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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