East coast tree fruit: The final organic frontier


By Lori Stansberry, Founder of Pure Sprouts

From time to time, a customer will ask us “Why aren’t there more local organic fruits available at Pure Sprouts?” As frustrating as it might be for fruit lovers in Pennsylvania, the answer is in our climate and ecology. For every type of climate, there are certain fruits that grow better or may not grow at all. Even a fruit like the apple that grows in all states has cultivars (cultivated varieties) that grow better in certain regions. Many fruit trees are very sensitive to extremely cold winters leading to trunk damage, lack of fruit and tree death. These (such as orange trees) are not trees for our area.

In the Northeast, we face twice as many fruit growing diseases as the West Coast. We have over 60 insect pests to combat, many of which our West Coast friends have never even seen. Threats such as plum curculio, oblique-banded leafroller, red-banded leafroller and tufted apple bud moth are just a few. Because of the humid climate, we also deal with increased disease opportunities (think fire blight, scab, black rot, and cedar apple rust) making it extremely difficult to control these issues long enough to get fruit to market. Because of all this, growing organic tree fruits in the Northeast is considered “the final organic frontier.”

There is hope for us locavores. Some fruit growers use a technique called Integrated Pest Management which uses non-chemical approaches first before resorting to pesticides and fungicides. According to the EPA, “Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.”

With IPM, farmers compile detailed, time tracked data about crops, disease and insects. Pest thresholds are economically and individually determined by comparing the cost of control with the cost of the damage to the crop caused by the pest. Once the threshold is exceeded, controls are instituted. Control tactics can include using one organism to control another (like releasing ladybugs to eat aphids), planting disease-resistant cultivars, pruning and mating disruption. The control tactic is later assessed and then adjusted if necessary. IPM allows the judicious use of pesticides both natural and synthetic, but only if non-chemical controls are ineffective.

IPM is a good first step toward a more environmentally friendly agriculture, but producing organic tree fruits in the Northeast is certainly not impossible. In fact, Rodale Institute has been growing organic apples for more than 30 years. One of the keys? A kaolin clay product known as Surround. Surround forms a powdery film on the tree including the leaves, branches and fruit, virtually disguising the tree from common insects. This method was found to be highly effective against nearly all the major apple insect pests. It’s possible that Surround may have other benefits by keeping the plants cooler and less stressed during the hottest parts of the day, too.

So if Northeast farmers can grow some organic tree fruits, why don’t they? The short answer is: high risk of loss and increased labor. Organic tree fruit production requires more labor than conventional systems and tree fruit is already a labor-intensive crop. Increases in labor needs, especially for blossom and fruit thinning, weed control, fertilization and spraying proves problematic for our already time-crunched small local farms. For these reasons, as much as we’d love to carry a ton of local fruits, we don’t…yet. We are always on the lookout for farms that grow fruit naturally, so let us know if you have found a perfect fit! In the meantime, we carry a wide variety of non-local, certified organic fruits throughout the year. And we purchase the produce as close to home as possible.

Looking for local AND organic? Here’s what can commonly be found grown organically at our local farms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey:

Apples
Wineberries
Some cherry and grape varieties
Blueberries
Strawberries
Ground Cherries
Watermelon
Cantaloupe
Honeydew
Other heirloom melons
Raspberries
Blackberries

Want local and willing to go with low-spray fruits? Here’s what can commonly be found grown with IPM at our local farms in PA and NJ:

Plums
Nectarines
Pears
Apricots
Grapes

Lori Stansberry started Pure Sprouts, an online organic and local grocery delivery service, in January 2009 after a growing concern about the future of local farms and a desire to change the current food system.   She knew that because the Lehigh Valley is so fruitful, it would be the perfect location for an organic delivery service that supplies local foods whenever possible.  She also knew that people are sometimes so busy that they lose the opportunity to get to the grocery store for fresh foods.  So by marrying fresh, local and organic foods with the convenience of home delivery, Pure Sprouts was born.  Every day, Lori fields inquiries from customers seeking more knowledge on the topic of buying organic or buying local.  Lori is an expert not only because she owns a thriving organic business, but she also has the credentials to back it up, with a bachelor of science in marine science from Rider University and a master’s degree in environmental chemistry from University of Maryland. Visit Pure Sprouts at www.puresprouts.com.

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