Trailblazer

Features - Grower of the Year

Steve Black of Raemelton Farm possesses a fearless drive to implement unconventional production practices.

December 27, 2016
Kelli Rodda
Photos by Larry Canner

Undaunted by words like experimental or uncharted, Steve Black, founder of Raemelton Farm, boldly executes innovative systems at his B&B nursery in Adamstown, Md.

From the road, it may look like a typical nursery, but it’s the antithesis of ordinary. There are trees lined up in rows, tractors parked on site, crew members pruning or scouting – the classic nursery scene. But on closer inspection, the farm is home to several leading-edge procedures, especially Black’s latest endeavor.

In early 2016, he introduced to the market USDA certified organic B&B, landscape-ready trees – a first for the industry.

“Consumers are increasingly interested in how the things they buy are produced,” Black says. “Amazon Prime has a service that tells you what aquifer the water in your baby wipes comes from. Plant production has been behind the black curtain. But now consumers want to know about pollinator protection and water conservation. This all fed into the idea to produce a tree in an incredibly sustainable way.”

He chose the USDA organic certification because it’s recognizable and it’s a confirmation of the steps he’s taking in production.

“If you don’t have a third-party verification, it’s just a statement,” he says.

Black dedicated about 3 acres of his 100-acre nursery to organic production, with another 1½ acres currently in transition. And Black is ready to add more organic production once it transitions from a niche market.

The market speaks

Black chose the USDA Organic certification for Raemelton Farm because it’s recognizable and it’s a confirmation of the steps he’s taking in production.

The reception has been positive overall – a large amount of enthusiasm mixed with a few furrowed brows.

“My senior staff were all for it. They’re 20-something and 30-something. Millennials get it right off the bat,” he says.

Black and his team have targeted their marketing efforts for the organic trees to landscape architects, landscape contractors and IGCs.

“Landscapers have that one customer set who would jump at this product. Contractors who offer organic lawn management programs have been a good target. And consumers are going into independent garden centers and asking, ‘Where are your organic products,’ and they’re not only talking about edibles,” he says.

Harmel scouts for scale on an organic ‘Donald Wyman’ crabapple.

An organic red maple or an organic redbud must look exactly like the one grown conventionally. There can’t be any aesthetic sacrifices, Black says.

“I’m really happy with the product we’ve produced in the organic fields,” he adds. “You won’t find any ‘Charlie Brown’ trees in those fields.”

Montgomery County, Maryland – where the use of pesticides and herbicides have been banned in residential settings – presents an excellent market opportunity for the nursery’s organic products, says Angela Burke, sales and marketing manager at Raemelton.

“A customer from that county was happy to hear they could get a tree that, from the onset, was produced organically,” she recalls.

It’s a new way of thinking for much of the supply chain, Black admits. But it’s not a new idea for Black and his team. They’ve been using many of the practices required for organic production for years, such as using cover crops and compost, or having an integrated pest management program. Taking the few extra steps to become certified organic wasn’t difficult, he says. The nursery instituted some additional record keeping – there’s a lot of paperwork involved with organic production – and worked in a few more required production practices.

The production process

Burke uses an iPad to keep track of field inventory, digging and shipping lists, and correspondence with customers while out in the field. The iPad is synced with the office computers via the cloud.

Multiple steps must be taken before the land can be used for organic production. Once those requirements are met, fields must be managed organically for three years before they’re certified, and the plants growing in that field must be managed organically for 1 year before certification. At that point, a USDA certified organic label may be used. The nursery will renew its certification annually.

The certified organic program requires growers to look for organic seed or liners, but if they’re unavailable, non-organic liners are permissible.

“I have to make sure I can’t find a Red Sunset organic liner, I have to do a search for one each year, and I have to document that search as part of our inspection and certification, or recertification, process,” says Black.

Although organic production is most often associated with edibles, organic production of ornamentals is included in the national regulations. However, most research and extension work supports organic food production.

“We’re not growing corn and soybeans. We’re not an orchard. The things we’re doing as an organic B&B tree grower are slightly different, and it took some time to figure out what fits into the letter and spirit of organic production and certification requirements,” he says. “Crop rotation is a tick box for organic production. I can’t do annual crop rotation as a tree nursery, but I can rotate cover crops in the tree rows.”

Battling weeds

Black examines a radio-linked environmental monitoring and control node. This station wirelessly connects four soil moisture monitors, a flow meter, and an irrigation control valve to a base station. The node automatically triggers irrigation events based on a desired soil moisture level. This node is autonomously controlling irrigation in the organic field. This system was born from an experiment done at his nursery with the University of Maryland’s John Lea-Cox.

Weed control is one of the toughest parts to tackle in organic production, he says.

“In conventional production, if you see some pigweed, you can make a note to spray some Roundup a week or two later. But most organic weed control products are only effective when weeds are very small. You have to spray the weed when the seed is turning green or just germinating, and you have to know when that’s happening. Lawn people look at soil temperatures to see when crabgrass is emerging, and we can use that data stream.”

In organic vineyards and orchards, farmers often use tillage to help combat weeds, but that’s not an option in a B&B tree farm. Black uses a succession of cover crops such as daikon radish, crimson clover and forage radish which prevent most winter weeds to germinate, allowing the nursery to go into the spring without weed pressure.

There are some herbicides on the market approved for organic production with ingredients that include vinegar, an oil that’s derived from citrus peels and some long-chain fatty acids. Sodium chloride can be used as a spot spray on dandelion, if necessary.

“Because it’s a pest control application and because we’re using it in a commercial ag setting, I have to buy a special bag of herbicidal sodium chloride, and it’s much more expensive than a bag of Morton salt,” he explains.

And hand weeding is not an option because with any production, there’s got to be an economy of scale, he adds.

Black found that he and his crew aren’t spending more man hours in the organic field versus the conventional field, but they spend a lot more time thinking about the organic production and “just figuring out things.”

“We’re having to learn the germinating temperature for foxtail, or how thick a layer of compost is needed to kill that seed. There’s a lot of problem solving going on,” he says.

Soil health

Nutrient management in organic production does not pose the same challenges as weed control. Compost makes up a big part of Black’s nutrient management program.

Carlos Magana ties up the head of a crabapple and prepares it for a customer.

“It’s not hard to supply a woody plant’s nutrient needs with a top dressing of compost,” he says. “For every 1 percent organic content in your soil, you get 30-40 percent nitrogen.

The nursery receives horse manure and horse bedding from area farms at no cost to make compost.

“Compost gives you all the nutrients and micronutrients you need, plus you get all that biological activity that’s inoculating the tree rows with life,” Black says.

The crimson clover cover crops also help with nutrient management.

Luis Escobar uses a Pazzaglia 110 to dig a redbud while Fernando Quijano readies the wire basket and burlap.

“If we get a good stand of crimson clover in the row, we get 90-100 pounds of nitrogen for the price of the clover seed,” he explains.

Black suspects the soil profile in the organic field has changed.

“In each organic field, the soil profile some 10 inches down is darker than in the conventional fields,” he says. “It will be a couple more years before we can take soil samples and show the trend line of what’s happening in the organic field versus the conventional field. But I think we’ve changed the nature of that soil for the better.”

Plant health

Pest and disease management has been the easiest to implement, simply by proper variety choice. For instance, Black grows Freedom and Liberty eating apples, which are extremely resistant to foliar and fruit diseases found on other varieties.

“We stay away from amelanchier in the organic fields because it tends to get a lot of foliar disease,” he says.

Black also found a way to decrease pest pressure in the organic field by reducing the monocrop nature of the standard nursery block. For instance, instead of planting rows and rows of eating apples, he’ll alternate by planting a tart cherry next to an apple. He does the same with shade trees, planting a red maple next to an oak.

“We still see potato leaf hoppers on red maples, but not as many,” he says. “My crews that plant the field that way call it ‘campo loco,’ or ‘the crazy field.’”

While Black and his team may have to spend more time planning and thinking about the organic production processes, he’s able to charge about 30 percent more for the product.

“The 30-percent price bump for our organic trees is about the same as what the market supports for organic fruits and vegetables,” he says. “I get to charge more, the landscaper gets to charge more, and the IGC gets to charge more.”

For more: www.raemelton.com; www.usda.gov/organic