SEASIDE, Calif. — The spread of downy mildew is straining the ability of organic spinach suppliers to meet demand, much less exploit growth opportunities in a category that enjoys double-digit annual sales increases.
Mike HornickEric Schwartz (left), chief executive officer of United Vegetable Growers Cooperative, chats with Jay Schafer, a consultant to the spinach industry, June 24 at a downy mildew symposium in Seaside, Calif. Producers met to discuss the issue at a sustainability symposium offered by Salinas-based United Vegetable Growers Cooperative June 24.
“Spinach is the leading (stock-keeping unit) on the organic side,” said Eric Schwartz, the cooperative’s chief executive officer. “Total retail salads, with spinach leading the way, is quickly approaching $1 billion and continues to grow.”
“So the opportunity is huge for whoever helps us crack this code on downy mildew,” he told more than 100 attendees. They included representatives of Monsanto, Bayer CropScience and Dow AgroSciences.
Fresh Express, Earthbound Farm, Rava Ranches, Ready Pac Produce and a variety of seed companies were among the event sponsors.
“Within our membership, growers have not been able to handle all the requests for product,” Schwartz said. “I’ve been in this industry a long time and I’ve never seen that happen before.”
Downy mildew types have proliferated in recent years, complicating or jeopardizing disease resistance in organic spinach varieties. Until 2003, only four pathogen races were identified. Now there are 14 — sometimes more than one in a field.
Panelist Steve Koike, plant pathology farm advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension, outlined some of the questions posed by the surge in downy mildew damage:
- Why are new types of the airborne pathogen emerging so quickly?
- Will resistant cultivars continue to be available?
- Is there any correlation between downy mildew and E. coli?
During a slide presentation, Koike said he’d reveal the answers science has come up with so far. The next screen was blank.
In the absence of such answers — though research is ongoing — organic spinach growers are operating in the dark. And their improvised strategies have downsides.
Some growers overplant as much as 30%, Schwartz said, as a cushion against possible losses. The other strategy has been to mix varieties in a field, hoping some will survive a downy mildew outbreak.
Will Feliz, chief operations officer at Buckeye, Ariz.-based Duncan Family Farms, said the traditional approach to a shortfall in conventional crops — more acreage — won’t work on organic spinach and could make matters worse.
“As we try to solve these issues in the ways we’ve normally solved them, we’re going to be expediting a train wreck,” Feliz said. “That’s important for our customers and our customers’ customers to understand. There is no silver bullet.
“The more acres we put in where we’re already growing it, is going to exacerbate the issue, not solve it,” he said. “We’re putting more acres in an area that’s already too compacted.”
Registered organic production of all crops in Monterey County rose dramatically in 2013 from 22,288 to 33,381 acres, the county recently reported. It offered no breakdown by crop, but presumably a chunk of the increase is spinach. Prior year-over-year increases were in the 2,000 to 3,000 range.
“A lot of retailers would like to have close to parity on the price between organic and conventional,” Schwartz said. “But I don’t know if we as an industry can ever get there if this issue is not resolved, just because of what it’s doing to supply.”
A similar industry meeting was in January in Yuma, Ariz.