Groups assess organic research needs

Research needs in the organic industry are numerous and run the gamut from production to marketing, growers and others in the industry say.

To identify the industry’s top priorities, The Organic Center partnered with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to get input from farmers, industry members, researchers, policy-makers and nonprofit organizations.

A gathering last year included panels, listening sessions, breakout discussions and group activities to develop a roadmap for research to move the organic sector forward, Jessica Shade, director of science programs at The Organic Center, said in a webinar on the groups’ findings.

“Our main goal was to find common ground between the research needs of farmers, scientific expertise and then the funding interests of industry members,” she said.

The groups also explored avenues for public-private partnerships to fund research.

“Overall, the organic industry members expressed interest most in funding research that increased the domestic supply of organic food and fiber,” Amber Sciligo, assistant director of science programs at The Organic Center, said.

They were also interested in increasing consumer education and awareness and addressing consumer concerns over climate change and interest in nutrition, she said.

Several research priorities emerged. One is the availability of organic seed varieties.

Some nuances in that research included “regional breeding to accommodate the regional differences in climate and soil, etc., and also selecting for flavor and nutrition as a target for consumer preference,” she said.

Research on soil health was also an area of shared interest.

“A lot of past research has made really significant advances in supporting on-farm soil health,” she said.

But new areas of interest include systems-based research programs that connect the soil health to microbial communities, water quality, food safety, plant productivity and plant nutrition and how that would translate into human health, she said.

Another research priority was agronomic and socioeconomic research.

“The main interest within this research category was really to address the barriers that keep farmers from transitioning to organic or that prevent them from continuing to farm organically,” she said.

That research relates back to increasing domestic supply. There was a desire to focus on farm profitability to ensure organic farmer livelihoods were secure and sustainable, she said.

Climate resiliency was another priority area.

“Climate change mitigation, as well as adaptation to climate change, was identified as an area of interest across all stakeholder groups, and there was a wide range of research questions,” she said.

Those included livestock forage management, water usage and seed breeding for climate change resiliency in various regions and the role of crop diversification in protecting against losses from extreme weather changes, she said.

A lot of people were also interested in agricultural technology, mostly to improve the feasibility of organic operations, she said.

That would include precision technology to make water and nutrient usage more efficient and reduce the burden of labor-intensive tasks such as weeding, as well as making food-safety monitoring more reliable and real-time, she said.

Research on animal health and livestock integration in cropping systems was also a high priority.

The industry needs more knowledge about how organic practices, including pasture-based production, will affect things like animal health, soil health and food safety simultaneously, she said.

Cool, wet winter in store for Pacific Northwest, forecaster says

The Farmers Almanac calls for a mild, dry winter in the Pacific Northwest.

Not so fast, said Eric Snodgrass, principal atmospheric scientist for Nutrien Ag Solutions in Champaign, Ill.

At least three cold and wet weather systems are heading toward the Northwest  from Alaska and Canada in the next 10 days, Snodgrass said.

Snow could accumulate in the Cascade and Rocky mountains, which Snodgrass hopes will continue.

“The more precipitation we can pile up in the mountains, the better our situation is going to be for going into the 2021 growing season,” Snodgrass said.

Snodgrass expects the pattern to continue through Thanksgiving and into December, with temperatures that are average to lower.

La Nina — a complex weather pattern that results from lower ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean — will likely be moderate strength through the winter, Snodgrass said.

He compared this winter to the winters of 1998-1999, 2005-2006, 2007-2008, 2010-2011 and 2016-2017. Cold air came from the northwest, resulting in more precipitation, he said.

NOAA’s winter outlook also favors a colder northern tier of the U.S., with above-average precipitation.

“Our highest probability is going to be toward a cooler and wetter winter,” he said.

Snodgrass delivered predictions about the coming winter, and beyond, during the Nov. 6 Northwest Farm Credit Services virtual ag outlook conference .

Organic survey delves into production, marketing practices

In addition to asking about the number of farms, acreage and sales, USDA’s 2019 Organic Survey also queried farmers about their production and marketing practices, challenges and expenses.

One thing that’s always of interest is how organic commodities are marketed, said Virginia Harris, a survey statistician with National Agricultural Statistics Service.

That could be direct to consumer through such things as farmers markets, farm stands and community supported agriculture, she said during a webinar hosted by the Organic Trade Association.

About 3,000 farms sold direct to consumers in 2019. That was 18% of all organic farms, and they sold about $300 million in organic products. Those direct to consumer sales were highest in the Western U.S., the Northeast and Southeast, she said.

More than 3,000 farms sold direct to retail markets or institutions, with sales of more than $2 billion. More than 1,000 farms sold $727 million of value-added organic products such as wine, jam and cheese.

The survey also collected data on production practices, primarily related to land use, she said.

“The most common organic production practice reported was using buffer strips or border rows to isolate organic from convention crops,” she said.

Of the 16,585 certified organic farms in 2019, almost 11,000 used buffer strips or border rows.

Almost 9,000 organic farms applied animal manure to organic land, and about 8,000 used water-management practices.

A little more than 7,500 farms planted green manures, cover crops that are plowed under to increase soil fertility. About 6,000 used no-till or minimum-till, which can reduce soil erosion. And about 5,700 produced or used organic mulch or compost, she said.

The survey also asked farmers to report economic losses due to the unintentional presence of genetically modified organisms or unapproved pesticides. Relatively few reported those losses, only 125 related to GMOs and 142 related to pesticides.

The survey also polled farmers on some expenses. Farmers reported paying their organic certifiers about $47 million in 2019.

The two largest expenses were for certified organic feed at almost $2 billion and labor at nearly $1.6 billion.

The survey also asked about major challenges.

“The most common challenge reported by the farms was regulatory in nature. One-half of farms said that this was the major production challenge for their farming operation,” she said.

Organic food sales boom during pandemic

PORTLAND — The produce section at New Seasons Market in Portland was bustling on a weekday afternoon. Customers were filling carts and handbaskets with organic produce.

Grocers and industry experts say the pandemic has driven record sales and interest in organic food.

“I think there’s probably a combination of reasons. Certainly there’s the local connection and people want to feel secure and have access to a stable food source. But I also think people are just really tuned into health right now,” said Sarah Brown, education and advocacy director at Oregon Tilth, a nonprofit that certifies organic producers.

Brown, herself a farmer, said interest in her organic products has doubled since COVID-19 hit.

According to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, the trend extends beyond Oregon; organics are experiencing record sales nationwide. Organic food sales skyrocketed during the run on grocery stores in March, but even as markets have settled, sales remain strong.

“Sales of organic fresh produce show no signs of slowing and continue to be a major growth opportunity for retailers across the country,” Matt Seeley, CEO of the Organic Produce Network, said in a statement.

The Organic Trade Association’s report for the third quarter of 2020 shows organic fresh produce sales are 16% higher than the same timeframe last year.

The West is leading in terms of growth rate. This quarter in the western U.S., sales of organic produce are up 20% higher than last year in the same timeframe and region.

Mike Boyle, vice president of sales and sourcing at Organically Grown Co., a wholesale distributor, said many consumers are return customers simply buying larger volumes, but he said the organic movement also picked up new consumers.

Packaged salads, fruits and herbs have generated the highest growth, data show. Berries are the top organic fruit seller, generating more than $217 million in sales, followed by apples and bananas.

Experts say consumers have also purchased larger volumes of organic meat, poultry, eggs and milk during COVID-19.

One farmer told Small Ag Press she spent weeks trying to buy a freezer, but Home Depot, Lowe’s, Jerry’s and other suppliers told her they were sold out and back-ordered for months since more Americans are buying freezers this year to stock up on locally sourced meat.

Organic produce is still a small segment of the overall produce sector, but experts say the numbers of organic farms and acres are growing.

Certifiers say more farms are going organic.

“As a certifier, what I can speak to is that there has been no slowdown in applicants getting certified. You’d think with disruptions in the supply chain, you’d see a slowdown, but farms and companies are as interested as ever in getting certified,” said Brown of Oregon Tilth.

Experts predict consumer interest will remain strong.

“I think that the organic industry is going to continue to grow,” said Boyle of Organically Grown Co.

Some farmers frustrated by conservation program rule change

The Trump administration this month made several key changes to USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program rule in the Federal Register — changes some farmers like and others don’t.

Advocates say the rule change will incentivize producers to expand conservation activities. Critics say the new rule tends to favor larger farms, leaving small and midsized farms unrewarded for conservation efforts.

CSP, a popular program run by USDA in all 50 states and established by the 2018 Farm Bill, offers financial incentives to farms that make conservation efforts, such as developing wildlife habitat, improving grazing conditions and sequestering carbon.

Since last November, USDA records show the agency received some 600 comments on the interim final rule. Based on that feedback, USDA staffers say they changed the rule. The changes include prioritizing some conservation goals over others, rewarding new conservation efforts more than existing ones and changing payment rates.

“The rule change calls into question whether the program exists solely to have an environmental outcome or if its purpose is to support farmers who are doing the right thing,” said Eric Deeble, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “I think those separate goals have to be balanced because these are taxpayer dollars. But the new rule isn’t balanced.”

Deeble called the rule change a “slap in the face” to small producers. He said farms with existing conservation efforts will receive significantly less support according to the changed rule than farms that have few or no conservation efforts in place but choose to make one new change.

“The rule places too much priority on new and big. I’d prefer a more thoughtful rule that rewards both existing and new efforts, and also considers farms of all sizes,” said Deeble.

Small farm leaders have expressed concern that the new rule rewards changes to large acreage or livestock numbers more than the faithful work of some small farms.

The new rule also leaves minimum payment rates ambiguous. In its original form, the rule awarded small farms a minimum of $1,500 per year if that farm met certain conservation benchmarks.

Now, experts say, the new rule may not set a minimum payment amount. Industry leaders say they fear small farms may invest in conservation infrastructure expecting to get reimbursed, but may not receive what they need to make it worth their time and money.

But some policy experts say the favoritism shown toward larger farms in the new rule makes sense. Realistically, they say, one large farm making conservation changes will likely have a much bigger impact on the environment than dozens of small farms making the same changes. The new incentive structure, therefore, is weighted toward large producers.

A USDA spokeswoman said the program has already been successful in helping farms reach conservation goals across the U.S.

In a statement, Kevin Norton, acting chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the final rule aligns better with the agency’s other existing conservation programs and will “help farmers put more robust conservation activities in place.”

How farmers are using native mason bees to boost crop production

BOTHELL, Wash. — Jim Watts calls himself a farmer, but he doesn’t raise livestock or crops. Watts is a bee farmer.

Across the West, growers are turning to a tiny, overlooked insect to pollinate crops: the native mason bee. In Washington state, Watts is leading the movement.

Researchers call mason bees “the new frontier” for crop pollination.

In recent years, many farmers say they have bought or rented mason bees because they are affordable, low maintenance, improve crop yields, repopulate areas with native species and even push honey bees working alongside them to be more efficient.

Researchers have known about mason bees’ pollinating potential for decades, but their use in agriculture has been overshadowed by the ubiquitous honey bee.

USDA’s most recent data show farmers in the Western U.S. spend more than $300 million annually on crop pollination by honey bees. Western farms use honey bees in dozens of crops across millions of acres. For example, 2020 reports show California farms are using honey bees to pollinate 1.2 million almond acres, and Northwest farms this year are pollinating nearly 300,000 fruit tree acres.

Until recently, large-scale propagation of mason bees has been a pipe dream.

Now, it’s taking wing.

Story of a bee farmer
Watts, owner of Watts Solitary Bees, grew up on a bee farm. His dad, Roger, started raising leafcutter bees, best known for pollinating alfalfa, in the 1960s. When Jim Watts grew up, he and his family took over the business, which his dad still helps with today.

Around 2008, Watts decided to try propagating mason bees. For eight years, he floundered, failing to replicate nature. Those eight years, he didn’t make a dollar and often ran in the red.

“I wanted to quit,” said Watts. “But my dad kept saying, ‘Keep doing it. It’s going to work.’ We finally got it right. Now we’re producing millions of bees and we plan to keep expanding.”

Watts Solitary Bees has two divisions: a commercial side that sells mason and leafcutter bees to large-scale producers, and a rental side, called Rent Mason Bees, that rents bees to small farms, backyard gardeners and urbanites.

The rental program, city dwellers say, teaches people where their food comes from and helps build bridges in a time when tensions are high between rural and urban communities.

Different kind of bee
Most people are only familiar with honey bees, but there are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide and more than 450 in Washington state alone, said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Early European settlers introduced honey bees to North America; mason bees were natives. People have domesticated honey bees for thousands of years, Buckley said, but mason beekeeping is relatively new.

Entomologists say mason bees are different from social honey bees. The mason bee prefers to be left alone. It is gentle, doesn’t have a fancy hive and dresses a bit like the common fly. It has no queen to protect, because every female is fertile. Because of its solitary nature, it is less likely to pass along illness. It braves the rain and works in colder weather. It nests in a cavity and lies dormant all winter, tucked inside a tiny, hard cocoon. It doesn’t produce honey. And in many crops, mason bees outperform other pollinators.

Belly floppers
“Mason bees are clumsy and they belly-flop onto flowers. It’s so funny to watch,” said Thyra McKenzie, a Seattle resident who rents mason bees each year for her backyard.

Entomologists say mason bees are effective pollinators partly because of how they carry pollen. Honey bees wet pollen to make it sticky and carry it in baskets on their legs, but mason bees belly-flop onto flowers, then carry dry pollen on their abdomens. As they travel flower to flower, flecks fall off, doing the work of pollination.

Mason bees are also generalists, said Olivia Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees. Shangrow said honey bees are specialists that work systemically, but mason bees pop here and there, appearing “distracted,” which makes them great cross-pollinators.

Bee alternative
“Everybody’s nervous about colony collapse disorder in honey bees,” said Brian Bly, a grower with 9,000 almond acres at Hart Farms in Orland, Calif. “My farm is so reliant on pollinators, so we got mason bees as a plan B, a sort of insurance policy.”

Bly bought his first batch of 100,000 mason bees five years ago — not to replace honey bees, but to complement them.

Studies from Stanford University and USDA have shown a hive of honey bees is healthier, less stressed and twice as efficient when working alongside other pollinators.

Before using mason bees, Bly rented honey bees at $200 per hive, two hives per acre. Each hive contained up to 30,000 honey bees.

But because mason bees are more efficient pollinators, fewer are needed per acre. Bly said when he puts 1,000 mason bees on an acre, he only needs to rent one honey bee hive instead of two, cutting costs.

Bly said he also likes working with mason bees because they are easy to care for.

Watts estimates mason bee care takes about 20 minutes of setup-teardown per acre each year, plus a few days per 100 acres each fall opening nesting blocks, cleaning cocoons and putting hibernating bees in cold storage for the winter.

Some farms, Watts said, are also excited about marketing their food as “pollinator friendly” or “pollinated with native bees” to meet growing consumer demands.

“I’m very excited about the mason bees and I hope to keep expanding,” said Bly.

Bly said he hasn’t measured the difference in production yet, but when his honey bees are still inside their hives on cold mornings, he sees the mason bees outside working.

Some farmers have measured. One California almond grower who purchased mason bees from Watts Solitary Bees said his trees yielded 800 pounds more nuts per acre.

Through entomologists’ eyes
Compared to honey bee research, mason bee studies are relatively uncharted territory, so it’s hard to quantify how efficient mason bees are, said Theresa Pitts-Singer, entomologist at USDA’s bee lab.

Researchers do know mason bees are especially good at pollinating fruit trees such as apples and plums, said Buckley, WSDA’s pollinator health coordinator. Studies have also confirmed their effectiveness in pollinating almonds, early raspberry varieties, cherries and pears.

Lisa Horth, professor of biology at Old Dominion University in Virginia, found in a series of studies that using mason bees to pollinate strawberries makes berries “substantially larger.”

Horth said she’s involved in studies happening now tracking mason bee use in other crops. Although Horth said she can’t reveal details yet, she said the results are “amazing.”

What farmers should know
Researchers say they think the “mason bee revolution” is coming, but there’s a lot farmers should know first.

Just like honey bees, mason bees have adversaries. Buckley of WSDA said special nesting blocks should be used to keep out enemies, including Houdini flies and predatory wasps. Farmers should also do an annual cocoon cleaning to remove pollen mites.

Some bees will naturally disperse into the wild, making their nests in hollow stems, rockeries or woodpecker holes, said Shangrow, biologist for Rent Mason Bees.

Experts say putting a football-sized chunk of wet clay or mud every acre makes mason bees more likely to stay because they mud-cap their holes. To encourage bees to stick around, Buckley also encourages farmers to plant native shrubs and flowers around fields.

Mason bees only fly in a 300- to 400-foot radius from their nest, so farmers need to disperse nesting materials throughout their acreage. Watts Solitary Bees offers on-site consultations.

Farmers also need to plan ahead for their anticipated bloom date. Mason bees typically pollinate March through May, Watts said, but can be managed to fly earlier or later.

Adult mason bees hibernate in cocoons over winter. Bly, the California almond grower, simulates winter by keeping his bees in a climate-insulated container starting in August so they wake up to February almond blossoms.

But nature can only be bent so far, and entomologists say waking bees up too early or too late can kill them. Researchers say farmers should consult with bee experts.

Horth of Old Dominion said she has great respect for farmers of all kinds, organic and conventional, but said bees are safer on no-spray farms.

The well-known reason is that pesticides can kill adult bees if sprayed incorrectly.

The lesser-known reason is based on a discovery University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers made in 2019. In their larval state, mason bees are omnivores, feeding on tiny microbes in pollen. Farmers who spray insecticides may inadvertently kill larvae, which need microbes in their diet.

A farmer’s success with mason bees, Watts said, depends on their attitude and how closely they follow instructions.

Bee farming
Jim Watts is not the only mason bee producer. Entomologists say a few smaller-scale mason bee farmers are scattered throughout the U.S.

One is Dave Hunter, owner of Crown Bees in Woodinville, Wash.

Hunter recalls mason bees first caught his attention 20 years ago when his wife noticed the neighbors’ apple tree was drooping with ripe apples while their own tree was almost bare. When Hunter realized the neighbors had mason bees, he drilled holes in a block of wood to lure the bees with a nest and — voila! — the apples did better the next year.

Hunter started Crown Bees 12 years ago. Unlike Watts, he’s not yet at the commercial farm scale. Instead, he sells wholesale to about 500 nurseries and hardware stores across the nation, including Wilco. He said he is continuing to grow the business and hopes to reach commercial-scale farmers “soon.”

Bridging urban-rural divide
Perhaps the most inventive part of Watts Solitary Bees is its Rent Mason Bees program, designed to work in conjunction with its commercial side.

Over the past few years, thousands of people in suburban and urban areas have rented mason bees through the company, said Shangrow, the program’s biologist. The company sells rental kits of 60, 120 or 240 bees.

Shangrow said the program teaches people where their food comes from, pollinates backyard gardens and repopulates areas with native bees because some of the bees fly away.

By following simple instructions, renters encourage bees to breed, then ship young cocooned bees back to the company. Some of these bees will be put back in the program and end up in other renters’ backyards next spring; others will end up on farms, meaning city dwellers help raise bees for farms.

“I think native bees can be part of bridging the urban-rural divide,” said Watts.

McKenzie, the Seattle resident, started renting mason bees four years ago.

“My husband had been dead-set on getting honey bees. But come on. My little boy and his friends in a tiny backyard? That’s just asking for trouble,” she said.

When McKenzie learned about nonaggressive mason bees, she bought a rental kit.

“Now I’m hooked,” said McKenzie.

With her kids home from school this spring during the COVID-19 shutdown, McKenzie said the bees were an educational project about science, food and farming.

During the shutdown, hundreds of families stuck at home turned to Rent Mason Bees as a backyard science project.

Mason bee season is wrapping up for 2020, and Watts said orders for next year open this fall.

Beekeeping taking flight
Mason beekeeping is growing, but it still has a long way to go, researchers say.

Contrasted with millions of crop acres across the U.S. pollinated by honey bees, farms only raise mason bees on about 1,500 acres, said Watts.

But barriers are crumbling.

In 2016, mason bees cost upwards of $1 per bee. Now, Watts said he charges about 30 to 40 cents per bee. In the next few decades, experts predict the price per bee will fall to 5 cents.

“French wine is to the honey bee exactly what California wine is to the mason bee,” said Hunter of Crown Bees. “The honey bee industry is enormous and gets a lot of attention, but mason bees are the up-and-coming pollinators.”

More research about mason bees is underway, but it will take time and researchers will need farms to participate in experiments.

“I strongly believe this industry is at its tipping point,” said entomologist Pitts-Singer. “I’m very hopeful that after 40 years of knowing this bee was a good pollinator, its popularity will finally take flight.”

Lawsuit aims to forbid organic certification of hydroponics

A lawsuit against the USDA is seeking to forbid organic certification of hydroponic operations, arguing only soil-grown crops can legally qualify as organic.

The Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group, claims that cultivating plants hydroponically in nutrient solution violates the requirement to “foster soil fertility” of the Organic Foods Production Act, a 1990 statute that governs organic farming.

“That goes against a basic organic principle, and those principles are encoded in law,” said Sylvia Wu, attorney for the Center for Food Safety as well as several other farms and organizations suing the USDA.

Controversies over hydroponic production have been percolating in the organic community for years, but the plaintiffs decided to file a complaint after the USDA rejected their 2019 petition to exclude such operations from organic certification, she said.

Hydroponic crops are grown without soil. Instead, nutrients are mixed with water and go directly to the plants’ roots.

At this point, consumers at grocery stores don’t know whether they’re buying produce from an organic farmer who’s working to improve the soil, Wu said. “That organic tomato could very well be grown in a warehouse in Mexico.”

A spokesperson for the USDA said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

In denying the petition, the agency said that “a categorical prohibition to hydroponic production is not justified by the OFPA.”

Provisions in the law referring to improving soil quality or crop rotation only apply to farms that rely on soil but don’t require that “all organic production occur in a soil-based environment,” the USDA said.

Though resources are cycled and conserved differently in hydroponic operations, that doesn’t render them “incompatible with the vision for organic agriculture” in the statute, the USDA said.

“Hydroponic operations produce food in a way that can minimize damage to soil and water, and that can support diverse biological communities,” the agency said.

Organic hydroponic growers are disappointed in the lawsuit and believe its accusations reflect a lack of understanding of their production methods, said Lee Frankel, executive director of the Coalition for Sustainable Organics, which represents such operations.

Hydroponic greenhouses still rely on microbes to break down nutrients into forms that are available to plants and rely on composting green waste, similarly to other farming operations, he said.

Hydroponic systems also greatly reduce the demand for irrigation water while producing crops efficiently, which reduces their environmental footprint, Frankel said.

The OFPA and associated regulations are intended to provide farmers with flexibility, so not every practice mentioned in the statute is required, he said.

“I don’t think the USDA is about prescribing a one-size-fits-all,” Frankel said. “Every grower has their site-specific conditions that dictate how they grow.”

The complaint is motivated by a desire to limit supplies of organic fresh tomatoes grown in greenhouses, which have come to dominate the market, he said. “The plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit stated they don’t like that competition and feel like the prices need to be higher.”

The debate over hydroponics in organic farming stretches back more than two decades, with the National Organic Standards Board — which advises USDA — repeatedly reversing itself about whether the practice should be allowed.

Most recently, however, the NOSB voted in favor of continuing to allow organic certification of hydroponic operations in 2017.

The Center for Food Safety considers this decision an “anomaly,” as the broader industry narrative demonstrates the organic community’s resistance to the method, said Wu, the group’s attorney.

“It reflects the difference between corporate organic and family organic farmers.”

The NOSB’s 2017 recommendation won’t likely harm the lawsuit’s chances, as the statute is clear that improving soils is mandatory for organic farms, she said.

“Some requirements are discretionary, but not the soil fertility requirement,” Wu said.

Learn advanced high tunnel management techniques

There’s still time to register for a workshop offered Feb. 24 by Oregon State University Extension and the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance on high tunnel management.

The workshop will be conducted Feb. 24 from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Deschutes County Extension Building 3, 3800 SW Airport Way, Redmond. Lunch is included. Registrations, at the event website, must be completed by Feb. 21.

Andrew Mefferd, the editor of Growing for Market magazine, will present the workshop. Topics will include: Getting the most out of your hoophouse vegetable production; crop management strategies; advanced protected growing considerations; and an introduction to no-till agriculture.

For any questions contact Clare Sullivan at 541-602-2009, or email

Bee researchers draft new weapon in fight against deadly varroa mite

Honeybees, worth almost $20 billion to American agriculture, are worth protecting — and a new biological weapon scientists discovered may help combat honeybees’ main enemy, aptly named the varroa destructor.

The varroa destructor is a parasitic mite responsible for decimating honeybee hives. Now, in an effort to save bee colonies, researchers are tapping into an unlikely ally: the bacteria that live in bees’ guts.

In a January 2020 experiment, scientists engineered gut bacteria that occurs naturally in bees. The results, they reported, were astounding — the mites died after ingesting the manipulated bacteria, while the bees’ own immune systems were strengthened.

Outside the lab, researchers say they hope the technique can be scaled up to rescue full colonies.

But there’s a long road ahead.

Since the 1940s, the number of hives in the U.S. has nose-dived from 6 million to 2.5 million. From 2018 to 2019 alone, U.S. beekeepers lost more than 40% of their colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

A combination of colony-killing foes are blamed, but researchers say varroa mites pose the greatest threat.

“Varroa mites are the worst,” said Laura Lavine, entomology department chair at Washington State University. “They’re the most imminent threat to beehives in North America today.”

The mites kill bees by feeding on their fat stores, said Tim Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper and member of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. They also carry the deadly “deformed wing” virus, which they transmit to bees.

To put this in human scale, molecular biology researcher Sean Leonard said to imagine a mammoth tick clinging to you and feeding off your body.

“It’s like having a giant tick the size of your face sucking your blood,” said Leonard.

Leonard is a graduate student at the University of Texas studying cell and molecular biology. He is part of the research team that discovered the potential solution to combating varroa mites.

Leonard and his colleagues engineered double-stranded RNA to use as ammunition against varroa mites and the virus they carry.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, exists in all living cells. Its main role is to act as a messenger, carrying DNA’s protein-coding instructions to a cell’s reproduction machinery. But RNA can also be used to shut down invasive genetic materials.

The team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin used two similar but distinct techniques, one for killing the mites and another for combating the virus.

To attack the virus, the scientists used a preventive technique similar to vaccination in human or animal medicine. Using double-stranded RNA, they introduced a small portion of the genome into the bee, which strengthened the bee’s immune system against the later invasion of a full-scale virus.

“If you could compare it, it’s almost like getting a vaccine,” said Leonard.

To kill the varroa destructors, the research team attacked the mites’ immune systems directly.

Leonard figured out how to genetically modify Snodgrassella alvi, one of the bacteria in a bee’s gut, so it would produce RNA that matched the genetic material he wanted to dismantle.

The team then put the engineered bacteria into sugar water and fed it to honeybees. Later, when the mites fed off the bees, they ate the engineered bacteria — and died. The mites, which were forced to dismember some of their own genes, had been tricked into killing themselves.

Mites were 70% more likely to die on treated bees, and bees infected with the virus were 36% more likely to survive, the team reported.

“When we got those results in, we definitely started to get excited,” said Leonard. “I think this is such a promising technology. But we don’t have a marketable product yet.”

The techniques, though exciting, won’t immediately be available to beekeepers.

Critics are concerned about the use of engineered bacteria outside the lab, since bacteria in the wild are not easy to contain. Leonard said caution is crucial, but because the bacteria are not known to exist outside bees’ guts, he is not worried about cross-species infection.

Experts agree that more experimental work needs to be done on hives in controlled settings before testing the effectiveness on a mass scale.

It will take time, research, industry partners and funding to make this work, said Leonard.

Through his research, Leonard has developed an appreciation for bees.

“I’ve come to love these fascinating creatures,” he said. “There’s something amazing about opening a hive and seeing thousands of bees crawling all over and working together.”

When he completes his Ph.D., Leonard said, he hopes to join the ranks of U.S. beekeepers — hopefully in a world with fewer threats from varroa mites.

Training Latino farmers in sustainable ag

FOREST GROVE, Ore. — Growing up on his family’s 2-acre farm in Guatemala, Alejandro Tecum came to despise the arduous chore of hand-tilling fields to plant crops such as corn, beans and squash.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Tecum said he was also hurting the soil by robbing it of nutrients and organic matter needed to grow healthy food.

“We have destroyed the soil to an extreme that what we eat, it doesn’t contain nutrition anymore,” Tecum said during a recent interview from his office in Forest Grove, Ore., west of Portland. “We have killed all the life in the soil that provides the nutrients to the vegetable, for example.”

Tecum, 59, now teaches regenerative farming practices for Adelante Mujeres, a nonprofit organization that supports Latina women and their families through adult education and youth outreach programs.

Last year, Adelante Mujeres received a $400,000 grant to expand its sustainable agriculture program, working with five other groups in Western Oregon to help minority farmers start their own businesses, while learning to care for the land.

The project includes Rogue Farm Corps based in Ashland; Huerto de la Familia in Eugene; The Next Door in Hood River; Our Table Cooperative in Sherwood; and Zenger Farms in Portland.

A teacher by profession, Tecum was hired as the sustainable agriculture education manager for Adelante Mujeres in 2005. He has embraced regenerative farming, which he says goes beyond organic, and sworn off the conventional growing practices and chemicals he once used nonchalantly.

“It is the care we give to the soil,” Tecum said. “We feed the soil with every single organic matter that we can find.”

The 12-week course, taught entirely in Spanish, covers soil biology, pest management, disease management, composting and irrigation. That includes several hands-on workshops at the local Forest Grove Community Gardens.

“I have seen many changes in the participants,” Tecum said. “The best reward for me is when I go to their garden, their farms, and I see they are putting into practice the techniques that we are teaching them. When I see the soil becoming richer every year, or when they say, ‘Oh, I cannot eat vegetables from the store now, because of the flavor,’ that’s the kind of compliments I get.”

The real challenge, Tecum said, is convincing people to join the program. Most of the Latinos that come to Adelante Mujeres are trying to get away from farming — either they have already spent years working as a farm laborer, or because farming it is seen as a second-class job.

“I tell them that agriculture or farming is a science, and an art,” Tecum said. “I tell them that, if you come to the class, you may change your mind. And they do.”

The USDA grant will help them to reach even more Latino and Hispanic farmers by partnering with other nonprofits, forming the Western Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Collaborative, Tecum said.

According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture, Latino or Hispanic producers owned land on 1,666 Oregon farms and rented or leased land on 345 farms in 2017, accounting for about 5% of all farms statewide. That is roughly double the number from five years earlier, when Latino or Hispanic producers owned land on 803 farms and leased land on 186 farms.

Washington County has the highest percentage of Latinos in Oregon, rising from 50,000 in 2000 to almost 90,000 in 2014. Adelante Mujeres originally began as a program under Centro Cultural de Washington County, Oregon’s oldest Latino nonprofit, before spinning off as its own group in 2002.

The sustainable agriculture program started in 2005, in conjunction with Adelante Mujeres relaunching the Forest Grove Farmers Market.

From providing jobs to introducing healthier eating habits, Tecum said the program has proven invaluable to the community.

“I think it is necessary, if we want to live a good life, to eat healthy food,” Tecum said. “The only way to eat healthy food is to take care of the soil.”