How a 270 Acre Farm in New York is Using Biotech and Precision Ag for Organic Fruit & Veg Production

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Fishkill Farms is a 270-acre farm in Duchess County, New York, producing a variety of fruits and vegetables and pastured eggs. Apple orchards take up the majority of the farm’s 150 acres of arable land, and about a quarter of apple acreage is grown organically, as well as berries and vegetables, with the remainder eco-certified.

Josh Morgenthau is the owner and operator of the farm, which has been in his family since 1913. Morgenthau did not grow up on the farm as his parents worked in New York City, but he moved to the Hudson Valley after college in 2008 and soon started running the operation.

He is a progressive farmer that thinks deeply about sustainability and ecological farming, and experiments with new technologies. We caught up with him to find out more.

What encouraged you to go back to the farm when your father had not?

That’s a great question as I didn’t study agriculture in school; I was an artist, and I moved back to the farm to paint, but then I started wanting to get involved in the production on the farm and started to farm and garden and fell in love with it. I also had a deep desire to preserve the farm and keep the land open as the original 1,000 acres farm was split between my father and his two siblings who both sold it on for development, so only our portion remained farmland. Also, the more I learned about food production in this country and the culture around it, the more the idea of doing something progressive and sustainable really appealed.

Was it still being farmed in the intervening year?

There was an orchard there that had been a continuous business but was leased out to other farmers when my father’s farm manager retired. The orchard a little neglected and the facilities were in need of some TLC; it was a big project to renovate the orchard, get the trees pruned and the equipment needed to get replaced. We also had a tragic barn fire in 2009, so in many ways, the farm was a startup again.

Without any farming experience yourself, how did you go about getting it going?

A huge part of that was knowing how to self-teach and finding the right mentors and resources. Luckily in Hudson Valley, there are a lot of good sources of information, and I was able to form relationships with other farmers who helped me out. Also, Cornell University [in nearby Ithaca, New York] has a cooperative extension, and they were really helpful, and then there’s a research lab in Highland, Hudson Valley — Hudson Valley Research Laboratory — so I have their numbers on speed dial. They were very helpful in the first few years and I still work with them on a few research trials they’re conducting on our land.

What sort of research trials?

We’re looking at parasitic soil-dwelling nematodes as a bio-control for plum curculio, a pest that can really wipe out your crop in an organic orchard.

On the eco-verified plots, we’re also looking at some trees guards that go around the base of the trees and are impregnated with a pesticide to control dogwood borer and black stem borer. Lots of growers just spray a broad spectrum pesticide across the whole orchard to control them, which can harm pollinators and the local land. Much of our strategy is aimed towards minimising pesticide use.

Do you do a lot of research into biological pest and weed control alternatives?

We’re not equipped to do real scientific trials on our own so having the Hudson Valley research lab as a collaborator has been really key.

Have you come across any new companies or startups with new biocontrol offerings?

We don’t get approached by them regularly but we are using more and more botanical and bio-fungicides, and we’re having a reasonable degree of success with some materials, which instead of operating like a conventional fungicide, they introduce another fungal or bacterial agent which provides competitive pressure against the diseases we’re trying to control. We use a few products made by Marrone- Bio quite a bit, like Regalia, which offers systemic resistance and we found that worked very nicely for apple rust.

There are a few very well funded startups researching the plant and soil microbiome to create microbial products. Do you think about the microbiome? Is that a term you commonly use?

We think about it, but it’s a field that’s very nascent in terms of our understanding of how to create a healthy microbiome and how that impacts the health of the trees and crops. But we are doing things we think will encourage a health soil microtome without necessarily dedicating scientific trials and studies to it.

For example, we’re not using any synthetic herbicides anywhere on the farm; we’re using a mix of wood chip mulch and mowing and cultivation to encourage healthy soils with fungal populations as there’s lots of evidence that those populations helps trees gain access to more micronutrients and create a healthier root system for the trees. My sense there’s a lot more micro biome research work being done on vegetable crops than organic orcharding.

Do you use any precision agriculture tools?

One application we use is a disease modeling tool called RimPro that was developed in the Netherlands. It basically into the weather station on the farm to look historically what’s actually happened, and also hooks into a global forecasting system to predict what’s going to happen in terms of temperature, rainfall and wetting periods. Lot of diseases can’t be infectious without a sustained wetting period at a certain temperature, so the model looks at the forecast and tells us that there is this percent chance of an apple scab perfection or fire blight. Conventional wisdom was to spray before the rain, so this model allows us to cut out a lot of sprays. In a lot of incidences it says “yes, it will rain but the temperature will be in the high 50s and not 60s meaning the apple scab can’t successfully spread. If in some cases we get an infection we weren’t anticipating, the model can tell us and we can come back in with with retroactive fungicidal activity using a kickback material. That approach cut out maybe half our sprays for fungicides at the beginning of season.

Has RimPro been pretty accurate?

We have seen really good results this season; we didn’t have any major apple scab or fire blight issues. We’ve had more issues in seasons when we spray more.

What’s the cost of RimPro for you?

The annual subscription is around $200-300 so it’s affordable.

What’s your process for adopting a new technology?

Usually we will want to hear that it’s being used successfully in research orchards or other orchards. We did a trial this year where we looked at four different biofungicides for summer rots in organic apples, and we’re probably going to replicate that trial next year, then that will help tell us which new material is going to be most effective. But a lot of times, we’re looking to see whether there are scientific trials that show efficacy, but if there’s a dearth of trials, then we will look at conducting our own.

How long do you need to do a trial for to feel comfortable adopting the tech?

It depends on how conclusive the results are. The trial we did this year with the biofungicides did not produce robust enough data for us to say we don’t need to do it again next year.

What about your decision to adopt RimPro?

We found out about them through an eco-apple network. There was an annual meeting and Mark Trapan who is one of the people who designed it in Netherlands gave a presentation and showed us some of the results. The results looked compelling enough that we felt it was worth trying straight away.

What are the biggest challenges you face on the farm?

For ag production, it’s the pests.

Elsewhere, our challenges are around marketing. we’re unique in that we’re mainly retail focused and do our own direct sales through variety of channels, from a CSA to farmers markets to pick your own and a farm store on our property. So in this part of the business, marketing has its own challenges. If we have a rainy weekend in the peak of the season, we will lose a lot of revenue and that opens a whole other can of worms.

We have been using tech on that side too to help, however, including social media and communications with customers online, but also a new point of sale system in our store. We’ve transitioned from old fashioned registers to tablet-based system and it’s really phenomenal as it allows us to pull reports on sales really easily and we can see at midday on a certain busy day, how many donuts we’ve sold or gallons of cider we’ve sold, so it’s great for analysis.

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