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  • Author or Editor: Deborah L. Allan x
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Consumer demand for organically grown produce has increased dramatically over the past decade, most likely because of the perceived benefits to the environment and human health. A major component of organic production is providing organic sources of nutrients to promote plant growth as well as sustain soil quality. Organic nutrition of plants can present opportunities and challenges to the grower. The primary objective of this article is to review scientifically based information dealing with the effects of organic nutrient sources on crop yields and quality, soil properties, and environmental risks. Effects of organic nutrient sources are often evaluated by comparison with conventional production, but this approach can be problematic because nutrient source may be confounded with many other cropping system components. Despite these drawbacks, a careful examination of the literature suggests the following conclusions. Soil quality is generally improved with application of organic nutrient sources, but careful management is required to avoid environmental risks of nitrate (NO3) leaching and phosphorus accumulation. Provided that nutrient supply is equal, yields with organic sources tend to be similar to those with inorganic sources. However, lack of available nitrogen (N) that is synchronous with plant demand often limits yields in organic cropping systems. Limited N availability and varied supply of other nutrients from organic sources may contribute to the differences sometimes observed in dry matter content, tissue NO3 and mineral concentration, vitamin C and other phytochemicals, and taste. Phytonutrient content also may be affected by differences in pest control strategies among cropping systems regardless of nutrient source. There is a slight, but significantly, increased risk of produce contamination by Escherichia coli and other enteric bacteria contamination on produce when organic nutrient sources are used, but if proper guidelines are followed, contamination with the lethal serotype O157:H7 does not appear to be a major concern. Appropriate management of organic inputs is critical to achieving potential benefits for crop production and soil quality.

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The effects of pH and N form on growth and nutrition of blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum L. × V. angustifolium Ait. cv. Northblue) and cranberry (V. macrocarpon Ait. cv. Searles) were tested in separate greenhouse hydroponic experiments. A factorial treatment arrangement of two pH levels (4.5 and 6.5) and three N forms (NO3-N, NH4-N, and NH4-N/NO3-N) was used for each clone. Blueberry shoot growth and final dry weight were greatest at pH 4.5, regardless of N form. In contrast, cranberry fresh weight accumulation and final dry weight were higher with NH4-N/NO3-N or NH4-N than with NO3-N alone. Cranberry plants receiving NO3-N alone accumulated low levels of tissue N and grew relatively poorly at both pH levels. Differences in N response by these two species may be due partially to the environments in which they were selected. Soil from the site where `Northblue' blueberry was selected contained relatively high NO3-N and low NH4-N levels; soil from commercial `Searles' cranberry bogs had relatively low NO3-N and high NH4-N levels. Both species accumulated relatively high levels of root Fe, regardless of pH or N form. Levels of Fe in the root were as much as 100 times higher than in the shoot. Based on X-ray microanalysis of cranberry roots, most of the Fe appeared to be precipitated on the root surface as iron phosphate. Concentrations of Mn in shoots and roots depended on N form and pH. In general, root Mn was highest at pH 6.5 and apparently was precipitated with Fe.

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The effect of N form and solution pH on the carboxylic and phenolic acid content of cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon Ait. cv. Searles) shoots and roots was determined in a greenhouse experiment. The predominant carboxylic acids measured were malate and citrate. Protocatechuic acid was the dominant phenolic acid detected. Total organic acid concentrations were unaffected by N form supplied. In shoots, higher total concentrations of organic acids were found at pH 4.5 than at 6.5 in the shoot, but there was little pH effect in the roots.

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Winter annual cover crops, winter rye (Secale cereale L.) and hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth), can reduce weed density and build soil quality in organic production systems. There is interest in integrating cover crops and reduced tillage with organic vegetable production, but few studies have been conducted in regions with short growing seasons and cool soils such as the upper Midwest. We evaluated no-tillage production of tomato (Solanum lycopersicum L.), zucchini (Cucurbita pepo L.), and bell pepper (Capsicum annuum L.) planted into winter rye, hairy vetch, and a winter rye/hairy vetch (WR/HV) mixture that were mechanically suppressed with a roller–crimper at two locations in Minnesota. Average marketable yields of tomato, zucchini, and bell pepper in the rolled cover crops were reduced 89%, 77%, and 92% in 2008 and 65%, 41%, and 79% in 2009, respectively, compared with a no-cover control. Winter rye and the WR/HV mixture reduced average annual weed density at St. Paul by 96% for 8 to 10 weeks after rolling (WAR) and hairy vetch mulch reduced weeds 80% for 2 to 8 WAR, whereas at Lamberton, there was no consistent effect of cover treatments on weed populations. Winter rye and the WR/HV mixture had higher average residue biomass (5.3 and 5.7 Mg·ha−1, respectively) than hairy vetch (3.0 Mg·ha−1) throughout the season. Soil growing degree-days (SGDD) were lower in cover crop treatments compared with the no-cover control, which could have delayed early vegetable growth and contributed to reduced yields. All cover crop mulches were associated with low levels of soil nitrogen (N) (less than 10 mg·kg−1 N) in the upper 15 cm. Rolled winter annual cover crops show promise for controlling annual weeds in organic no-tillage systems, but additional research is needed on methods to increase vegetable crop yields in rolled cover crops.

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