allows rapid growth of new plantings via consistent use of liquid nutrients and liquid sulphur. Beneficial changes in soil pH were measured. A long-term study comparing various mulches showed all good initial results. These mulches include pine chips, hardwood chips, coffee grinds, cocoa grinds, tea-leaf compost, municipal leaf compost - with and without landscape fabric. All mulches maintain good weed control and good moisture retention. The unmulched treatments were abandoned due to poor growth during the first year.

Blueberry Fruitfly Management Results - Spectacular results utilizing spinosad were shown in preventing adult egg deposition into blueberry. Subsequently, organic blueberries were essentially maggot free. Three methods have shown effectiveness. These methods are as follows: When spinosad is utilized as a 4 spray seasonal program with spinosad alone, or as a new bait formulation that reduces both rate and spray coverage needs, or within a resistance management program with rotational sprays of pyrethrum and agri-neem.

Oriental Beetle Management Results - Impressive results were found in collapsing a historically heavy adult population with the use of a mass disruption technique. The strategy used standard pheromone traps to detect the rise of first-flight adult emergence and then the use of numerous point-source dispersal units to confuse male beetles and prevent them from finding mates. With documented prevention of mating, egg-laying in the soil was presumed to be very low and damage to blueberry roots from the white beetle grubs is avoided.

Disease Management Results: Eight different "organic" fungicide materials were applied in new, restored and established blocks of organic blueberries with similar results. With a wet spring, botrytis was a major problem in all fields throughout the state and the expected mummyberry disease incidence was low. Bordeau, Serenade and Oxidate applications provided good suppression in preliminary field screening trials. At harvest, initial screening assays of post-harvest fruit show some suppression of anthracnose with Armi-carb and Serenade.

Research conclusions:

The implementation and promotion of this program has had an important impact in several ways:

1. Hands-on experience with various management methods greatly increased the overall applied knowledge base for extension agents, specialists, field crews, volunteers and farmers

2. Over 150 participants attended two sustainable blueberry field days demonstrating these techniques. The programs included conventional and organic growers, extension advisors, organizations like NOFA & Rodale, and organic industry representatives. Survey reports indicate a large increase in learning and expected implementation.

3. As a result of this program, organic highbush blueberry acreage has increased from approximately 50 to 150 acres in New Jersey alone. Nearby northeastern states are beginning to join in this effort.

4. Out-of-state contacts for the Northeast region increased considerably through word-of-mouth, newspaper, and newsletter articles.

5. Global contacts began through a summary article in the Rutgers Blueberry Bulletin.

6. A fledgling yet functional system has been created for organic highbush blueberry production that has minimized some major risks of the past during two growing seasons in New Jersey.

7. The preliminary groundwork for expansion of this program throughout the Northeast is done, and we are poised to expand regionally.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

A. Presentations - Land grant universities in Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York, New Jersey - NJVGA, three blueberry sessions.

B. National conferences - presentations and posters - National Ag Agents Association, American Society of Horticultural Science.

C. Pest and Plant Advisory - Organic editions - New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio.

D. Blueberry twilight meetings - four times in New Jersey.

E. Blueberry School - SARE funded - organic approaches for blueberry growers.

F. Organic small fruit farmer field days - two summers.

G. Blueberry Working Group meeting reports.

H. NOFA-NJ organic production of small fruit presentations to organic growers.

I. CD PowerPoints of cultural and organic chemical methods including video segments. 2001-2004. Sciarappa.

J. Fact sheets - Sciarappa, W., Pavlis, G., 2004. "Blueberry: The State Fruit of New Jersey." Sciarappa, W., Pavlis, G. 2004. "Establishing Blueberries for the Home Garden." FS750. Sciarappa, W., Pavlis, G. 2004. "Selecting Blueberry Varieties for the Home Garden." FS419. Sciarappa, W., Pavlis, G. 2004. "Blueberry Pest Management for Home Gardens." FS106.

K. Publication - "Disruption of Sexual Communication of Oriental Beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae) in Highbush Blueberries with Retrievable Pheromone Sources." 2004. Environmental Entomology. Sciarappa, Polavarapu, Holdcraft, Barry.

L. Publication - "Comparative Effectiveness of Different Organic Insecticides to Blueberry Maggot Flies (Diptera: Tephritidae)." 2004. Journal of Economic Entomology. Barry, Sciarappa, Polavarapu.

M. Organic chapter in international blueberry book edited by Dr. Norman Childers. "Growing Organic Blueberries." 2004. Sciarappa.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

There is insufficient data to develop an economic profile of organic blueberry production at this time; there are too few organic enterprises and too many diverse ways of proceeding. Nonetheless, such an analysis is valuable and bits and pieces will become better known over the next few years. For example, obtaining organic chicken manure may cost $300 a ton in one area and only $75 in another, depending upon proximity to poultry production sites. One grower may obtain some mulches/composts as chips, leaves, coffee grinds, etc., for free, and another grower might incur considerable costs for these same supplies. With insect control compounds, initial indications are that this IPM system will use less insecticide overall compared to conventional spray programs and an organic management system will probably cost less than those on a calendar spray schedule.

In terms of return, a ten-pound flat of organic blueberries in the last four years in our mid-Atlantic region has always returned 50% to 150% more at the same time of the season compared to conventional berries. Generally, prices at the wholesale level range from $18 to $30 per organic flat, as compared to $8 to $14 per conventional flat. Organic retail operations can exceed the $3 per pound price and value-added products increase profitability. Most conventional growers in New Jersey are large wholesale producers with just a few small fresh market retail operations. Conversely, the few organic blueberry growers are mostly small fresh market retail operations with only two large wholesale producers. Expanding the program throughout the Northeast will add economic information for organic highbush blueberry operations.

Farmer Adoption

A. Blueberry Production - survey results from both conventional and organic growers indicated a high level of meeting satisfaction and the desire for more sustainable sessions. 110 responses from two meetings had an average rating for overall usefulness, topics covered and speaker effectiveness of 4.6, 4.7 and 4.5 on a 1 to-five scale, respectively. Helpful comments included future program topics and their intentions to use at least one or two of the sustainable practices demonstrated like mulching, composting, rotary cultivating, or trickle irrigation.

B. Acreage increase in New Jersey organic blueberry production from 0 to 50 acres in 1999 to 2001 and 50 to 150 acres in 2002 to 2004.

C. Number of farms growing organic blueberries increased from one to seven in New Jersey.

D. An increase of one new farm or more in each of the following northeastern states - Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia.

E. Perhaps the most encouraging impact of this organic research is how the holistic program plan has ratcheted up interest in adoption shown by both conventional and new farmers. I would guestimate that of the 300 northeastern farmers I have discussed organic blueberry production with, there are 20 that are seriously considering this system as a viable option in their farm plan. Furthermore, there are probably 50 growers that will use one or two parts of this sustainable system.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

1. Organic Fungicide alternatives

2. Compost tea production - needs more fungally dominated mixtures

3. Coffee grind mulch degradation studies in soil

4. Resistant blueberry varieties

5. Perimeter sprays with spinosad baits

6. New organic approved pesticides - insecticides and herbicides

7. Soil changes - biological and chemical - related to composts, mulches, fertilizers and plasticulture

8. Root system changes - pot-in-pot studies of the root zone growth over time

9. Cooperative marketing - wholesale and retail

10. Consumer awareness - connecting the production effort to an educated consumer completes the circle for success. Answers to this final market connection could be undertaken by our extension television production called "If Plants Could Talk," and by consumer programming and tours organized by 4-H and Family and Consumer Science departments.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.