NRCS grants include Oregon orchard soil nutrition study

Eric Mortenson • Capital Press

Published on September 14, 2016  9:06AM

Eric Mortenson


Oregon orchardist Mike Omeg will test a soil and plant nutrition program developed by an Amish farmer with an eighth grade education who has become one of the country’s leading advocates of alternative farming methods.

Omeg, who grows cherries near The Dalles, will work with Oregon State University and Washington State University staff on a three-year grant provided by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. They’ll compare parts of the orchard managed with conventional, industry-standard methods to sections operated with what Omeg described as “intensive nutrient management” of the soil and trees.

The latter method includes applying a mix of mulch and compost to the soil and bi-weekly analysis of plant sap in cherry tree leaves. The sap analysis provides a timeline of the plant’s health and reportedly can give advance warning of pest and disease problems.

Omeg said the system is based on plant and soil biology.

“Instead of trying to balance calcium by applying more to the soil,” he said as an example, “what you try to do is stimulate the soil biology so that (it) makes more calcium available.”

Omeg said he and the university researchers are trying to determine if a nutrient- and soil-centered management approach will work on a commercial scale.

They’ll compare cherry yield and quality, especially size and firmness. They’ll also evaluate trees’ susceptibility to powdery mildew, a major disease problem for cherries, under the two management programs.

“The third thing we’ll do is look at what the economic costs are,” Omeg said. “What’s the income versus expense. In order to be viable, it’s got to be profitable. It needs to be something that makes sense economically.”

The work is funded by a $74,612 NRCS grant, and the method is drawn from the work of Ohio farmer John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, a consulting firm. Kempf, part of an Amish community in Northern Ohio, has only an eighth grade education but drove himself to understand the disease and pest problems he was seeing on his family’s fruit and vegetable farm.

Omeg, who is a member of the Capital Press Board of Directors, met Kempf at a soil conference four years ago, hit it off and put his methods into action on 50 acres of his orchard in The Dalles.

“Their program in the first year already beat mine in net return per acre,” Omeg said. “I was very surprised.”

He hopes the project will demonstrate the approach is commercially viable in Northwest orchards.

Other NRCS grants awarded recently in Oregon include:

• $75,000 to Portland State University to reduce nitrous oxide emissions and groundwater nitrate on Southern Willamette Valley farmland.

• $74,989 to WyEast Resource Conservation and Development to develop a computer application that will allow producers to forecast irrigation needs and pump more efficiently.

• $150,000 to EcoTrust Forest Management, Portland, to develop an investment fund that will combine public and private money and improve forest productivity and conservation in Oregon and Washington.

• $351,028 to the Xerces Society, Portland, to establish a “Bee Better Farming” certification program. The certification is intended to be an incentive for producers and others to take part in large-scale pollinator conservation programs.