Our efforts to work toward sustainability in our agricultural operations involve three principal areas:
1. Improving air and water quality
2. Reducing pesticide and commercial fertilizer use
3. Reducing energy use. These areas are interconnected in some ways but nevertheless can be separated as we have done.
1. Air and water quality
Regarding air and water quality our focus has been to reduce burning of small and large pruning debris and trees following orchard removal. We have done this by shredding small limbs in the orchard with a flail mower and chipping large woody debris with a massive chipper. The chips are then either placed on roadways to reduce dust and erosion or returned to the soil to increase organic matter and replace nutrients.
Also, to improve air quality we have removed diesel burning smudge pots and installed propane orchard heaters that we use during frost season in the spring. The smudge pots emit a thick black smoke and diesel spills on the soil are common. The propane heaters burn much cleaner and use less energy, a much more environmentally friendly approach to fighting frost damage.
To maintain good water quality, we strive to reduce or eliminate the use of pesticides and fertilizers near water sources. This is discussed further in the section below.
2. Reducing pesticide and commercial fertilizer use
Traditionally organophosphate pesticides (OPs) have been used on pear trees to control several insect pests, but principally codling moth. OP's were extremely effective but have three problems. They have very high mammalian toxicity so it makes them hazardous to workers, livestock, pets, and wildlife. OP s are also non-selective insecticides so they kill most harmful insects as well as beneficial insects. They can run off or drift into streams and have negative consequences to water quality and aquatic life.
Our strategy has been to reduce and almost eliminate all OP use by working with scientists at Mid-Columbia Agricultural Research and Extension Center to set up trials and test plots in our orchards executing alternative control techniques. We also have hired consulting entomologists to monitor both harmful and beneficial (predatory) insect populations and to make recommendations.
We have used Codling Moth mating disruption, a technique where female mating pheromone is released into the orchard at concentrations high enough to confuse males in their search for females. The pheromone can be released by several methods but we have used silastic spiral dispensers placed 1 to 3 per tree in the upper part of the tree canopy in concentrations of 200-400 dispensers per acre. We also use puffers a device that contains a canister of pheromone and releases a puff every 20 seconds. These are distributed at about one per acre.
Mating disruption, in most situations, has been able to reduce Codling Moth populations so that damage is minimal. New pesticides that have lower mammalian toxicity, shorter half lives in the environment, are more specific to targeted pests, and that are softer on beneficial species can be used at very low concentrations to treat problem areas. Beneficial insects can be monitored and often built up to levels to control pear psylla and other pests.
We have sought to reduce commercial fertilizer use in our orchards and fields by several methods. First we have tested and planted several legume varieties in pastures, hay fields, and the orchard floor cover crop. Legume produced nitrogen can reduce the need for commercial nitrogen applications. In some pastures we have stopped using added nitrogen entirely. In the orchard legumes do not seem to be persistent enough and are crowded out by grass.
In the orchard we have shifted to applying several smaller applications of fertilizer banded near the tree row. This greatly reduces overall fertilizer use. We also monitor soil fertility levels annually with soil analyses that allow us to apply only what is needed and no more. We also are using more compost and manure, either our own from our livestock or purchased to reduce commercial fertilizer use.
3. Reducing energy use
Our energy use on the farm falls into four categories:
Equipment use of fuels for farm practices and on road hauling
Use of propane and diesel for orchard heating
Indirect energy uses through products that we buy like fertilizer and pesticides
Electric energy used in worker housing, shop, office, and other residences
We have created an energy conservation plan and have begun to address energy use in these four categories. We have converted to more fuel efficient vehicles. We use small vehicles (John Deere Gators and Cushman golf carts) in the orchard whenever possible rather than diesel tractors. Also, we try to combine orchard operations or limit some practices to reduce trips through the orchard. Most recently we have our first all-electric vehicle and hope to expand our fleet of these to use in the orchard to move people and supplies between orchards. We will be adding solar panels to create electricity for these vehicles.
Orchard heating to prevent blossom and bud damage during the spring frost season can use large quantities of energy. We have converted from diesel smudge pots to Ag Heaters that burn propane. These heaters burn much cleaner but also are much more efficient and produce much more heat with a small amount of propane. We have significantly reduced our fuel use with this change.
Commercially produced fertilizers and pesticides require significant quantities of energy to produce, so we are adjusting farming operations to reduce use. These practices were explained under the previous section.
The last area of significant energy use on our farm is in farm buildings including shops, offices, worker residences and farm labor camps. Over time we have replaced some buildings with more energy efficient structures and other buildings we have renovated adding insulation, foundations, and more efficient windows. We are considering adding a solar water heating system to one farm labor camp. We also are replacing old appliances with new, more energy efficient appliances.