Problem and Justification:
The price of conventional frozen wild blueberries reached a record low $0.27/lb in 2017, a price that does not justify crop maintenance. Meanwhile the crop grown organically sells for $5.00/lb. Small organic growers are stuck with low yields and large organic-transition farms will struggle with low prices until effective organic fertility and weed management strategies are developed and disseminated effectively. At a pH of 4.0, most soil applied fertility is not available for blueberry plants, yet these nutrients feed weed species. Foliar nutrient uptake is not well understood for this crop and increases the risk for disease. The weed management tools available for organic growers are limited to sulfur applications, weed whacking, and hand weeding. Furthermore, the shallow blueberry root system is susceptible to drought conditions that non-irrigated fields have experienced over the last three seasons. While applied research has been conducted on wild blueberry for many years, it is time to focus on soil and plant health for a new market.
Solution and Approach:
Of the respondents to the 2018 UMaine Organic Blueberry Grower Survey, 84% indicated that they would benefit from more nutrient management research and 92% indicated that they would like to have better weed management tools available for organic production. The education outlined here is designed to go hand-in-hand with research activities and to spur discussion of new ideas. More than 500 farmers from three states will be reached and invited to participate in field days, conferences, webinars, and online resources. We have designed applied research to fit directly with our education curriculum that will engage farmers. In order to achieve the performance target, research will 1) evaluate OMRI approved fertilizers applied to the soil vs. blueberry leaves at two different timings, where disease, insect pest, and weed pressure are measured, 2) trial tine weeding and winter-kill cover crops as weed management tools, 3) conduct an irrigation demonstration, and 4) document the cost of these practices. While the higher price for organic currently drives wild blueberry farmers to transition, the benefits of this shift have the potential to reduce the amount of pesticide and high-input fertilizer applied to thousands of acres in northern New England.
Performance targets from proposal:
Fifty blueberry growers in Maine will adopt at least one new weed, nutrient, or irrigation management practice on a total of 500 acres. Among these growers, 5 managing certified organic farms will increase their average yield by 500 lbs/acre on a total of 100 acres. Additionally, 500 acres of conventional blueberry land will adopt practices necessary to transition to certified organic production.