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Nathan Shoaf, Lori Hoagland and Daniel S. Egel

Phytophthora blight has become one of the most serious threats to the vegetable industry. Managing this disease is challenging, because the oomycete pathogen responsible, Phytophthora capsici, can move rapidly through crop fields, has a wide host range, is resistant to many commonly used fungicides, and produces resilient spores that can survive in soil for up to 10 years. Recent studies have demonstrated that biochar amendments can suppress infection by many soil-borne pathogens—indicating that these amendments could have the potential to help control phytophthora blight. In this study, greenhouse trials were conducted to determine whether two commercially available biochar amendments could suppress P. capsici infection in sweet bell pepper (Capsicum annuum) using three naturally infested field soils. Soil biological and chemical assays were conducted to evaluate whether potential changes induced by biochar amendments were correlated with suppressive activity. Amending soil with a biochar product that included a proprietary mix of beneficial microorganisms and enriched substrates resulted in lower soil P. capsici abundance in all soils, and lower percent root infection in two of the soils tested. This product also resulted in higher soil pH, and lower soil nitrogen availability and leaf chlorophyll content. The other biochar product did not suppress P. capsici, and had few effects on soil chemical and biological properties. Results of this study indicate that some commercially available biochar amendments have the potential to help mediate phytophthora blight, but further trials are needed to confirm that suppressive effects will be observed in field trials. Additional research is also recommended to identify the mechanisms regulating biochar-mediated suppression of phytophthora blight to develop products that can reliably suppress soil-borne diseases in the field.

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Dan TerAvest, Jeffrey L. Smith, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Lori Hoagland, David Granatstein and John P. Reganold

Synchronizing the supply of plant-available nitrogen (N) from organic materials with the N needs of apple trees is essential to cost-effective organic apple production. Tree growth and organic matter mineralization are affected by orchard floor management. This study examines the effects of three orchard floor management systems, cultivation, wood chip mulch, and a legume cover crop, on the accumulation and partitioning of compost-derived N in young apple (Malus domestica Borkh.) trees at different compost application dates across two growing seasons. Compost enriched with 15N was applied to apple trees in April, May, and June of 2006 and 2007, and trees were excavated in Sept. 2007 to determine the fate of labeled compost N. Trees with wood chip mulch had significantly greater dry weight and N accumulation in vegetative tree components than trees with cultivation or legume cover. Fruit yields were similar between cultivation and wood chip treatments despite less vegetative growth under cultivation, as these trees partitioned more dry weight into fruit (44%) than wood chip mulch trees (31%). Nitrogen-use efficiency by trees was lower with a living legume cover crop than in other treatments due to competition for resources. In the cover crop aboveground biomass, 20% to 100% of the N was derived from compost. In comparison, only 5% to 40% of N in the decomposing wood chip mulch originated from compost. Tree reserves were an important source of N for spring fruit and leaf growth in all treatments, but significantly more so for trees in the cultivation treatment. Fruit and leaves were strong sinks for compost N early in the season, with trees allocating 72% of spring N uptake into leaves and fruit. In the summer, N uptake increased improving compost N-use efficiency. Summer N was preferentially allocated to perennial tissues (71%), bolstering N reserves. Trees with wood chip mulch performed well and had greater capacity to build N reserves, making wood chips ideal for establishing young organic apple orchards. However, as the orchard matures, it may be beneficial to switch to a groundcover that reduces tree vegetative growth.

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Lori Hoagland, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, David Granatstein, Frank Peryea, Jeff Smith and John Reganold

Organic orchards represent a significant and growing component of Washington state agriculture. Comparison studies have shown that organic apple systems can be equally profitable yet more environmentally sustainable than their conventional counterparts. Despite this success, sustainable methods of weed control, fertility, and soil quality stabilization and improvement have remained a challenge. Intensive cultivation is commonly used to control weeds in organic orchards. This can lead to reduced or degraded soil organic matter, structure, water infiltration, aerated pore space, and other soil productivity parameters. In addition, tillage accelerates nutrient cycling and can result in the loss of valuable nutrients from the system. To address the need for sustainable organic methods of weed management, an integrated study of alternative understory management options was established in a newly planted orchard in 2005. Weed control measures included efficient tillage using a Wonder weeder, organically approved herbicide, wood chip mulch, and living cover mulches. Three rates of nitrogen (low, medium, and high) were applied across the Wonder weeder, wood chip, and living cover mulch plots in order to determine ideal N fertility rate. Analyses of total C and N and N-15 in organic fertilizers, soil pools, living cover biomass, and tree leaves are being used to track N and C cycling and partitioning, N-use efficiency, soil quality, and to determine optimal fertility guidelines. Preliminary results indicate intense competition between living mulch understory and orchard trees, and a trade-off may exist between maximizing soil quality and orchard productivity.

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Dan TerAvest, Jeffrey L. Smith, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, David Granatstein, Lori Hoagland and John P. Reganold

This study evaluated the effects of in-row groundcovers (bare ground, brassica seed meal, cultivation, wood chip mulch, legume cover crop, and non-legume cover crop) and three compost rates (48, 101, and 152 kg available nitrogen (N)/ha/year) on soil carbon (C) pools, biological activity, N supply, fruit yield, and tree growth in a newly planted apple (Malus domestica Borkh.) orchard. We used nonlinear regression analysis of C mineralization curves to differentiate C into active and slow soil C pools. Bare ground and cultivation had large active soil C pools, 1.07 and 0.89 g C/kg soil, respectively, but showed little stabilization of C into the slow soil C pool. The use of brassica seed meal resulted in increased soil N supply, the slow soil C pool, and earthworm activity but not total soil C and N, fruit yield, or tree growth. Legume and non-legume cover crops had increased microbial biomass and the slow soil C pool but had lower fruit yield and tree growth than all other groundcovers regardless of compost rate. Soils under wood chip mulch had elevated earthworm activity, total soil C and N, and the slow soil C pool. Wood chip mulch also had the greatest cumulative C mineralization and a high C:N ratio, which resulted in slight N immobilization. Nevertheless, trees in the two wood chip treatments ranked in the top four of the 13 treatments in both fruit yield and tree growth. Wood chip mulch offered the best balance of tree performance and soil quality of all treatments.

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Matt A. Rudisill, Bruce P. Bordelon, Ronald F. Turco and Lori A. Hoagland

Use of high tunnel crop production is expected to increase to meet the growing demand for locally produced fresh market vegetables. These structures have the potential to offer many production benefits; however, managing soil quality in these structures is challenging and work in the area is limited. In this 3-year study, we compared the impacts of organic and inorganic fertility amendments on soil quality, nutrient availability, and the productivity of chard (Beta vulgaris L.) and sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum L.) produced in high tunnel and open field systems. Fertility amendments included a green manure treatment [hairy vetch (Vicia villosa Roth) and dehydrated alfalfa meal], partially composted and pelletized chicken litter, urea, and an unfertilized control. Chard was grown in 2011, and peppers were grown in 2012 and 2013. Soil nutrients, microbial activity, active carbon, pH, electrical conductivity (EC), total soil organic matter, and yield were quantified. Chard yield was lower in the high tunnel compared with the open field in 2011, but pepper yield was greater in the high tunnel in 2012 and 2013. Productivity of chard was lower in the green manure compared with urea in 2011 across high tunnel and open field production systems, but no difference in pepper yield was observed between plants receiving fertility inputs in either 2012 or 2013. Repeated application of green manure and chicken litter resulted in soils with increased microbial activity and active carbon, but the green manure was the only treatment successful at accruing carbon in the high tunnel over time. High tunnel production resulted in greater EC compared with the open field, but levels were not considered inhibitory for chard or peppers. High tunnels can increase vegetable crop productivity in the midwest United States, and organic fertility amendments can improve soil quality as measured by soil microbial activity and active carbon in high tunnel and open field production systems.

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Lori Hoagland, John Navazio, Jared Zystro, Ian Kaplan, Jose Gomez Vargas and Kevin Gibson

Local production of organic tomatoes marketed directly to consumers is growing rapidly in the U.S. Midwest. Growers serving this market need cultivars that are well adapted to local climatic conditions, are competitive under organic management, and have end-use quality characteristics desired by their customers. Participatory plant breeding is a powerful, cost-effective approach with potential to engage growers in development of new cultivars optimally adapted to organic farming systems. To initiate a participatory breeding program for organic tomatoes an online grower survey was conducted to identify key plant traits, and a diverse set of tomato germplasm was evaluated under organic management to better understand horticultural constraints and identify adapted germplasm for further development. Tomato growers rated flavor as their top breeding priority, followed by disease resistance with late blight (LB) (Phytophthora infestans), early blight (EB) (Alternaria solani), and septoria leaf spot (SLS) (Septoria lycopersici) identified as the most problematic diseases. In field trials, foliar diseases were problematic in both years, though many entries exhibited partial resistance. Differences among entries in resistance to insect pests such as hornworms (Manduca sexta) were also observed. Yield varied widely among entries with some of the F1 hybrids and heirloom cultivars performing well despite significant disease pressure. Overall, we identified existing cultivars and F1 hybrids with potential to meet the immediate needs of Midwest organic tomato growers, and segregating breeding populations for further selection to be conducted on working organic farms.