Why farm organically, following strict, national rules that limit what chemicals and practices you can use? In 2020, organic food sales rose 12.8% to $56.5 billion, besting the prior-year gain of 4.6%. More than 5% of total food sales in the U.S. are now organic. It costs more to grow organically, but the extra premium paid by the consumer can more than make up for it. In 2016, North Carolina joined the top 10 states with the highest organic sales. Besides fruits and vegetables, the demand for organic animal feed is significant. One Tennessee grower ships organic feed all the way to California. Apart from the sales potential, avoiding synthetic chemicals can benefit the environment and protect farmworker health.

Can you grow organically in the sandy soil of the Sandhills? A few farmers have taken the leap, such as Billy Carter, who farms in Moore, Richmond and Montgomery Counties with an emphasis on organic tobacco, which he rotates with organic soybeans and sweet potatoes. He has been certified organic for years, farms hundreds of acres in three counties, and sells nationally and internationally. At the other end of the spectrum is Mark Epstein of Flow Farm, in Moore County, selling fruits and vegetables. He is not yet certified and sells directly to families and a few high-end restaurants.

As with conventional crop production, the sandy soil makes growing difficult. The humid heat makes a farm into a giant petri dish for disease organisms in the summer. Insect pests thrive here. Pest-prone crops, like peaches, may be nearly impossible to grow organically here.

Other crops, though, are more conducive to organic production. Winter crops such as edible pod peas do not face as much insect and disease pressure. Root crops thrive in our sandy soils. Garlic and onions can grow well even without pesticides. Some perennials like native muscadines and the newer asparagus cultivars are resistant to some insect pests and diseases. As with conventional crop production, pests and diseases can be managed to some extent with cultural methods such as plant spacing that allows good airflow, protecting the plants under tunnels, choosing pest-resistant cultivars, and vacuuming insects. A few natural insecticides and fungicides are approved for organic production, but not all of them work as well as the synthetic chemicals. In greenhouses and fully enclosed tunnels, commercially available biological control agents such as predatory mites and tiny parasitic wasps can successfully manage some insect pests. Weeds can be managed with cultural methods such as cultivation, cover crops, flaming, and mulching. Plastic mulch is especially helpful at controlling weeds.

Pest control aside, a huge challenge in growing organically in sandy soil is how to supply nutrients for the plants. Luckily most of our ag soils have adequate phosphorus, if only from being overfertilized. Phosphorus does not leach as readily as nitrogen and potassium. Leguminous cover crops, such as cowpea in summer and crimson clover in winter, add nitrogen to the soil that becomes available to crop plants as the legumes decompose. The legumes also encourage the growth of mycorrhizae, tiny fungi that grow among plant roots and help the plant uptake water and nutrients. Cover crops can “mine” potassium and calcium and make them available to crop plants, if those minerals are present to begin with. After cover crops are terminated, they release nutrients slowly to plants, rather than the nutrients leaching through the soil profile.

However, to get potassium and micronutrients into the soil, natural minerals and/or compost from external sources are needed. Growers can buy finished compost by the truckload or make their own using local organic matter. Chicken litter is an obvious choice in our county. It can be applied directly to the soil up to 120 days before harvest (90 days if the crop is not in contact with the soil). Manures should be submitted for a waste analysis through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the proper amount applied based on the crop recommendations and a soil test.

In order to call crops “organic,” the farm must be certified organic. The process of certification is a topic for another day. Even without certification, however, the grower is allowed to say that the crops were grown without synthetic chemicals. That may be enough for direct sales like Epstein’s where the customers know and trust the grower.

For more information about growing organically, two workshops will be offered in November at the Sandhills AGInnovation Center in Ellerbe. The first, on Nov. 2 from 3:30 – 5:00 PM, is about organic production, and the second, on Nov. 16 at the same time, is about creating a farm plan and getting certified. You can register for these free workshops by calling the NC Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center at 910-997-8255. For other information about growing plant crops, email nancy_power@ncsu.edu about horticulture crops or anthony_growe@ncsu.edu about row crops and visit our website: https://richmond.ces.ncsu.edu/.


Source: New feed


By Peter

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