Carol Frate, University of California farm adviser in Tulare County, talked of the best approached to growing sustainable or organic alfalfa. She acknowledged it can be particularly challenging because of weed and pest pressures.

In choosing a field for organic hay production, Frate said it is important to find one that is well drained and free of weeds and rodents and to not follow alfalfa with alfalfa.

For established alfalfa, she said, it is best to fertilize after the first or second cutting, not during the winter or it will encourage weed growth. Best would be August or September when alfalfa is growing vigorously.

Two recommended planting times for the Valley are September and October or late January and early February. Frate favors fall planting because of better root development and weeds that will go away after the first cutting.

Organically grown seeds must be used if available. Frate recommends using the most pest and disease resistant varieties and she favors non-dormant varieties with faster re-growth to inhibit weeds. She also favors seeding at higher rates to inhibit weeds.

Over-seeding with oats and other materials may cut down on weeds but will likely diminish economic value, she said.

Leaving uncut strips of alfalfa in the field helps maintain beneficial predators and parasites, Frate said.

As for gophers, she recommends keeping vegetation low, putting up owl or raptor boxes, shooting and trapping.

Frate cited a number of online sources that could be helpful to those interested in growing alfalfa. They include coststudies.ucdavis.edu for a link to a 2013 publication on the costs of establishing and producing organic alfalfa hay; ipm.ucdavis.edu for links to pests in alfalfa; and alfalfa.ucdavis.edu and alfalfa.org/varietyLeaflet.html for additional information.

A panel of organic growers was quizzed on what they see as the challenges and rewards of growing organically. All three agreed that sales of organics are rising year to year.

“The market is growing at double digits every year,” said Gerald Davis with Crystal Organic Farms, a division of Grimmway Farms in Kern County. “We’re huffing and puffing to keep up. The demand is there.”

Kyle Reynolds with KMK Farms in Kingsburg said, “My challenge is to figure out what people want; demand is growing.”

Mike Naylor with Naylor Organics in Dinuba said paperwork associated with growing organically is a major challenge.

“You realize I went into organic to get away from paperwork,” he said.

“When I started, it was spit and a handshake and they trusted you,” he said, referring to certification. “Now they only trust you if you give them $6,000, and a lot of small farmers are saying, ‘You know what; I’m done.’”

They’re burned out, he said, by having to “spend time at the desk rather than out on the tractor.”

 

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