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WSU’s Green Times – sheep, wheat, watermelon, mulch, and more – February 2015

Posted by | February 25, 2015

Grazing among grains yields ecological, economic benefits

White Dorper ewes graze alfalfa on Eric and Sheryl Zakarison’s wheat farm on the Palouse. (Photo by Jonathan Wachter, WSU)

You generally don’t find livestock among the hills in the Palouse region of eastern Washington where grain is grown. But wheat farmers Eric and Sheryl Zakarison are changing that – and making a profit.

On 100 of their 1,300 family-owned acres, they are experimenting with a rather unconventional scheme for the region – growing wheat, peas, perennial grasses like alfalfa and sheep in a tightly integrated system.

The Zakarisons’ integrated livestock operation also buffers them against market risks like an oversupply of grain. And in the absence of direct payments that were eliminated with the 2014 Farm Bill, it adds an income stream.“This year the dockworker slowdown brought the (alfalfa) hay export industry to its knees, and hay prices plummeted,” Eric Zakarison said. “It turned out to be a better year for lambs than alfalfa.”

But diversifying their income streams and boosting profitability isn’t their only motivation for converting to an integrated and organic farming system.


The Zakarisons are collaborating with Jonathan Wachter, a soil science doctoral student at Washington State University, to demonstrate how integrated livestock farming in wheat country can contribute to sustainability goals. These include increasing and retaining soil nutrients, adding biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing soil erosion.

“They are the ones doing the research on their farm because they want to improve their soil,” Wachter said. “All I’m doing is putting their ideas into practice in a research context to generate the data that backs up some of (their ideas). They’re the real innovators.”Wachter has been working with the Zakarisons since 2012, when they established the five-year research project funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant.

It’s a soil thing

Wheat farmers Sheryl, left, and Eric Zakarison with WSU soil science professor John Reganold and graduate student Jonathan Wachter. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wachter, WSU)

There’s no question that large-scale, monoculture grain production helps feed the world. But ecologically speaking, it takes a toll. Serious soil, water and air pollution problems can result from soil erosion caused by tilling and from the use of synthetic fertilizers and  pesticides.

“Grain farmers are always looking for ways to improve the soil,” said Eric Zakarison. “One of the best ways to increase biomass and organic matter is to grow perennial grass and legume crops like alfalfa. But then, we have to do something with the crop.”

Nutrient cyclers and weeders

He said it’s difficult to produce high quality hay on the Palouse, and a late summer rain can ruin a perfectly good

crop. But his 65 white Dorper mother ewes can eat lower quality hay and turn it into milk for lambs and meat for local markets while cycling nutrients through the soil system.

He explained that ewes with lambs serve as the delivery mechanism for calcium via their milk. Calcium, he said, is an important nutrient for grain that is expensive and otherwise hard to supply for crops.

Concerning weeds, organic farming often relies on light but frequent tillage; but on the erosion-prone hills of the Palouse, this is risky business. Cover crops – and grazing sheep – help control weeds.

By nibbling weeds very close to the ground, the sheep act as living weeders. They even prefer some weeds, like prickly lettuce, over grass or alfalfa.

A study in diversity

Of the 1 million-plus acres in the Palouse River drainage that are cultivated, only an estimated 500 acres are organic. Although they are starting small, the Zakarisons plan to eventually convert all of their land into an integrated livestock and organic production system.

Wachter’s study compares three different schemes. One treatment follows a conventional rotation of peas, winter wheat and spring wheat with minimum tillage and the use of herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.

In an organic treatment, livestock are allowed to graze after three years of growing pasture, supplying nitrogen for the next planting of grain crops. Finally, a hybrid treatment includes livestock plus fertilizer – and herbicides as needed. Austrian winter peas replace the conventional rotation of spring peas and, instead of harvesting a pea crop, sheep graze the crop to return nutrients to the soil.

Over the past three years, Wachter said, the organic treatment has been most profitable and shows carbon has increased in the soil (rather than as a greenhouse gas escaping into the air). The verdict is still out on the hybrid scheme.

Small, local, nimble

Though diversity provides ecological and economic stability to farming, it also requires a lot of work.
Neighboring wheat farmers don’t understand why the Zakarisons are doing this.

“They think it’s way too much work,” Eric Zakarison said. “You’re out there in blizzards, deep snow drifts, mud – and then lambing is going on when you’re getting ready to plant in spring. It takes that extra work and extra income to make it now.

“But we stay diverse, small and nimble,” he said. “We market locally and we make it.”

Find more information on integrated livestock farming at the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

– Sylvia Kantor

Grafting research could rescue state’s watermelon crop

The watermelon crop has declined dramatically in Washington because of disease. But Washington State University researchers are developing a solution that involves grafting watermelon plants onto squash and other vine plant rootstocks.

Watermelon vine shows Verticillium wilt when the fruits are nearly ready for harvest. (Photos courtesy of Carol Miles, WSU)
Watermelon vine shows Verticillium wilt when the fruits are nearly ready for harvest. (Photos courtesy of Carol Miles, WSU)

Today, there are about 550 acres of watermelon grown in Washington, with a value of approximately $5 million.“We’ve lost about a third of our state’s watermelon production over the last 10 years because of Verticillium wilt,” said Carol Miles, a professor of vegetable horticulture at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon. “Growers have switched to other crops that are less susceptible.”

Miles said growers can lose 25-75 percent of their yield to the disease – but this loss does not occur until the very end of the growing season. That’s when the damage from Verticillium appears.

The fungus also affects tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and many other crops and plants.

Watermelon grafting used worldwide

Last fall, Miles received a $138,000 grant from the state agriculture department to look into grafting, a solution that doesn’t require fumigants. She is also working with a national team of researchers on a $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. Her portion is $171,000 to look at grafting tomato and eggplant.

Grafting involves cutting a young seedling from its roots and attaching it to the roots of a related plant that is disease resistant. The grafted plant produces fruits that are equivalent or better in quality than those of nongrafted plants.

“Grafting is very old technology, going back over 1,500 years in China,” Miles said. “Farmers in Japan have used grafted watermelon since the 1920s. In the Mediterranean region, farmers have been using grafted watermelon, tomato and eggplant for almost 20 years.

A grafted tomato seedling requires binding with a delicate cast for a few days to make sure the graft takes. Carol Miles and her team are grafting watermelon, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant, which are all susceptible to Verticillium wilt.
A grafted tomato seedling requires binding with a delicate cast for a few days to make sure the graft takes. Carol Miles and her team are grafting watermelon, tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant, which are all susceptible to Verticillium wilt.

Testing rootstocks in the field“We just need to find out what works best for our region and we’ll solve the Verticillium wilt problem,” she said.

Testing rootstocks in the field

Her research involves testing which plants work best together under Washington growing conditions and which rootstocks are most resistant to Verticillium wilt.

The first goal is to increase the survival rate for newly grafted watermelon plants. If only 25 percent survive, the effort is not worth it, Miles said.

The second goal is to find successful plant combinations that are disease resistant and have equivalent fruit yield and quality, compared to nongrafted plants grown in healthy soil. Miles and her team are testing watermelon grafted to pumpkin, squash and bottle gourd because they are all resistant to Verticillium wilt.

This year will be the second of a two-year field study. While these studies actually started about five years ago under a previous grant, Miles and her team are applying new information that they have learned along the way. They will have two full years of testing in commercial fields by the end of the grants.

– Scott Weybright

Fruit quality the focus of new WSU biodegradable mulch research

Lisa Wasko DeVetter will research the impacts of biodegradable mulches on fruit quality. (Photo by Kim Binczewski)
Lisa Wasko DeVetter will research the impacts of biodegradable mulches on fruit quality. (Photo by Kim Binczewski)

Biodegradable mulches provide eco-friendly benefits to the agriculture industry, but the effects on fruit quality of these weed-controlling, moisture-preserving products are largely unknown.

A recently awarded, two-year, $40,000 grant will fund a study about the migration of chemical constituents from deteriorating biodegradable mulches (BDMs) to developing fruits.

“We would like to help growers and mulch manufacturers gain confidence, validated through research, that growing crops with BDMs allows for the production of a delicious and safe product for consumers,” said Lisa Wasko DeVetter, lead scientist on the study.

“Additional questions remain about the application of these products in organic agriculture, which needs critical review,” said DeVetter, who leads the small fruit horticulture program at the WSU Northwestern Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon.

Evaluation and migration

DeVetter will work with Carol Miles, WSU professor of horticulture in Mount Vernon, and Shyam Sablani, associate professor of biological systems engineering at WSU Pullman. Miles will assist with evaluation of the mulch treatments, while Sablani will measure chemical migration in strawberry fruits, the model crop used in this experiment.

“A master’s student will complete this project as part of his/her thesis research and will be advised by both Doctors Miles and Sablani,” DeVetter said.

History of research on biodegradable mulches

The grant is one of eight for “Emerging Research Issues” awarded by the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences. The projects take innovative approaches to resolve significant issues – including social and economic factors – faced by the state’s agricultural industries.

The study builds on a history of research at WSU NWREC on biodegradable mulches in horticultural crop production conducted by Miles and vegetable pathologist Debra Inglis.

A new fact sheet Biodegradable Mulch Film for Organic Production Systems is now available.

– Cathy McKenzie

A little more about bees

Bee n Daisy_2960Paul Stamets has had a life-long love affair with mushrooms, one that goes well beyond their culinary and psychedelic qualities. Wearing his signature hat — made from mushrooms — a turtle pendant and, always, a blue scarf, the nearly 60 year-old mycologist runs Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned farm and business in Shelton, Washington.> “Early last year, Stamets asked Washington State University entomologist Steve Sheppard to help confirm his hunches about bees and fungi. The two have since joined forces to explore the connections that, as far as they know, no one has ever made before.”

As promised last month, read the full story about how mushrooms could help save the honeybee.

Resources you may need

OrganicBluePubNew WSU Pub Series: Trends in Washington Organic Crop Production
The first WSU Extension publication in a series on Trends in Washington Organic Crop Production has been released. Trends in Washington State Organic Berry Production, Acreage and Crop Value was published with support from the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Greenbook2014GAPguideTwo new must-have publications from the WSDA
Bridging the GAPs Farm Guide is the go-to guide for on-farm food safety. WSDA has produced this publication to help farmers implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Handling Practices (GHP).

An updated, 7th edition of the Handbook for Small and Direct Marketing Farms: Regulations and Strategies for Farm Businesses in Washington State, otherwise known as “the Greenbook” is also now available.

Don’t forget to protect your poultry against avian flu!
Poultry owners: find the latest news and resources for protecting your birds at the WSDA Avian Health Program.


Green Times
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On Solid Ground
On Solid Ground features news and information about ways WSU researchers, students, and alumni support Washington agriculture and natural resources. Subscribe here.

Voice of the Vine
Each issue of Voice of the Vine brings you stories about viticulture and enology and WSU researchers, students, and alumni working in Washington’s world-class wine industry. Subscribe here.