Grower Sees Steady Production Without Chemical Fertilizer

Tacy CalliesHLB Management

Sonny Conner (center) has seen success in his citrus grove with organic mulch/compost applications. Also pictured are Juanita Popenoe, retired University of Florida Extension agent, and David Shelley of Shelley’s Environmental Systems.

By Owen “Sonny” Conner

The two greatest challenges of the last 20 years, for me as a citrus grower, have been HLB and foreign competition depressing prices.

Citrus growers had never faced a disease threat even approaching the devastating effects HLB has had on the industry. It was the industry killer we all feared would one day raise its ugly head.

We soon came to know the dual effect this disease has on trees. Bacteria clogs the pipeline so the tops cannot properly feed the roots, and the roots cannot properly feed the tops. The other factor was that there was an insect vector (Asian citrus psyllid) that we had never seen before.

Conner grows Valencias in Lake Jem, Florida.

To fight HLB, I used a three-pronged approach on my 20 acres of mature Valencias. First was feeding the tops of the trees using foliar sprays. Second was enhancing the soil’s suitability for new root development by applying organic mulch/compost at a rate of 4 tons per acre.

The third prong is to attack the HLB vector. In the late 1940s, I watched my father plant hairy indigo as a summer cover crop. The hairy indigo was incorporated in the soil to increase organic matter while still in a soft vegetative state.

To simulate that method today, I allowed wild grasses to grow to a height of 4 to 5 feet through the summer. As a result, I have observed large numbers of green lacewings, ladybugs and other predatory insects that feed on the HLB vector. In addition to this, I sprayed a stacked insecticide postbloom and late summer/early fall. That spray controls psyllids, leafminers and rust mites.

Two years ago, encouraged by the results, I applied 10 tons of organic mulch/compost per acre. This year, I applied the same rate, but we went over the grove twice. This material has the appearance, consistency and smell of rich black dirt. There is no offensive odor.

Now that the grove has returned to its pre-HLB production level, I am confronted with devastatingly low fruit prices relative to production costs.

My daddy taught me that “if your outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep will be your downfall.” It’s Economics 101…

For that reason, I have applied no chemical fertilizer on the grove for almost two years. At this point, production remains steady.

Going forward, I plan to experiment with cover crops such as sunn hemp, harry indigo and perhaps others. Additionally, I intend to use a disc harrow to incorporate mulch/compost into the soil on part of the grove. The result of increasing the organic matter is an increase of microbial activity, which makes nutrients available to the trees.

Visitors are always welcome to my grove.

Owen “Sonny” Conner is the owner of Owen Conner Citrus in Lake Jem, Florida, and can be reached at 352-989-6741.

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