Recent shifts in consumer preference for organic fruits has led to a new level of research in organic apple production in the Northeast. The Organic Apple Project at the University of Vermont Horticulture Farm and Research Center is experimenting with a number of apple blocs.
Growing apples, pears, plums and peaches organically in Vermont and northern New England is tough because there are many insects and diseases that can harm the fruits. Apples are one of the most fungicide-laden fruits besides strawberries.
Growing fruits organically is easier in the home orchard than at a commercial scale because you have a variety of plants and there are fewer insect pests and disease. Of course, it still takes time, effort and knowledge to grow a fruit orchard. And folks with home orchards aren't that concerned that each fruit looks perfect like they are with commercial orchards. There's nothing wrong with imperfections in life, including fruit from your own small orchard. An organic orchard can provide a family with tasty organic fruits as well as hard and sweet cider, dried apples, apple pies, apple butter and applesauce, wine, jams and jellies, and vinegar.
There are no easy answer to growing apples organically, however, one "Don Quixote" apple grower, Nick Cowles of Shelburne Orchards once made a valiant effort of "tilting at windmills" in his orchard. Nick told me about the common myth that organic orchards don't spray as much as chemical orchards. He said, "it takes a lot more work and TLC growing apples organically because there are so many variables constantly in motion. You have to be a magician to know how to handle them. You just never know what's going to happen. Sometimes, you just have to shoot from the hip and hope that the weather cooperates and that your organic practices are working."
Nick went on to say, "the problem is that fruit trees have a great propensity to attract pest and diseases which are hard to control organically. When an apple grower uses harmful synthetic pesticides, like diazinon and sevin, he limits the number of problems and in a sense takes himself out of the equation. On the other hand, using organic methods is both difficult and fascinating. One becomes much closer to the actual life cycles in nature as you are allowing a lot more life to happen in the orchard.
Nick said, "You have to keep a much keener eye on the activities and know how and when to respond. You are balancing good predator insects against harmful insects, which means you don't just come in and spray and destroy the good insects. I used to introduce the good predator insects into the orchard but I don't have to anymore as they occur naturally in the environment and are not destroyed by harmful sprays".
Nick sells many varieties of apples, peaches, sweet and sour cherries plus apple brandy and sweet cider, delicious apples pies, cider donuts and my books. In the spring, he sells fruit trees.Champlain Orchards
Bill Suhr of Chmaplain Orchards, uses similar ecological methods as Nick Cowles. By ecological methods, I'm referring to Integrated Pest Management. I'll explain below.
Champlain Orchards, operated by Bill Suhr since 1998, is located in the Champlain Valley in Shoreham and Bridport, Vermont. The orchard is conserved as agricultural land by the Vermont Land Trust. There are 500 acres of land on three contiguous farms. Some of the 70 old and new apple varieties include: `Ginger Gold,' `McIntosh,' `Paulared,' `Honeycrisp,' `Macoun,' `Gala,' `Jonagold,' `Liberty,' `Empire,' `Matsu, and `Northern Spy.' Twenty-eight solar trackers have helped the orchard to become 100 percent self-sufficient.
The 100 year-old farm produces apples, raspberries, peaches, cherries, nectarines, plums, pears, and sweet, hard and ice apple cider. They also sells fresh apple pies and cider donuts, apple and apple raspberry cider, apple sauce, apple butter, apple cider syrup, pork and beef.
Most of the commercial apples grown in Vermont come from the Connecticut River highlands and Lake Champlain valleys. The orchards near Lake Champlain are centered in Chittenden and Addison counties and in the Champlain Islands in Grand Isle County. It used to be that almost all the apples trees were sprayed with poisons and the soil fed with chemical fertilizers. The good news is that the total amount of pesticide and fertilizer use has gone down considerably in the last 20 years. When I worked at orchards in Southern Vermont in the 1970s, "the spray mentality" was the way it was done. I can remember being up in an apple tree in an commercial orchard and a plane came over spraying cracked corn laced with poisons for mice and rodents. I won't tell you what I told the owner of the orchard.
Today, the "Spray Mentality" has changed with the introduction of IPM - Integrated Pest Management and the use of ecological methods in growing fruits, mentioned below.
There can be no doubt that it's tough to grow apples organically in our northern climate as insects find them very appealing. Most of the apples at the Shelburne and Champlain Orchards are grown ecologically. The problem with the word ecological is that it's thrown around as much these days as the words `spiritual' and `natural.' Who knows what it means anymore?
The best way to answer the question is to draw a long line in the sand. At one end of the spectrum is the use of chemicals replete with synthetic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizer. And at the other end is the organic approach and somewhere in the middle is the ecological method or what most farmers call, Integrated Pest Management or IPM. Nick Cowles and Bill Suhr have found ways to use the most ecological methods via Integrated Pest Management. Some call it," A Low-Spray Program."
For the last 25 years, IPM has won favor among commercial growers in Vermont and home orchardists alike as it's good for the environment and makes good economic sense. The goal of IPM is to control insects and diseases with a combination of biological controls and other chemical methods which are least disruptive to the environment, especially to the natural enemies of pests. Instead of being used as a first line of plant protection, harmful chemicals are applied only when necessary to prevent serious damage to the crop.
With IPM, more attention is paid to factors like soil fertility, cropping systems and weather. Compost, seaweed sprays and organic amendments are use to increase the fertility of the soil. The first line of defence for controlling pests is to monitor the insect population and figure out how to control them but only if their numbers are beyond a tolerable level. In some cases, mechanical and non-toxic methods are used and if this doesn't work, chemical pesticides are targeted against the harmful pests in order to prevent serious damage to the crop.
After I received my discharge papers from the U.S. Army in the Spring of 1969 as a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War, I returned to Vermont and started working at Hill and Dale Farm in Putney Vermont. Hill and Dale was unique in those days as it was the only organic/biodynamic farm in Vermont, where we raised beef, apples and vegetables, made maple syrup and cut firewood. There were no problems raising beef and three acres of vegetables however, the real challenge was in the production of organic apples.
No one was using organic or biodynamic practices in those days. Most of the apples we grew were standard varieties that went to make real apple cider - not the kind you pick up at the supermarket these days that's been pasteurized. Some of the apple varieties used in cider making were `Northern Spy,' `Baldwin,' `McIntosh,' `Golden Delicious,' and `Gravenstein.' The biggest apple problems we faced were apple scab and plum curculio, an adult beetle that attacks fruit trees.
Some years, we had lots of eating apples and plenty for cider making. And then there were the years when the spring rains never stopped and the buds would swell and the apple scab fungal spores would proliferate. Apple scab produces scars on the outside of the fruit. This common apple disease is caused by the fungus Venturia disfigures. You guessed it folks. It disfigures the fruit but does not render it inedible. The fungus survives from one generation to another as spores on leaves. That's why it's good to rake up the leaves in the fall in your home orchard as this helps to reduce the scab. Do the same thing in the spring. During the wetter springs, the scab went wild and we had few eating apples for sale but plenty for cider making. Sometimes, the young fruit simply dropped off the trees.
Along with scab, the other main disease was plum curculio - caused from an insect which lays eggs whose larvae burrow into the apple and ruin it from inside out. Sometimes, the young fruit simply drops off the tree. There were no easy answers to growing apples at Hill and Dale Farm. Hill and Dale no longer operates as a farm.
Threshold Farm is a commercial biodynamic farm in Columbia County in the Upper Hudson Valley in Philmont, New York. Hugh Williams and his partner, Hanna Bail, manage Threshold Farm, which has 45 acres with 5 acres of apple and fruit trees. The orchard is their primary enterprise. The vegetable operation is small - about 3-4 acres - including about three quarters of an acre of garlic, a cash crop.
Williams told me that "biodynamics is the `Mercedes Benz of Organics,' but you need to know what you're doing no matter what kind of farm you manage. He also said that "all romantic ideas have to be checked at the gate." Williams should know as he's been a farmer and orchardist for over 40 years.
Ninety percent of the farm is in permanent cover. Hugh and Hanna make all their own biodynamic herbal/animal preparations on the farm and are 100 percent self-sufficient in animal compost production, which comes to 70 tons a year. The farm follows strict biodynamic principles and is supported by a 37 member (CSA) - Community Supported Agriculture initiative. They have many volunteers from the local community along with volunteers from the Wolfer Program. (WWOOF - World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms - links volunteers with organic farms and growers around the world.)
The farm operation at Threshold runs off the grid. It's a self-sustaining, closed system operation with on-site composting. The manure comes from a small herd of 18 dairy cows, which are a cross between Ayrshires and Shorthorns. Williams said, "The farm provides everything we need from within its own boundaries - each animal and plant brings something different to the farm ..."
The land at Threshold has never sprayed or treated with chemicals since its founding in the late 1700s. The land is protected the by the Columbia Land Conservancy. Hugh and Hanna grow grains and sell vegetables; they have an orchard of 600 bearing fruit trees including apples, peaches and pears. The biodynamic apples include `Gala,' `Fuji,' `Jonagold,' `Cox Orange Pippen,' `Macoun,' etc. `Ida Red,' `Paula Red,' `Golden Delicious,' `Liberty,' and `Baldwin' along with white - `Raritan Rose,' `White Hale,' `Bell of Georgia.' and yellow - `Bissco,' `Harbrite,' `Red Haven' peaches, and various pear varieties like `Clapps,' `Bartlett,' `Bosc,' and `Comice.'
In the apple orchard, fruit thinning is a critical part of the operation even though it takes five weeks of hand-labor. Williams doesn't push the trees to produce lots of fruit. The fruit under the trees are gathered up in the fall. The leaves are treated with the biodynamic cow-horn/manure preparation 500. This spray breaks down the leaves that keeps them from spreading apple scab. If they had sheep, they would eat the fallen leaves from the vectors of the spores.
According to Williams, if you were to visit the orchard, you may not see picture perfect, symmetrical, round red apples. The fruits may have some smudges and freckles, which can be washed off and they have great flavor and texture and the customers love them.
The vitality of the farm is strengthened by the use of special biodynamic herbal/animal preparations that are applied to the soil and the plants in tiny amounts, like homeopathic preparations for the body. No outside inputs, or as few as possible are used in the orchard. Kaolin clay (Surround) is sprayed for Plum Curculio and sulphur against apple scab. Williams also used the biodynamic technique of ashing - of burning the crop pests in the small apples and then spreading the resulting ashes in an area affected by the insects. The idea is that the insects will eventually leave the orchard. Most of the "summer diseases" are caused from the humid Northeast. They are cosmetic in nature and may even be washed off.
One of the core ideas behind biodynamics is a way of working with nature. One needs to see the farm as a living whole, whose components combine into something very much like an organism. You need to have enough animal manures made into compost to feed the soil that feeds the plants.
As stated earlier, growing organic apples on a commercial scale in New England can be challenging and requires extensive knowledge of horticulture, diseases, arthropod management and soil health.
The Organic Apple Project at the University of Vermont (UVM) is making an attempt to grow apples organically. This project is a collaborative partnership among three land-grant universities in New England. The UVM Horticulture Research Center started the Organic Apple Project six years ago. The new organic bloc of apples is being managed by Terrance Bradshaw at (UVM) and Professor Lorraine P. Berkett. The Organic Apple Project uses only Integrated Pest Management IPM organic certifiable practices.
Some of the previous orchard at the Horticulture Farm block was removed in 2003 and the soil was prepared to planting the new dwarf trees in 2006. Cover crops, such as buckwheat were included in the rotation. Compost from the Intervale in Burlington was added. A second set of new trees was planted a few years later.
Bradshaw is experimenting with five different apple varieties - `Ginger Gold,' `Honeycrisp,' `Liberty,' `Macoun' and `Zestar.' They were chosen because they are less susceptible to diseases like scab and they taste good. The purpose of the research is to find out what the challenges and opportunities are with these 5 varieties and to determine whether organic apple production is both profitable and sustainable on dwarf rootstock. All of the varieties use Budogovsky 9 rootstock except for `Honeycrisp' and `Liberty' which are on M.26 rootstock.
One of the challenges of the project is to find out whether a new intensive-trellis system of growing organic apples is both practical and profitable. Intensively-planted orchard plantings have been studied since the 1960s with the Slender Spindle staking system developed in Europe. These systems use a central leader system with changes in trellis design and closer tree spacing. The trees in this system have no large limbs and smaller trunks. This allows excellent light penetration in the canopies, which provides more apples to be grown and easier harvests as the tall ladders are not needed. In other words, you've got lots of apples and easier harvests. Highly intensive systems such as these may not be practical for every commercial grower as there are high initial labor costs.
The long term goal is to develop agro-ecosystems in which pest populations reach an equilibrium by building healthy soils.
The methods include: using earthworms to recycle leaves harboring over-wintering leafminer pupae and apple scab fungus; using microorganisms to suppress the soil-inhabiting stage of the European sawfly and apple maggot; providing the trees with proper nutrition and water for balanced growth (since overly stressed and vigorous trees are more susceptible to anthropod and diseases problems; pruning and training trees to enhance good air circulation and strengthening the structure of trees through proper pruning; using physical methods to reduce pest pressure (shredding fallen leaves to reduce apple scab fungus and leafminers), and using traps to "trap-out" apple maggot flies and therefore, disrupting mating.
To learn more about biodynamics, go to The Top Twenty Garden Questions and Answers.