Organic fruit growers share ideas, beliefs
March 31, 2008 By Dan Woolley
Steve Meyerhans is an
optimist. The organic apple grower from Maine believes eventually “we
will be growing apples without any toxic chemicals,” thanks in part to
current research by the scientific community.
Steve Meyerhans is an optimist. The organic apple grower from Maine believes eventually “we will be growing apples without any toxic chemicals,” thanks in part to current research by the scientific community.
Meyerhans began growing apples 32 years ago in an orchard located on the northern end of Maine’s apple production range, an area where many people said organic production would not be viable. Instead of going pure organic, he chose to reduce his chemical use as much as he could through an integrated pest management (IPM) low spray program. Unfortunately, given the low chemical concentrations he was using, it often meant he suffered economic losses through smaller harvests.
Meyerhans decided to move his efforts, purchasing an abandoned apple orchard further south in the state. He started organic certification in 1999. His first few years of production were not very profitable but during his third year, he had excellent results with a pack-out of 50 per cent U.S. Fancy.
He grows traditional species, rather than scab-resistant cultivars, including Macintosh, Spartan and Cortland. He has been able to bring scab spores in his orchard “pretty well under control” although he has had some russeting problems with no adverse affect on yield. Even so, he says he’ll continue using copper sulphate, conceding he has serious questions about “how ecologically sound it is to apply 200 to 300 pounds of sulphur per acre.”
Meyerhans says his biggest production challenges include weed control, tree nutrition and crop load. He periodically has chicken manure delivered for free, which enables his orchard to maintain adequate nitrogen and potassium levels. His orchard is comprised of fairly “sweet soil” and there has been no need to lime. But it does have mineral deficiencies, which he treats with a foliar application of magnesium. He manages his ground cover with frequent mowing and disc turning once a year but he has found that mulching creates mice problems.
While lime sulphur sounds promising for thinning, Meyerhans says his only concern is it may produce overly large apples, particularly with Macintosh.
For insect pest control, Meyerhans has found mating disruption to be very successful against codling moth and he has managed to keep apple maggots out of his orchard through a strategy of trapping and pheromone lures. He also uses Surround, but only early in the spring.
Meyerhans agrees that input costs in organic production are higher, particularly for labour. He markets most of his product in Boston, which results in a market premium of about 15 per cent.
Nova Scotia orchard producer Doug Nichols went into organic production in 2001 after an over-supply of Ida Reds flooded the market. He now has 16 per cent of his apple production certified organic through OCPP/Pro-Cert Canada, giving him access to both domestic and international organic markets.
To keep abreast of new developments in environmentally friendly controls, Nichols has had to educate both himself and his employees. He is also working to improve the fruit quality in his 33 hectares of apples and two hectares of pears.
Nichols says his biggest challenge is monitoring pest populations, adding an organic grower’s major losses will be to apple scab, codling moth and apple maggot. He uses insect traps to help disrupt pest reproduction, ultimately helping to reduce crop loss.
In his IPM regimen, Nichols uses all of the natural controls, beneficials and predators available. Although he does use Surround, he is not keen on it because the Kaolin clay can still be found on the apples at harvest, detracting from the fruits’ appearance. He also applies Bt to his trees regularly from bloom up until June 15 to help control leafroller.
Nichols uses a lot of lime sulphur but admits it doesn’t work well when it is a cold, wet spring. In those conditions, he is considering using a copper sulphate application.
Nichols has had “reasonable results” in regulating crop load with lime sulphur, noting it has reduced fruit sets in field trials. But he also sees a need for better products, noting horticultural vinegar, soap or seaweed extract don’t affect fruit or inhibit pollen germination on the stigma.
Nichols’ ground cover management includes mulched hay around the tree rows, which helps provide nutrients to the trees and preserve the orchard’s soil moisture. He also has 2,500 market hogs he grazes in his orchard.
Like Meyerhans, Nichols also grows traditional species, rather than scab-resistant cultivars. Including Northern spy, Macintosh, Ida Red, Cortland, Golden Russet and Jonagold.
“If you plant scab-resistant cultivars, make sure you can sell them,” he advises, adding that direct sales to consumers are the most profitable. “But the volumes you can move are limited.”
Ultimately, he has found that the market return for organic apples is not a whole lot higher than with conventional production. “We are struggling with the types of apples we are growing.”
Patrick Johnson operates a 48-hectare organic apple orchard in the Georgian Bay region of Ontario. He has been developing the site since 1978 and currently has up to 2,600 trees per hectare on M9 and M26 rootstocks. He grows his own nursery stock by organic methods although he is interested in working with an organic nursery to develop better techniques for orchard establishment.
When it comes to cultivars, Johnson believes there is no one “silver bullet” variety for organic apple production in North America. But he also says “there is a need for one disease-resistant cultivar we can all grow in the north-east.”
When it comes to orchard management, Johnson says he has yet to find an organic product that has a consistent influence on crop-load thinning. He holds off mowing his orchard until after bloom and then mulch-mows four times during the rest of the season, particularly in the fall, to help add beneficial fungi and bacteria to the soil. His soil inputs include potassium, magnesium, phosphorus and calcium and he has also planted white clover between his tree rows to promote nitrogen fixing. His only other additives are a pre-blossom application of foliar nitrogen followed by a foliar application of a fish product.
Johnson says his orchard pest problems have experienced a shift in the past few years, particularly since 1994. Currently, he is experiencing as much as a 25 per cent increase in orchard damage, due to a growing population of Hemiptera and Coleoptera insects. He uses several different organic pest control products, including Bt, which he says has worked well; a viral product, Virosoft, which he says has been effective on codling moth, as well as insecticidal soap and mass traps.
When it comes to disease control, Johnson admits his fungicide program “has not been up to par” and he is currently looking at introducing beneficial fungi to the orchard through a compost tea to help break down leaf litter and control his fungal problems. He is also working to produce an open style of tree for quick drying and air movement in the canopy.
Mike Hutton of Knowlesville, N.B. probably has the most challenging climate of all of North America’s organic apple producers. It’s not uncommon for his orchard to experience harsh winters with temperatures plunging below – 300C followed by just three months of frost-free weather.
Scab and disease resistance are top priorities in Hutton’s orchard. Even so, besides his cultivars of Red Free, Nova Mac, Mac Free, Liberty, William’s Pride and Jona Free, he is also working with a couple of heritage varieties, “even though they do get scab.” And what is Hutton’s advice for battling the disease? Know when it spreads.
“Get the sulphur out as quickly as possible,” he says.
For insect control, Hutton uses pheromones and, for the first time in 2005, Surround, to reduce codling moth in his orchard. He has brought apple maggot under control with tangle foot and has also managed to bring his orchard’s tarnish plant bug population under controlled. As for saw fly, he says sticky cards and tree banding will trap the pupa and also works on codling moth. He is uncertain if it also controls saw fly larva.
“Clean up the drops around the trees,” he suggests.
As for surface amendments, Hutton is constrained by a thin, acidic, soil in his area. To combat this, he mulches generously with straw and also applies compost tea and liquid seaweed. His new trees also get potassium, magnesium, rock phosphate and composted manure every two years. All orchard mowing is confined until after the trees blossom.
Hutton feels manual thinning of the blossoms and the fruit is “the only way to get a decent quality and quantity of apples.” This has led to higher labour costs for his operation, adding to what he describes as the higher input costs attached to organic production compared to those for conventional production. On the other end of the equation, Hutton says he is receiving about a 15 per cent premium on his product and is hopeful that could increase as rising fuel costs force people to shop closer to home.
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