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Soil Health = Profitability

Soil Health Profile: Mike Omeg

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"It makes sense to farmers. A better soil makes us more money." -- Mike Omeg

For Oregon cherry orchardist Mike Omeg, the sweetest thing about his operation isn’t just the cherries -- it’s increased profits through investing in the health of his soil.

“Soil health means continued profitability in an ever more competitive global marketplace for my product,” said Omeg, a fifth generation owner of the 350-acre Omeg Family Orchard in The Dalles, Oregon. “It makes sense to farmers. A better soil makes us more money.”

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In just one growing season, Omeg already noticed improved crop size and quality after implementing soil health management practices on his orchard, such as using compost and mulch to keep the soil covered and planting cover crops in the rows after harvest. Photo courtesy Mike Omeg

Omeg is forward-thinking when it comes to implementing soil health practices on his orchard -- but he didn’t always embrace that mindset in the past.

“Half of a tree’s efforts go to the roots, but we were putting 90 percent of our effort to what’s on the top of the trees, and only working about 10 percent on the soil,” Omeg said. “I’ve learned over the years that if we want to have healthy soils, we have to have healthy soil biology.”

Shifting Soil Paradigms

Omeg started thinking about new soil health practices about 15 years ago when he took a trip to Australia, where a friend of his grew trees on granite rock using straw mulch. It got him thinking about using mulch to reduce to cost of irrigation and improve his crop.

“After that trip, I educated myself as much as I could about soil biology, but very little of what I found translated to growers for application,” Omeg said. “So I wanted to know, how do I enhance my soil biology -- and ultimately my crop -- in an efficient, practical and cost effective way?”

He soon found one of many answers to his question when he started using compost and mulch a few years ago. Covering soil with mulch provides carbon and minerals to the microbial system in the soil -- feeding the soil food web and the resulting cash crop.

“In one season we had a substantial impact on our crops. The cherries were bigger and firmer,” Omeg said. “What we’ve seen is that by applying that material right way, we see results. Not every compost is the same, and not every mulch is the same. But what I do know is that a good compost, plus a good mulch, equals a return on investment -- an increase in price for my cherries because of bigger size and firmness.”

Omeg plans to use compost and mulch on all 350 acres of his orchard. He’s already about a third of the way through.

Discovering Cover Crops

In addition to keeping the soil covered, Omeg is improving his soil health management system with cover crops. He plants various cover crop mixes in the orchard alleyways in autumn, after the harvest.

Omeg is currently working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to determine what cover crop blends work best in his unique environment, leveraging financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“We are working to find the right species mixes for cover crops to discover what blends work,” Omeg said. “By cooperating with the local NRCS staff, and with support from EQIP funds, we can take it from a small scale to wider implementation.”

Cover crops help increase organic matter in the soil and add living roots to the soil during more months of the year. Increased organic matter improves water infiltration and water storage. Additionally, cover crops serve as natural fertilizers and protect against erosive heavy rains and strong winds.

To terminate his cover crops before the next cherry growing season, Omeg uses the “mow and blow” method -- a process in which cover crops are cut into pieces and blown under his cherry trees.

“My goal is to take the minerals and carbs from the cover crops and blow that into the tree row,” Omeg said. “Everything left will decompose, so the next round of cover crops will be even better. We are using 100 percent of the land to get the most benefit.”

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Orchardist Mike Omeg (left) and Garrett Duyck, a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, examine the healthy root system in Omeg's cover crops. Photo by Tracy Robillard

The Way Ahead

In addition to mulch and cover crops, Omeg is continuously looking for other ways to improve his soil. Long term, he plans to shift to a no-till drill system. No-till drilling causes less disturbance on the soil, which can bring many benefits to the land. No-till practices promote increased organic matter in the soil, greater soil aggregate stability, improved nutrient cycling, and better water infiltration and storage.

“Mike is taking it to the next level with soil health,” said Garrett Duyck, a soil conservationist with the NRCS in Wasco County. “He is applying organic principles to implement soil health practices conventionally, and he is already seeing noticeable benefits. We are excited to work with him and to see the progress he is making.”

Omeg shares his experiences with his neighbors by hosting farm tours and shop talks. He believes once there is successful recipe for improved soil health, wide-scale adoption will follow. For Omeg, finding that recipe is the “art” of farming.

“I’m doing all of this because my farm needs healthy soils to maximize its production,” he said. “The paths you can take to get there innumerable. We are creating the system now for better soil health; and once that system is in place, it will be sustainable, efficient and profitable in the long run.”

 

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