‘Cheap’ food is costing the Earth, and our health

Emily Lewis-Brown – 7th April 2016 – Published in The Ecologist

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Food has never been more affordable for middle class families in rich countries. But it comes at a high cost: the impact of industrial food production on health, environment and society has never been greater as Patrick Holden explained to Emily Lewis-Brown.

The post war drive for food security through industrial farming and ever-cheaper food has, ironically, put both our health and the future of farming at risk.

Food prices have been kept artificially low, while the true costs of food production have been obscured – and are increasingly unaffordable. A conference took place in April in San Francisco designed to put this right: The True Cost of American Food.

Patrick Holden – dairy farmer, sustainable food campaigner and organiser of the conference – believes that sustainable farming is being held back by the way that food prices are kept artificially low through mechanisms which hide the real cost of foods and place those costs elsewhere – on communities, our health, and the environment.

“When we unravel the hidden costs of food and farming, we find that our food systems are generating diets which we pay for many times over in hidden ways”, he says. “They are making us sick and degrading the environment, which is vital to the future of our food security and health.

“Everyone has a right to good food that is affordable and nutritious, but the belief that making food cheap was the most important goal, facilitated damage to our natural environment and public health. This was made possible by cheap oil and technological innovation. It was hard for consumers to see the changes to the food we eat, as companies increasingly obscured the story of how our food is produced.

“If you told the real story of farming, what goes on behind closed doors would be upsetting. It’s covered up by brands with images of outdoor mixed farms, with cows in meadows and hedgerow-lined hay fields blooming with wild flowers.”

Milk cheaper than bottled water

Patrick had an urban childhood, like millions of other people who live in cities now, but his family moved back to the land in the 1970s to live on a farm. His deep understanding of agricultural practice developed from farming his mixed dairy farm in Wales, where he still farms as sustainably as possible.

That means he knows from personal experience the plight faced by many farmers: “Dairy farmers are now slaves to the commodity market. To survive economically, they need more and more cows, kept more and more intensively. Milk is sold for much less than the cost of its production – it costs less than a bottle of water now. How on earth can this be? Milk is a vital source of nutrition and farmers should be paid for the true cost of its production.”

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Of course for many families it’s great that we spend less now than ever before on food: most of us spend less than 10% of our disposable income on food – and this is seen as a good thing. But that cheap food comes at a high price:

“The apparent cheapness of food is an illusion, because behind the price tag lie a series of hidden costs, none of which are reflected in the price of food. These hidden costs are paid in damage to the environment, depletion of the Earth’s resources, and public health.”

Adding up the impacts

Patrick is involved in research with the UN’s The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative that traces the true costs of food. But to make all those statistics real, he says, take a carton of milk, and consider the costs of its that we have to pay for without realizing it – on top of the suffering that’s routinely inflicted on animals under industrial farming systems.

“You’ve got damage to the environment from the pollution of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, degradation of the soil and declining biodiversity, along with the contribution that agriculture makes to climate change.

“Then there’s a high cost in human health, especially, at the moment, in the rise of untreatable infectious diseases from the over-use of antibiotics in humans and farm animals. But this also includes the costs of the obesity epidemic caused by industrialised diets.

“And there are significant social costs – agricultural workers suffer unduly from labour abuses across the world which sometimes extend to the condition of slavery. These costs are not currently paid in the price of our food and this is not being recognized by politicians nor properly addressed by the people who should be addressing them.”

The True Cost of American Food

What is needed, he says, is a ‘True Cost’ account of our food system. That’s one of the core missions of the Sustainable Food Trust, which Patrick launched in 2013 at a major conference on the topic in London, bringing together the world’s leading experts on True Cost Accounting.

“For obvious reasons all farmers have to follow the best business case”, says Patrick. “But right now if you farm intensively and cause damage to the environment and public health, you will make more money than if you switch to sustainable methods. The aim of the San Francisco conference is to do something about that – we want to create the conditions where producing food in a sustainable way is the most profitable option for producers and the most affordable for consumers.

“We believe there are many opportunities to intervene and shift the dial in this direction. For instance, we can redirect Farm Bill subsidies to favour sustainable practices, we can tax farming which causes damage to the environment or public health, we can harness the power of the financial community to preferentially invest in sustainable agriculture and food companies.

“It’s all about carrots and sticks, we want to encourage the right kind of farming which benefits the environment and public health and discourages food systems which lead to climate change, pollution and disease.”

 

Governor Baker Declares June 20 – 26, 2016 “Massachusetts Pollinator Week”

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BOSTON – Governor Charlie Baker, in support of National Pollinator Week, has declared June 20 – 26, 2016 as “Massachusetts Pollinator Week” – an opportunity to celebrate and protect our pollinator populations. Additionally, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) will also celebrate the opening of the first state apiary, a collection of beehives to be used for education and research.

“Massachusetts Pollinator Week is an opportunity to raise awareness of the importance of pollination to our environment and agricultural industry, and the vital need to protect Massachusetts’ pollinators,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “I encourage all residents to learn more about our native pollinators and consider planting flowers, trees and other plants to provide pollinators with nectar, pollen and habitat.”

“This week, we appreciate the importance of pollinators to Massachusetts’ ecosystems, food sources and economy,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “Our administration is committed to preserving our native pollinator species and their habitats, and working with local beekeepers across the Commonwealth to ensure their hives are healthy and thriving.”

Pollinators include bees, birds, bats, butterflies and other species. Over 45 percent of agricultural commodities in Massachusetts rely on pollinator species for crop pollination and food production. There are approximately 4,500 honey beekeepers managing approximately 45,000 hives across the Commonwealth. Pollinator species provide significant environmental benefits that are necessary for maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems, and produce valuable products including honey, propolis, royal jelly and wax.

club.jpgThe new state apiary at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will serve as a vessel for education, outreach demonstrations and research related to agricultural sustainability, pollination, honey bee health and hive management. The apiary consists of twelve honey bee hives located within an 80 foot by 30 foot plot situated adjacent to the UMass Pollinator Conservation Project.

The apiary will also be used by the UMass Beekeeping Club and for hives maintained for UMass beekeeping courses. The apiary was funded by appropriated FY16 funds for the DAR Apiary Program designated for projects that provide research, education and general support to benefit Massachusetts honey bees.

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“Given the ability to do live, in-hive demonstrations onsite, this apiary will also be an important tool for providing outreach education to farmers, land managers, beekeepers and to the public in the Commonwealth on topics related to honey bees and agriculture,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton. “Through the new state apiary and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources’ Apiary Program, we are working hard to educate the public about honey bees and support the Commonwealth’s honey beekeepers.”

In Amherst on June 20, 2016, Assistant Secretary for Environment Daniel Sieger will be joined by MDAR Commissioner John Lebeaux and representatives from UMass Amherst College of Natural Sciences for a tour of the new state apiary on the grounds of the UMass Agricultural Learning Center.

“The apiary has received considerable interest from students engaged in farming and sustainability,” said Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) Commissioner John Lebeaux. “Currently several are doing an internship with DAR to assist in hive management throughout the summer as well as conducting their own individual research projects related to hive vitality and pest management.”

“Making sure bees stay healthy and productive is necessary for vibrant agriculture,” said State Senator Anne Gobi (D-Spencer). “I appreciate the focus of the administration and look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with our many bee organizations to achieve that goal.”

“I applaud the initiative set forth by the Baker Administration and MDAR to recognize our vital pollinator populations here in Massachusetts,” said State Representative Paul Schmid (D-Westport). “We are incredibly fortunate to have so many active beekeepers that maintain thousands of hives throughout the Commonwealth in order to provide the well-known agricultural products that make our state so great and promote environmental stewardship.”

“This is an exciting collaboration for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst,” said Frank Mangan, Director of the Agriculture Learning Center. “Maintaining a state apiary with DAR provides our students, growers and bee keepers with preventative learning tools.”

For more on the State Apiary, see:

http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/agr/farm-products/apiary/


The Stockbridge School of Agriculture offers a Practical Beekeeping class each spring for students in the Sustainable Food and Farming major.

“Industrial” meat is lower priced but costs more than locally raised

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Free range chickens are priced higher than factory raised chickens for a reason

Have you ever asked yourself why an everyday “value” chicken can now be cheaper, pound for pound, than bread? Cheap chicken has become the “healthy” meat of choice for most shoppers and sales are booming, up 20% since 2000 in the UK. But is it really either cheap or healthy?

Producers who use intensive methods are not financially accountable for the harm they cause. The apparently cheap price tag of industrial chicken does not include any of the costs related to pollution of the environment, destruction of natural capital, greenhouse gas emissions or the damage to public health resulting from such systems. It turns out that low-cost chicken isn’t cheap at all.

By contrast, a pasture-fed organic chicken is now seen as a niche market option, because it costs more than three times as much. These chickens spend much of their lives outside. Their feed is grown without the use of chemical fertilisers and synthetic pesticides. And because they are healthy and happy, with stocking densities low enough to ensure that the birds derive a significant percentage of their nutritional requirements from grazed grass, worms and insects, they need no insurance drugs or antibiotics to stop them getting sick.

Despite the fact that sustainable poultry production systems deliver huge benefits to the environment and public health, the producers using these methods have no option but to compete on an unlevel playing field. Worse, we are paying for the damage caused by industrial food production in hidden ways, through taxes, in the form of misdirected subsidies from the common agricultural policy, through water pollution clean-up costs and through national health service treatment costs.

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If consumers knew how factory chickens were raised, they might never eat it again

If the true cost of the factory bird was added to the price tag, it might even be greater than the pasture-raised organic bird.

So who’s to blame for this crazy state of affairs? It’s tempting to blame the farmers and food companies, but we farmers are stuck in an economic system that mainly rewards those who produce food at the cheapest price, as a result of which only those who are selling into high-end niche markets can afford to do the right thing.

The truth is this is a rigged, cheap food system that has two prices: the one you pay now and the one we all pay later. It’s a story that repeats with carrots, apples and peas, meat, milk and cheese. Even breakfast cereal. At some point we need to ask ourselves, why do we support such a destructive food system?

The good news is we do have the power to change it. We should insist that, in future, common agricultural policy payments should be available only to farmers whose practices benefit the environment and improve public health; we could tax chemical fertilisers and pesticides (just like sugar) and use the money to incentivise farmers to adopt more carbon-friendly soil management. We should insist that all food for schools, hospitals and care homes is locally and sustainably sourced. We could offer tax breaks for investors who finance sustainable food businesses. Finally, we should ensure that food workers are paid a living wage and have safer working conditions.

By making these choices, we would help create a fairer, sustainable and health-promoting food system that we all want to see for ourselves, our families and our community.

Patrick Holden is executive director of the Sustainable Food Trust. He produces an organic cheddar cheese from his 80-cow milking herd in west Wales.

Learning Through Gardening in School

Few things are more inspiring than seeing a young person create a meaningful place in society from scratch. That’s the case with Ava Bynum, who grew up near our home in Philipstown, N.Y., and — setting aside the idea of college — created a program for local schools, Hudson Valley Seed, built around incorporating basic learning with gardening and nutrition. The program now serves about 1,500 students a week in schools in several Hudson Valley counties.

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These two videos tell the story far better than I could, so I hope you’ll spend a few minutes this Earth Day weekend watching and sharing them. (Here’s the program’s Facebook page.)

Are there gardening-education programs where you live? If not, I’m sure Bynum would be happy to spread the joy of learning.

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About 25% of the students studying Sustainable Food an Farming at UMass Amherst are focused on community-based and farm-based education.  To learn more, see:

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CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — A decade ago, a couple running a dairy business in Northern California visited a Mennonite farm where the owner had used a flock of laying hens to teach his children business principles and instill values like responsibility and care for nature.

They returned home and bought 150 hens for their boys, Christian and Joseph. “My parents told us, you and Joseph are in charge of keeping these 150 birds alive,” recalled Christian Alexandre, who now heads the family’s egg business.

What started as a parental effort to instill solid values has become the mainstay of Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farms. Within five years, Christian and Joseph were tending 1,500 hens and had a deal in place to supply eggs to Whole Foods stores in Northern California. Christian remembers Walter Robb, co-chief executive of the grocery retailer, showing up at one of his football games.

The rusty red chickens foraging in the fields outnumber the cows 10 to 1 — and the roughly five million eggs they will produce this year command prices that make organic milk look cheap. “The egg business has kept the dairy going for several years,” Blake Alexandre, Christian’s father, said.

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Members of the Alexandre family at their farm in Crescent City, Calif., earlier this month. (Credit Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)

Alexandre Kids Eggs produces pastured eggs, which on their farm means that the hens live in housing that allows them to spend much of the day in open pasture. While still a minuscule portion of the roughly 75 billion eggs produced in the United States each year, pastured eggs like theirs are one of the fastest-growing category of eggs in America today.

Consumers have grown more aware of the conditions under which many of the nation’s laying hens live, thanks to undercover videos from animal welfare advocates and, more recently, photos of hundreds of thousands of dead birds being tossed out of hangar-size barns after outbreaks of avian flu.

Pastured eggs from hens allowed to roam about help to address some of those concerns about how foods are produced and the impact such systems have on the environment, animal welfare and health and nutrition.

“The egg market for probably the last 30 years has been a very sleepy category,” said Betsy Babcock, a proprietor of Handsome Brook Farm, a pastured egg business with operations in 41 states. “What we’ve seen over the last year or so, though, is a revolution, with pastured eggs going from being a niche-y segment in the natural food market and Whole Foods to being a thriving business in places like Kroger.”

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Julio Alfaro, left, checks eggs for defects during the packaging process. After collection, the eggs are washed, inspected and packed.

Not all eggs labeled “pastured” are the same — there are no federal regulations governing use of the terms “pastured,” “free range” or “cage-free” on egg cartons.

Thus, the Babcocks’ production regimen for eggs labeled “pastured” is somewhat different from the Alexandres’, which in turn is different from the operations of Vital Farms, another large pastured-egg supplier.

Hens producing pastured eggs may indeed live in lush pastures — or they may merely have access to a patch of dirt outside their barn. Eggs labeled “cage-free” typically means the hens that laid them were free to move about inside a barn kitted out with an aviary system of roosts, nests and feeding stations — but with no outdoor access at all.

“There’s quite a range of operations among businesses that label their eggs pastured,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, which publishes the Organic Egg Scorecard, a ratings system.

Cornucopia is updating its egg report, thus Mr. Kastel and his team have recently visited egg farms around the country, hoping to clarify the terminology used on egg cartons. Its highest rating will go to egg businesses like the Alexandres’, where most of the hens are outside in mobile housing during the day with access to fresh pasture.

“To get the very best eggs, consumers need to do their homework,” Mr. Kastel said. “Despite federal organic law that requires access to the outdoors, many of the leading organic brands come from giant henhouses with as many as 180,000 birds, offering nothing more than a tiny screened porch.”

In 2008, California voters passed a ballot measure requiring egg producers to provide more spacious living conditions for laying hens. Eggs imported to California from other states also must come from hens housed to the same standard.

In the meantime, major food businesses like Taco Bell and Panera Bread have made commitments to require the eggs they use to come from cage-free environments, which are a step beyond the colony cages that are the minimum needed to meet the California regulations.

Finally, after the avian flu epidemic that killed tens of millions of laying hens this year, some major egg producers decided to replace at least some of their conventional housing with cage-free systems.

Costco began reducing its sales of conventional eggs in 2007, according to Craig Wilson, its vice president for food safety and quality assurance. “It just seemed to us at the time that battery cages were going to go away, and anyway, they’re not a good thing,” Mr. Wilson said.

In August and September of this year, which are not particularly big months for egg sales at Costco, the grocery chain sold 516 million eggs, he said.

Just 39 percent of those eggs came from birds housed in conventional systems. About 30 percent came from hens housed in colony cages, and the rest were from birds in cage-free systems or raised organically, free range or pastured.

Only 1.5 million eggs sold in August and September were from pastured operations like the Alexandres’, who have been Costco suppliers since 2014. “Could we rely on that kind of production for the nation’s egg supply?” Mr. Wilson said. “No. But our members just love them and so we do our best to support their desires.”

Costco, in fact, has inspired the Alexandres to double the number of laying hens they have over the next year

Their egg production system lives side-by-side with the milk business that Blake and Stephanie Alexandre started with when they bought the first 572 acres here, just eight miles south of the Oregon border and about a mile from the Pacific Ocean on land where giant redwood trees once grew.

The mild climate — the temperature fluctuates by only 11 degrees throughout the year — is ideal for outdoor hens, and rotating chickens and cows in pastures has a number of benefits for livestock and soil. Chickens, which are natural foragers, peck at cow patties to extract fly larvae and in the process help distribute manure around a field (as well as keep the fly population to a minimum). “They’re our best manure spreaders,” Christian Alexandre said.

That helps fertilize grass for the family’s 3,500 dairy cows, which are managed organically, to graze on. Vanessa Alexandre, who graduated last summer from California Polytechnic University, is immersing herself in the dairy business and recently struck a deal to provide milk from the family’s herd of 100 percent grass-fed cows to a large grocery business for its private label yogurt, which is made from milk from grass-fed cows. She plans to increase the number of cows raised solely on grass, rather than on grass and feed, as well.

The farm has nine chicken flocks, each typically numbering about 3,500 birds. The flocks are somewhat smaller now after a bout of cholera wiped out about a third of the hens last spring.

The flocks are rotated to new pastures every Tuesday and Friday, leaving behind a section of field shaved as close as a chin in the morning. The pasture then is left alone for a month or so to allow grass to regrow before cows are returned to it.

The hen barns, made from tin reclaimed from the farm in Southern California where Mrs. Alexandre grew up, and heated by solar panels on the roofs, move around on wheels. Christian Alexandre designed the barns, basing the design on the picturesque caravanlike coops he first saw as a boy on the Mennonite farm.

The barns are split in the middle and separated, to give the birds ample room to walk in and out. Nesting boxes hover over a wide canvas belt that catches the eggs as they are laid. Some of the farm’s 85 employees turn hand cranks each morning to move the belt, collecting the eggs at one end and delivering them to a facility where they are washed, inspected and packed.

Roosts for the birds slope up to the rafters of a barn. Very few birds were inside the barns on a recent visit, but they all return at night. “The best thing about chickens is you don’t have to herd them,” Blake Alexandre said.

The eggs sell for as much as 53 cents each — Christian Alexandre declined to reveal the profit margin. Costco sells 18 of them for $9.49 and is working with the family to reduce the price.

Handsome Brook, which grew out of a bed-and-breakfast farm that the Babcocks opened after they retired from the health care business, contracts for eggs with about 50 farms in 41 states that have some 250,000 hens in total. Its production, about 82 million eggs this year, dwarfs the Alexandres’ — and it plans to have 120 farms under contract next year, more than doubling its production.

Each farm houses an average of 5,000 birds in a barn on a 12.5-acre pasture, Ms. Babcock said. The chickens are fenced off in a section of that pasture until they have pecked the grass down to dirt; then they are moved to another section.

“We’re seeing 100 percent year-over-year growth in sales in the stores where our eggs are sold,” Ms. Babcock said. “We think we’re just at the beginning of what’s going to be a very big business.”

Original Article

Urban farmers find success leads to eviction

It’s a prickly chore Clark loathes but one she can’t avoid as her Big Muddy Farm has had to move from one vacant lot to another even though the business was thriving.

Urban farms like Clark’s are being evicted from center cities across the nation where they’ve become a much-remarked-on driver of urban revival in recent years, having brought healthy food, commerce and eye-pleasing greenery to dreary neighborhoods. During the recession, downtown landowners and leaders offered up plots for free to get new vitality on empty streets.

Now the thriving farms are being routed by another urban phenomenon: the hordes of people moving back downtown to live, which is turning green spaces into prime real estate. Plots where low-income residents raised vegetables, where community groups trained at-risk youth and where small garden businesses took root are being snapped up for construction of new apartments and townhouses.

“You have to plant as if you’re going to be there 10 years, even if you know it probably won’t work that way,” said Clark, a co-founder of Big Muddy Farm. She added, “It stinks to put in the time in an investment that doesn’t last.”

The evictions are sad but inevitable, said Amy Brendmoen, a City Council member in St. Paul, Minnesota, which recently booted an urban farm from city land to make way for housing construction. Even the most robust farms can’t earn enough to compete with a real estate development.

“You couldn’t help but smile when you went by,” she said of the ousted Stones Throw farm. “They were working so hard. You could see the harvest. It was incredible.”

No estimates exist on the number of urban farms, but their popularity soared in the past seven or eight years. Many started as community projects.

It’s unclear how many will survive. Big Muddy’s partners are hoping to hold onto their main farm, a series of raised beds and unheated greenhouses on three empty lots between a nonprofit theater and houses dating to the early 1900s.

But in Denver, Lisa Rogers last month closed her Feed Denver organization, which promoted urban farming in the booming city. The fact that the farms’ beautifying effect actually helps endanger them is a bitter pill to swallow.

“Developers will call and say, ‘We have a piece of land, can you pretty it up for two years?’ Rogers said. “As available land gets squeezed and prices go through the roof, like in Denver, it’s nearly impossible to find land and stay there.”

Even public property isn’t safe. Recently, a 6,000-square-foot nonprofit farm called GreenLeaf was evicted by the Denver Housing Authority so the land could be sold to a private housing developer. At-risk high school students worked at the farm, which is now moving next to a middle school.

“We’re going to have to look for new customers, and our old ones are going to have to look for a new produce source,” said Cody Meinhardt, the nonprofit group’s executive director.

In many center cities, residents are lamenting the disappearance of the farms, or their move to the suburbs.

Laura Staugaitis regularly bought produce-filled boxes from a local farmer near Denver, but said she can’t justify the 45-minute trip the purchase now requires.

“The drive made it a negative experience rather than an enriching experience,” she said.

The pressure for urban land is especially intense in the fastest growing cities like Houston.

In 2008, neighbors in a financially and racially mixed area just southwest of downtown signed a $1 a year lease with a property owner to turn an overgrown lot into the Midtown Community Garden.

“My goal was to get people out of their homes and apartments so they could relate to each other, and we did that,” said resident Scott Harbers, who helped set it up.

But attempts to get local government to acquire the site as a public space failed, and last year it was sold for nearly $1 million to a housing developer.

Some urban farm promoters are pushing local officials to begin setting aside plots for urban agriculture because of the health and community benefits. In the Seattle area, officials have designated portions of parks and other public land. In Los Angeles, community groups are working to encourage developers to have farming and green space designed into housing projects, including on rooftops.

“The vacant lot story is cool, but it’s also short term,” said Jesse Dubois, a leader in the Los Angeles urban farming effort.

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Follow Scott McFetridge at: https://twitter.com/smcfetridge .


Source URL:http://www.gazettenet.com/businessmoney/19693746-95/urban-farmers-find-success-leads-to-eviction

Valley crops fall victim to water-mold blight

Even in the risky world of farming, a particularly nasty risk is Phytophthora, whose very name sounds scary.

A water-mold blight that can kill entire crops of pumpkins, cucumbers or peppers, Phytophthora capsici is especially problematic because once its spores get into soil, they remain there for years, dormant until the next heavy rains. (Unlike its more common cousin, late blight, capsici’s spores are transmitted by water, not wind.)

“It can take out 100 percent of their crop,” said Katie Campbell-Nelson, UMass Extension vegetable specialist. “There’s a few farmers around here who really specialize in butternut squash, and they’re at particular risk. This is a really big problem for them.”

watermoldBy all accounts, relatively dry conditions this spring and summer kept it from being a particularly bad Phytophthora year around the Pioneer Valley, but farmers such as Mike Wissemann in Sunderland and Peter Melnick in Deerfield reported losses this year.

“We’re running out of places. If you have the right weather conditions, it can rear its ugly head,” even a decade after a field was infected, said Melnick, who said his Bar-Way Farm lost about four of 10 acres planted in butternut squash, after the low-lying field got 4 or 5 inches during one warm September spell. “It’s getting to be a real challenge.”

That challenge is likely to become more intense, with good cropland limited and New England projected to become more susceptible to heavy rain events, with warmer temperatures because of climate change, according to Campbell-Nelson.

But one ray of hope could come from Campbell-Nelson’s test planting of “Caliente” brown mustard as a bio-fumigant cover crop at the UMass Crop Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield.

The brown mustard, chopped up and worked into the soil at the proper time, got the same reaction that Wasabi might draw from someone whose nose was “burned” by the release of the gas it generates, the researcher said with a laugh.

Her test this year of Brassica juncea mustard, measured against control plots of oats on infected soil in the greenhouse, showed it suppressed the disease.

“I got samples of Phytophthora that had been taken from fields around here,” she said. “There are several mating types, so I wanted to make sure we got a good sample of the disease we have in this area.”

Then she inoculated each pot with active “zoospores, which were swimming. If they had a host, they were going to find it. I was creating a disease triangle perfect for the disease: I flooded those peppers, I soaked them, I put the disease in there. I really wanted to see if I could kill those plants.”

The peppers eventually had fewer symptoms of the blight and lived longer, but Campbell-Nelson acknowledged that since it is harder under natural conditions to be certain the mustard is incorporated into the soil during active zoospore, or even semi-active sporangia cycles, it’s probably important to do repeated plantings.

Because the mustard cover — which has no commercial value, especially because it’s chopped into the soil — is from the same Brassica family as kale, it is unlikely to be used by diversified Pioneer Valley growers who want to rotate their fields to other kinds of crops.

And even with repeat cover-crop plantings, mustard is not likely to work wonders by itself, but should be seen as part of what Campbell-Nelson calls a “holistic solution” that also includes reduced tilling, well-drained soils, raised beds and rotating the Phytophthora-susceptible hosts with other crops.

“You should do everything,” she said. “This should be part of integrated management rather than relying on any one method. Never rely on any one method.”

‘No silver bullet’

Wissemann, one of a handful of area farmers who has tried using mustard as a bio-fumigant, reported after losing a pumpkin crop at his Warner Farm to the blight, “There’s no silver bullet, but it helps.”

He added, “We started swapping land with other farmers to prevent monoculture, but part of the risk of that was that Phytophthora ended up being transferred (by equipment moving from field to field.) This is all before we knew what we know now.”

And yet, he added, on a low-lying field that had once been used for growing peppers before it was inundated by the adjacent Connecticut River years ago, “We haven’t had susceptible crops on that field for, gosh, 15 years, and I put some pumpkin out there last year. And sure enough, they had a problem.”

Another recent UMass Extension research project, by plant pathologist Nicholas Brazee, tested for Phytophthora spores in the Connecticut, but found that no samples of that variety, leading to the conclusion that it only spreads the blight if it carries water over already infected soil onto another field.

In some cases, Wissemann and Melnick agreed, the pumpkins had been harvested several days before they showed signs of the disease.

Angela Madeiras, a diagnostician at the UMass Plant Diagnostic Laboratory, said that in addition to flooding of infected fields with poorly draining soil, a leading way Phytophthora spreads is by workers carrying infected soil on their boots, or on farm equipment.

But she added that it is unclear where the problem, which exists in other parts of the world, came from, or how much of Pioneer Valley farmland is affected.

“It’s hard to know how widespread it really is,” Campbell-Nelson said. “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack, because it only presents itself when there’s a flood … condition.”

She added, “Farmers who have had trouble with this disease have gone as far as suggesting they grow cucumbers on trellises, even though that’s on acres and acres, because they’re so at a loss for what to do.”

Even then, added Madeiras, the spores can be splashed up onto the crop by rain. Chemical fumigants exist, but they tend to be expensive and harder and harder to find.

The good news is that practices like using mustard as a cover crop, rotating crops, increasing soil drainage, and reducing tillage can help somewhat, Campbell-Nelson said.


Source URL:http://www.gazettenet.com/home/19439500-95/some-valley-crops-fall-victim-to-water-mold-blight-phytophthora