Aug 24, 2015
University of Guelph spearheading project to make industry more competitive
Organic weed control
Photo by Ben Forrest, Norfolk NewsRachel Riddelle, John O’Sullivan and Sierra Harris stand near test plots at the Simcoe agricultural research station, where they’re testing a natural weed control solution for organic farmers.
Norfolk NewsBy Ben Forrest
Manuka oil is touted online as a natural remedy for acne, foot fungus and staph infections.
One website calls it a miracle protector, used for centuries to treat everything from rheumatism and fevers to burns and skin disorders.
But researchers from the University of Guelph with test plots near Simcoe believe it may also be part of a weed control solution for organic farmers who badly need one.
“This manuka oil has unique properties that the current (weed control) products don’t have,” said John O’Sullivan, a retired Guelph professor involved in the research.
“You apply it to the soil, it will control some weeds. It’s systemic and it is taken up by the plants. And when you mix it with the current products, it results in what’s called synergy.
“In other words, you might get a 20 per cent boost in weed control from mixing both products together.”
Manuka oil is the most promising solution researchers have found two years into a four-year project funded by Organic Science Cluster II.
The science cluster was initiated by the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada at Dalhousie University in collaboration with the Organic Federation of Canada, an industry group that represents farmers and brokers.
As it stands, organic growers have only a limited number of products for weed control, O’Sullivan said.
“And they’re generating what we call burn-down products. In other words, they take the weeds, they burn them down but they don’t translocate to the roots, so they regrow in a matter of two or three weeks.
“So our aim is to find improved products.”
Organic growers can’t use synthetic pesticides that conventional farmers use. And labour for organic growers can be expensive.
It’s hoped more effective weed control will drive down labour costs, increase yields and make the industry more competitive and sustainable.
“Sometimes it’s anywhere from 10 per cent to 70 per cent decrease in yield when you switch to organic,” said Sierra Harris, a graduate student who is helping with the research.
“And so if you can increase that yield by reducing weed pressure, then you make that industry more competitive and the costs of organic potentially lower and the availability potentially higher.
“And the incentive for more farmers to switch to organic is more enticing because they have more aids and products and options for when they encounter issues on their farm, such as an intense weed pressure.”
Weeds are less of a concern for Bill Nightingale Jr. than insects, fungus and bacteria.
He’s president of Nightingale Farms, a Norfolk County operation with more than 200 acres of organic produce and 300 acres in transition.
Fertilizer cost is also five to 10 times greater for organic farmers, he said.
“So that’s what’s killing the bottom line more than anything, is actually high fertilizer costs.”
Nightingale Jr. predicted an effective weed control mixture would not significantly drive down the cost of organic food.
“Figuring out better fertilizers and fertilizer programs would knock it down way more significantly,” he said.
But researchers hope to have a mixture submitted and approved for organic use in two years.
“We definitely see efficacy with the manuka oil,” Harris said. “And so now that we see the efficacy, we’re interested in seeing the mode of action and what compounds in the manuka oil and how exactly they are basically killing the weeds and giving us our efficacy that we are looking for.”