A future for organic apple growing in the Northeast


By Laura Sayre
Originally posted on May 11, 2004

The USDA Economic Research Service tells us that in 2001 (the most recent year for which totals are available) there were 12,189 acres of certified organic apple orchards nationwide, up from 9,270 in 2000. But just 633.3 of those acres, or about 5 percent, were east of the Continental Divide.

While Eastern and Midwestern states like New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin have long histories of fruit growing and strong—if struggling—apple sectors, growth in the organic apple business has been largely restricted to Western states like Washington, Arizona, and Idaho, where drier growing conditions translate into drastically reduced pest and disease pressures.

Eastern fruit growers face twice as many problem diseases as their Western counterparts (including fireblight, scab, black rot, and cedar apple rust) in addition to no fewer than 60 species of damaging insects. The single most destructive insect pest for Eastern growers—the infamous plum curculio—is unknown in the West. The geographic disparity is so great that Eastern tree fruit growing is widely regarded as “the final organic frontier,” as Michael Phillips put it in his The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (Chelsea Green, 1998).

If that phrase sounds like it contains a challenge—a throwing down of the gauntlet for organic practitioners, it’s because, well, it does. Apple growers may seem like a soft-spoken bunch, but they’re stubborn, too; and their determination to find organic solutions to Eastern production problems springs from a fierce loyalty to the region, the work, and the way of life.

Eastern apples have more flavor than Western apples, declares Don Jantzi, who grew up on a family apple farm near Buffalo, New York, and has been orchard foreman for The Rodale Institute® Experimental Farm since 1986. “Western soils tend to be sandier, and those sandy soils give less flavor,” he explains. Eastern growers, moreover, have a broader range of varieties to choose from than their Western counterparts, which means that “Eastern growers tend to be more independent. Out West, the marketing programs are so advanced that growers are more locked into a certain set of varieties.” And as anyone who’s been to a supermarket lately knows, those dominant Western varieties have grown steadily more tasteless over the years as they have been further selected for color, uniformity, and durability under shipment.

Pennsylvania State University fruit researcher Jim Travis goes even further, arguing that what is widely regarded as the humid East’s greatest liability for organic fruit production—large and vigorous insect populations—could eventually be seen as its greatest asset. “Look at this biodiversity,” he says, gesturing at the rich spring scene, bumblebees staggering through the air, green grass and dandelions and flowering trees bursting out as far as the eye can see. “Western fruit producers are growing in the desert. They don’t have all this to work with.”

The upshot is that despite the difficulties, Eastern fruit growing remains viable. “If you have a good market for processed products—like baby food, dried apples, juice, or sauce—or if you have a good direct marketing strategy, like a pick-your-own operation or farmstand,” Jantzi says, “you can make it work.”

Deep roots
The Rodale Institute Farm currently maintains about 1100 apple trees on a total of just under six acres. The oldest trees here were established in 1981, but the majority were planted in 1990, when an apple production project was launched with support from the USDA’s old Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program (the precursor to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, or SARE). That project brought together researchers from Rodale, Cornell University, Rutgers University, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Vermont, and yielded (among other things) an 84-page Management Guide for Low-Input Sustainable Apple Production, which still serves as a valuable reference for the running of the orchard today.

The Institute’s western-most orchard is one of two blocks maintained for production purposes. The white tinge of Surround, a kaolin-clay wettable powder, is already visible.

After the research agenda wound down, a decision was made to continue managing the trees for production purposes alone. “Our goal was to maintain the orchard and to meet the challenge of staying on top of new management strategies as they became available,” says Jantzi.

Today, it looks like that strategy may be literally bearing fruit. Evolving market conditions and new materials are making organic apple production in the East more attractive than ever. And there is now talk of initiating a new research agenda in the Rodale orchards in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University.

Traditional management, with a few key differences
Many aspects of organic apple production would be perfectly familiar to conventional orchardists. Organic managers adhere to the same basic principles when it comes to selecting a site for a new orchard, choosing rootstocks, pruning, and staking or trellising trees. “There’s an organic grower in New York who maintains that natural trees”—that is, non-grafted, seedling trees, grown on their own rootstocks—”are stronger and easier to keep healthy than regular grafted trees,” notes Jantzi. Most organic growers, however, including The Rodale Institute farmers, continue to work with grafted trees because they are easier and less hazardous to prune, thin, spray, and harvest. Independent of other factors, organic growers tend to favor wider tree spacings in their orchards, and “may want to be more diligent in their pruning,” Jantzi says, since they need to rely more heavily on factors like air circulation to reduce disease.

One area in which organic orchard establishment may differ sharply from conventional practice is in the selection of varieties. Since the mid-1980s, breeders have been releasing a series of disease-resistant apple cultivars, including many that are resistant to apple scab and others that show resistance to rust, fire blight, powdery mildew, or fruit rots. Rootstocks, too, vary in their susceptibility to certain diseases. While some growers reject the disease-resistant varieties in favor of more recognizable—and therefore more marketable—cultivars, Jantzi emphasizes that “there are good scab-resistant varieties out there.” Organic growers can make their lives a little easier by including a handful of disease-resistant varieties in their orchard mix.

“Good,” it should be noted, is a strictly relative term for apple growers, since there are so many qualities making up a desirable apple, from tree maturation, growth habit, and blooming period, to yield, fruit size, color, texture, flavor, and storage characteristics. As any grower will tell you, successful orcharding requires a combination of early, mid-, and late season varieties both to spread out the risk of weather and pest susceptibilities and to extend the marketing period over as many weeks as possible.

The Rodale Institute orchards include both scab-susceptible and scab-resistant varieties; there are also a couple of heirloom varieties that happen to be fairly scab-resistant, including Tydeman and Brown Russet. Because of their research history, the trees here include a wider assortment of varieties than most growers on this scale would have: 39 altogether, from early-season cultivars like Lodi, Jersey Mac, and Williams Pride to late-season favorites like Rome and Granny Smith. “Some of the varieties we have I would not plant again, but you work with what you have,” observes Jantzi.

The farm’s younger orchard is dominated by three varieties: Liberty, NY 74828-12, and NY 75441-67. Liberty is a Macintosh-type apple and one of the most common scab-resistant varieties; Jantzi says it tends to be pretty consistent in its fruit bearing, has a good red color, and is good for both baking and eating fresh, but doesn’t store particularly well. The two numbered varieties were obtained on a research basis but were never released commercially and thus were never assigned names. Nevertheless, Jantzi says they’ve proven their worth on this particular site.

The orchard floor
“There’s lots of debate about when and how much to mow,” Jantzi says. “We mow fairly constantly through the growing season, for aesthetic reasons, but some growers and researchers argue that letting the grass stand under the trees encourages more beneficial insects.” On the other hand, Jantzi reports that whereas in earlier years Rodale’s orchard managers released packaged beneficial insects, he no longer does this since beneficial insect populations—including ladybugs, lacewings, honeybees, flies, spiders, wasps, insidious flower bugs, predatory mites—are now healthy without supplementation.

For additional weed management, Jantzi goes through with the Weed Badger about four times a year, clearing an 18-inch strip along the base of the trees. The aggressive cultivating tool is effective but time consuming, Jantzi says, making weed management another area in which organic growers have to spend more on labor than conventional growers do.

Controlling weeds is one area where organic orchardists will spend more time than their conventional counterparts. The Weed Badger is effective but time consuming.

To maintain fertility in the orchard, Jantzi puts down roughly 100 lbs of compost per tree per year (“Depending on who’s doing the shoveling,” he notes). They used to spread in the spring, but a few years ago switched to spreading in the fall, when the compost can help the fallen leaves and waste apples decompose over the winter.

A new generation of organic pest control materials
There’s no way around it: pest and disease management are a big part of orcharding in the humid East. Problem diseases include apple scab, flyspeck, sooty blotch, powdery mildew, fire blight and cedar apple rust, and the list of major insect pests is even longer, from the plum curculio, to the oblique-banded leafroller, red-banded leafroller, tufted apple bud moth, codling moth, Oriental fruit moth, lesser appleworm, and European apple sawfly.

The cornerstone of low-input orchard management is good monitoring. Each year, Jantzi hangs a series of insect traps in selected trees to keep tabs on pest populations. The traps use pheromone lures or visual and/or scent mimicry to attract specific pest species, and can be used both to calculate the economic threshold at which spraying is justified and to determine the optimum moment to spray.

The come-hither of the insect world. Pheromone lures and sticky traps assist in monitoring orchard pest populations.

“Most insects are most vulnerable at egg hatching stage,” Jantzi explains, “so that’s when you want to target your spraying.” It’s also possible to anticipate pest cycles by keeping track of degree days—the accumulated warmth (as represented by mean daily temperature) above a 50°F base temp. Codling moth eggs, for instance, will begin hatching 243 degree days after the first moth is trapped. Of course, such calculations have to be balanced by weather conditions when it comes to the actual spray schedule. “You go for the ideal,” as Jantzi puts it, “and then you do what the weather will allow.”

Pheromones are also used for active pest management in the form of mating-disruption cards—small plastic cards which release female insect sex hormone odors and thereby confuse the males as they attempt to mate. Jantzi relies on mating-disruption to manage Oriental fruit moths and codling moths. “They say that for the pheromones to be effective you need a minimum orchard size of 5 acres, and your orchard should be as square as possible,” he points out. The Rodale Institute orchards don’t quite fit those parameters, but Jantzi feels the cards offer the best solution for handling these pests.

Probably the most radically new product for organic orchard management is the kaolin clay product known as Surround®. Developed in the late 1990s by two USDA Agricultural Research Service scientists in cooperation with the Engelhard Corporation of Iselin, New Jersey, Surround is based on what’s called ‘particle film technology.’ Rather than killing target insects, it forms a white, powdery film on the leaves, branches, and fruits, making them unattractive or unfamiliar to the insects. The idea was originally developed as a possible disease-control mechanism; but researchers discovered that while it had no effect on diseases, it was highly effective against nearly all the major apple insect pests. There is also some evidence that Surround increases net photosynthesis by keeping plants cooler in the hottest part of the day.

Applying sulfur to scab-susceptible varieties starts early in the spring.

Jantzi and Jeff Moyer, Farm Manager at The Rodale Institute, made frequent use of Surround in 2003, but were not totally happy with the results—in part because last year’s heavy rains made it difficult to keep a coating built up. This year, they’re planning on concentrating the Surround coverage within a shorter window, starting about two weeks later and ending about six weeks earlier, and then turning to other materials.

Other, relatively new, organic pest control materials Jantzi and Moyer plan on trying in the coming season include spinosad (marketed by Dow under the brand name Entrust®), a fermentation product derived from a soil-dwelling actinomycete; and some of the neem products like Aza-Direct® (named from azadirachtin, the active ingredient extracted from the seeds of the neem tree). “There are some studies that have shown [Aza-Direct] to be effective, but others have found it not to be effective,” notes Jantzi. “People are still figuring out the best ways to use these new materials.” The New Hampshire-based organic orchardist Michael Phillips has been experimenting with the use of whole neem oil (as opposed to derived neem products), on the grounds that it might be more effective and that it’s economically preferable to purchase the natural insecticide in a less processed form, as close to the original producer as possible.

Most of these products can be tank-mixed, so if the timing is right they can be combined to make fewer trips through the orchard. Part of what’s revolutionary about new materials like Entrust and Pyganic® (a pyrethrum product) is that in contrast to most organic-approved products, they work against a variety of pests. “That kind of runs counter to organic thinking, where you’re trying to minimize impact on beneficials,” Jantzi observes. But the new materials are expensive, too, so growers are inclined to use them conservatively.

The bottom line
Acre for acre, apple yields can be as good in organic as in conventional, Jantzi says, although they tend to be lower for a couple of reasons—the lack of organic-approved growth regulators for thinning, and the related tendency of varieties to fall into a biennial bearing habit. The Rodale Institute farm orchards average around 600 bushels per acre. A portion of the harvest is sold direct to the public through The Rodale Institute bookstore, both pick-your-own and ready-picked. The balance goes for processing, some sold wholesale for organic cider and some custom-processed into apple butter for direct sale.

Jantzi is quick to point out ways in which the orchard set-up here is far from perfect—the scale, for instance, is too small for commercial independence, too large for the available labor. He is intimately familiar with the challenges of apple growing and the hazards of making the switch from conventional to organic management. Although he draws inspiration from—and compares notes with—an annual gathering of Northeastern organic apple growers, he still says he knows “more people who have tried it and quit than tried it and continued.”

“I think every grower has it in the back of their mind that they’d like to get away from using pesticides, but there are a lot of things you have to consider,” he cautions. It may make more sense to think about gradual steps on the way to certified organic production, Jantzi says, rather than an all or nothing approach. Above all, “You have to educate yourself about what’s possible, both in terms of production and in terms of marketing.” And what’s possible is expanding all the time.

Leave a Reply