Sunday, May 8, 2016

Spring Plastic Removal Day, Organic Agriculture, Roundup, Mulch, and Worms

Yesterday I celebrated spring plastic removal day. Every fall, I wrap my house in a bubble by enclosing my 3/4 wrap-around porch in greenhouse plastic. It provides a sunroom for the winter and cuts down on our home heating costs. I usually take the plastic down around May 1. It feels liberating the next morning to look out on my orchard in the front yard, from inside the house, without the plastic distorting the view. I keep an orchard of about an acre, with blueberries, raspberries, elderberries, aronia berries, hardy kiwis, tart cherries, pawpaws, table and concord grapes, apples, pears, apricots, and peaches. The cherries, apples, pears, and pawpaws are in bloom right now, and the hardy kiwis and table grapes are beginning to leaf out. Warmth in early March encouraged the plants to start waking up early, and that warmth was followed by an unusual cold snow event that destroyed most of my peach blossom buds. Out of 7 peach trees, we might only have 2-3 peaches this year!  That's 4 years in a row with basically no peach crop. The Albany area is borderline for peach production, though climate change is gradually making it better. The peach buds start to winter kill around -15F. Last winter was Albany New York's warmest on record (blame a combination of El NiƱo and climate change), but it also included the coldest individual night in more than 10 years.

I planted my orchard in soil with insufficient potassium and phosphorus for healthy fruit production. The people who contoured the land 16 years ago neglected to collect and replace the topsoil, leading to depression of these nutrients. I have been working for years to build the soil back up. Soils with insufficient concentrations in potassium, phosphorus, and boron can increase plant sensitivity to winter damage. I am rebuilding the soil with a thick layer of composted wood chip mulch along with potassium sulfate and mono ammonium phosphate. My soil is now full of worms and teaming with life.

I manage my orchard with a combination of organic and conventional techniques. I choose my pest and fungus control methods based on what works and what has been shown to be safe, not based on urban (or rural) legends or an assumption that organic is always best. Some people are dogmatic against use of chemicals, as if the word "chemical" itself implies something dangerous. Modern chemicals, hybridization, and genetic modification demonstrably increase the productivity of agriculture and allow us to feed the modern world. Anyone who argues otherwise is ignoring the evidence in favor of dogmatism. I like to make my pest control decisions based on evidence. It is true that some types of pests are just nuisances. A hole in an apple can be a minor problem (unless you want to store the apple for several months, because the holes encourage rot). Yet, some insects can completely destroy a whole crop, and some fungal pests can kill plants, make the fruit unpalatable, or produce natural chemicals that are toxic to humans and other life. Those toxins might be natural, but so is rattlesnake poison.

I reclaimed my orchard area from a wild meadow that was full of noxious weeds. Roundup weed killer can be a gardner's best friend in preparing a landscape for planting, but once the orchard is growing, it is difficult to use Roundup without damaging the crop plants. Over the years I have used organic techniques to replace the need for Roundup weed control. These techniques include flaming seedling weeds with a propane burner and building up a thick layer of composted wood chip mulch.

I'm not opposed to wise use of Roundup, however. I have read some interesting studies that have been interpreted to suggest that it is allegedly dangerous to humans. These studies claim, for example, that Roundup caused the death of human liver or umbilical cells in a petri dish. The culprit ingredient is the adjuvant, or the substance that causes the chemical to stick to the leaves of plants.
These studies, along with the numerous websites that repeat their claims, neglected to report that this component of Roundup is the same compound that allows baby shampoo to produce suds!  This same compound can be derived naturally from coconuts and from fats obtained from meats. Related compounds are frequently applied in organic agriculture as insecticidal soaps because they disrupt cell membranes, leading to death of soft-bodied insects. It is thus no surprise that this compound kills human cells in a petri dish--it disrupts the lipid bilayers of human cell membranes in the same way that baby shampoo cuts grease. Yet, to suggest that this component of Roundup is dangerous to humans as applied in fields is patently ridiculous, given that those who eat coconuts ingest it without complaint. It is no more dangerous to you than baby shampoo. Although injecting fully concentrated baby shampoo into your blood might be deadly, coming into external contact with it is not harmful. I'm not claiming that all components of Roundup are definitely safe. My point is simply that many people who make specific claims that it is dangerous often rely on misleading information from studies that have not been completely honest about the context in which their studies imply that Roundup can cause harm to humans. The majority of people who believe the claims of anti-Roundup websites do so because the website views are consistent with their pre existing biases.

For the sake of those who might consider my future offer of fruit from my orchard, but who might be opposed to Roundup use, please rest assured that I don't spray it anywhere close to my grape vines and fruit trees, else it would kill them too.