An Interview with David Granatstein
In 1989, you were hired as the project manager for the Northwest Dryland Cereal/Legume Cropping Systems Project at Washington State University (WSU). What led to that job, and what was the most valuable outcome of that project?
After finishing graduate school, where I had returned from my farming experience to gain more knowledge of soils, I took a job in Minnesota working with farmers facing both environmental challenges (serious groundwater contamination) as well as economic woes (the mid-1980s farm crisis). When I was offered the job back at WSU, I saw it as a chance to return to the region, and work on one of the first sustainable agriculture projects funded by USDA (the LISA program, now SARE). Probably the most valuable outcome was creating a body of knowledge about dryland farming from across a very diverse region that growers could use to look for alternatives to try on their farms. We created a database of 100 years of dryland research, and rediscovered a number of sound principles for growers to incorporate. Crop rotation was one of the most important, and this can be a challenge in dry regions.
You been involved with the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) since its naissance. What is the goal of CSANR and how do you help achieve that goal?
I was part of a group of faculty envisioning a sustainable agriculture center at WSU, after watching centers being formed at Iowa State University (Leopold Center) and UC Davis (SAREP). We had a critical mass of interested faculty and supportive administrators. The Center was established by the state legislature, but no funds were provided. I was hired as the first full-time person to work in the Center, and started from scratch. Over time, we have tackled a number of issues, had our successes and setbacks, and are now well established within the University. Our goal was, and is, to enhance sustainability of agriculture in the state. While I don’t expect we will ever fully achieve that goal, the Center has made important contributions in areas such as climate-friendly farming, soil quality, small farms, and organic agriculture. Most of our work is in research and extension rather than in the classroom with students.
What are some of the most interesting research projects you have worked on (focusing on organic), and what did the results of those projects show?
I became involved in research on orchard floor management given my interest in soils and my location in the heart of orchard country. At the time, organic tree fruit was already important in the state and growing. Weed control and soil fertility were two linked problems that growers faced. I explored several options, including mulching. Mulching, particularly with wood chips, has not turned out to be a great weed control but has delivered pretty consistent tree benefits in terms of growth and fruit yield. One offshoot was to couple mulch with the use of entomopathogenic nematodes (EPNs), which are nematodes that attack insects. I partnered with an entomologist to see whether mulch would enhance the effectiveness of this biocontrol for codling moth, the key pest of apple. And it did. We were able to achieve 90-95 percent mortality of codling moth larvae in the mulch layer. The next step was to find a way to attract the larvae to the mulch in the fall, apply the EPNs, and dramatically lower pest populations, but this work has not yet occurred. Another mulch project involved testing the use of a sprayable paper mulch on vegetable crops to see whether it could provide critical post-emergent weed control to help reduce hand weeding. We did have successful results, but the logistics of doing this were a limiting factor to commercial adoption.
What is your current involvement with organic apples and pears?
Since I am based at the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center, and since I have long had an interest in organic, and since tree fruit is the most important organic crop in the state economically, I have gotten increasingly involved in organic tree fruit issues over the years. I just completed a project looking at several weed management systems in organic apples and pears, and finished a five-year study of four perennial legumes planted in orchard alleys for their potential to grow internal nitrogen. I have a small study on growing mulch in the orchard as an alternative to hauling in material. I am involved in producing an annual summary of organic agriculture in the state, mainly looking at acreage of crops, but now also examining yields and economic value. And I have been involved with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) deliberations on the phase-out of antibiotics for control of fire blight on organic apples and pears. I helped to form the national Organic Tree Fruit Working Group to provide input on the issue, and we are still active trying to help growers with the upcoming transition to non-antibiotic control. I also organized the first organic session at the Washington State Horticulture Association conference—which is now an annual part of the program—and was the co-chair of the international organic fruit research symposium held here in June 2012.
Tell us a little about the surveys you have done examining Washington apple and pear growers’ reactions to the sunset of fire blight.
I began gathering feedback from growers in the audience at organic tree fruit meetings several years ago using an audience participation system where people can response anonymously to questions projected on the screen. I was doing this to get feedback on priority research needs. When the fire blight issue arose, I incorporated a number of questions on this. I surveyed growers for three years in a row, keeping some questions the same and introducing some new ones. From this, it was obvious that many growers did not feel that suitable replacements to antibiotics were yet available, and thus they would consider reducing their organic apple or pear production due to the risk that fire blight poses. I was surprised that 73 percent of the growers in the audience said they had tried a non-antibiotic fire blight approach, but only 33 percent felt that is was successful. This pointed to the need for more research, more grower education, and, in my opinion, an extension of the sunset to allow for a smoother transition.
What do you hope to accomplish with the current project you are working on with Harold Ostenson in collaboration with The Organic Center? How do you think it will improve the future for organic apple and pear growers?
Given that NOSB failed to approve a two-year extension for antibiotic use for fire blight control, growers need all the help and encouragement they can get to retain their organic apple and pear production without undue added risk of fire blight infection and damage. The OREI research project is making good progress, but will not be completed for another year or so. Harold had accumulated extensive experience working with dozens of growers who were in the EU program, where they could not use antibiotics for three consecutive years in order to be able to export organic apples and pears to Europe. We thought that by putting this experience on paper, it could help growers look at some new approaches, encourage them to try non-antibiotic control in their orchards, and build confidence that this could work. We see this information as very complementary to that coming from the OREI project, as well as to the availability of some new control materials, such as the yeast product and new low-metal copper products. Ideally, we can prevent a large exodus of apple and pear acreage from organic production, and enable growers to supply the steadily increasing demand for these products. There was no discernible negative impact on organic apple or pears sales this past spring from all the publicity around the allowance of antibiotic use for fire blight on organic apples and pears. Organic apple shipments from Washington State reached an all-time high of over 8 million 40-pound boxes as of early July 2013. So, we would like to help minimize the threat of fire blight as a barrier to the continued vibrancy of the organic tree fruit sector.