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01/01/2008 02:00:00 AM

Southern growers seek the 411 on organic fruit production

Growing consumer demand for organic produce has opened opportunities for fruit producers to expand into lucrative and earth-friendly markets.

"USDA certified organic produce sells for 30 to 50 percent more than other produce and consumption is increasing demand 10 to 15 percent per year," says Curt Rom, a horticulture professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "This is our opportunity."

But with them also comes challenges.

"A lot of growers are already using some organic methods, but they haven't put the system together that will allow them to obtain the price premium," Rom says.

The university showcased its program at a recent grower field day. Participants toured an organic apple research orchard and test plots for high tunnel production of blackberries and raspberries.

The organic orchard research is a 10-year project to adapt organic production practices for Southern states, Rom says.

He and a multi-disciplined team of scientists are studying organic practices for managing weeds, insects, soil fertility and encouraging biodiversity. Following a 3-year transition, the research plots will become a USDA certified organic orchard in 2008.

The high tunnel research uses fabric shelters to mediate extreme temperatures and protect blackberry and raspberry plants from frost. Rom says the tunnels allow producers to advance production to earlier in the year and extend it later.

The research takes advantage of Arkansas primocane blackberry varieties, which produce a late crop of blackberries from first-season canes, to push harvest into late summer or fall.

"We think we can extend berry production from six weeks to five months," Rom says.

George Kuepper, sustainable agriculture specialist for the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says organic farming goes back to the early 20th century, when it was called humus farming. The term organi" came into use during the 1940s.

During the 1960s and '70s, organic farming was "discovered" by the counterculture, Kuepper says.

"What they didn't realize, was that organic farming requires having a production system in place," he says. "There were some good organic farms, but many were in poor shape and grew low quality produce, so organic farming had a poor image for a while."

The Organic Production Act of 1990 began a series of draft legislations that resulted in the establishment of national standards for organic production by 2002, Kuepper says.

Rom and entomologist Donn Johnson, funded by two U.S. Department of Agriculture grants, surveyed organic producers, processors, marketers and researchers from seven southern states to determine needs and interest for a systematic approach to organic production research.

"We found a lot of need for research-based information," Rom says. "And at the University of Arkansas, there's strong interest in organic research and extension programs."

For more information, visit the University of Arkansas.

To download the Division of Agriculture organic resource manual, click here.

To subscribe to the print version of The Grower, click here.

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