Organic farm founder Lorie Stansberry explains the limitations and innovations in growing organic apples on the East Coast.

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 that grows in all states like the apple has cultivars (cultivated varieties) that grow better in certain regions. Many fruit trees are very sensitive to extremely cold winters, which lead 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.”

bushels of organic apples
Rodale Institute’s organic orchard yields approximately 600 lbs. per acre.

Integrated Pest Management

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 with the most economical means and 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 both natural and synthetic pesticides, but only if non-chemical controls are ineffective.

holding organic apples
Rodale Institute maintains about 1100 apple trees with organic management

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.

organic apple orchard at Rodale Institute
Picking organic apples from the orchard at Rodale Institute

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

For more information on growing organic apples in the Northeast, check out this article!

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
  • Grape

rodale organic apple orchard

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One thought on “East Coast Tree Fruit: The Final Organic Frontier

  1. Most commercial fruit orchards in the Eastern half of the USA that are using “IPM” are mostly using it as a buzzword. There is little effort from the Ag extension services to really cut down on the use of toxic rescue chemistry, other than careful timing by good monitoring and prediction so as to pinpoint chemical applications and use more targeted, less broad spectrum and long lived materials, as in the past century. Promoting alternatives, even many materials with little or no toxicity exist, with more becoming available every year (to the extent that I can barely keep up with it; even being in the organic fruit growing realm for 45 years) very often is not being relayed to growers; even the research is available. Most never even broach the use of superior micronutrient nutrition and improved soil biology. Or the fact that the more toxics you use the more you destroy soil biology and the worse all your insect and disease issues become a lot of this of this from the use of herbicides in the tree row. Growers in my area (central VA) ask how did Thomas Jefferson and people of his era grow fruits without chemicals? With virgin soils 16 feet not an eroded to 6 inches deep full of biology (not destroyed by tillage); which led eventually to the need for toxic to biology materials which just made the degradation cycle more vicious. Also grafted dwarfing trees to grow fruit instead of wood may be inherently less able to fend for themselves. Almost all of the most recent modern varieties have been developed with the reliance on a complete chemical support system. There is some work being done now by least chemical growers to do open source breeding of apples with good characteristic attributes that when grown on there own with no intervention can produce cosmetically acceptable fruit. Cosmetics is not the be all and end all if the fruit is only a typey dark red crunchy box from Washington state, that tastes like cardboard and is sold as an apple named Red Delicious. How about a poorly colored buy highly flavored old fashioned Red DELICIOUS, grown in the east for a no comparaison.
    Apples are more possible in the east. Stone fruits are a much greater challenge. I am on a mission to prove that it can be done with largely biology and nutrition. I took on the management of a 60 acre fully chemicalized fruit farm June ’20 with the intent and goal of regenerating it to the point of not needing chemicals, fungicides for Brown Rot (Monolinia sp)in stone fruits and CAR (cedar [juniper] apple rust) in apples in a few years or less. All other problems are less of /or non issues under super nutrition from remineralization and biologization, by pushing the plants own immune system to do the work . My ultimate goal is a no spray orchard emulating what Andre Leu of Queensland, Australia has done with growing tropical fruit commercially (past president of IFOAM and author ot The Myth of Safe Pesticides)
    Want to join forces on my journey? Dan Lefever, BioRational Resource, Nellysford VA 484-318-3789 mobile,

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