Washington State study proves organic apple orchards competitive

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PULLMAN, Wash. – The first comprehensive study of apple growing systems provides evidence that there are financial as well as environmental rewards for apple growers who go organic.

The Washington State University study compared the economic and environmental sustainability of conventional, organic and integrated growing systems.

“To be sustainable, a farm must produce adequate yields of high quality, be profitable, protect the environment, conserve resources and be socially responsible,” said researcher John Reganold.

“The organic system was more energy efficient, it was better for the environment, it had better soil quality, its yields were as good as the other systems, it was more profitable and its apples were slightly sweeter and firmer..”

What’s the difference?

Choices of fertilizers and pesticides are the primary differences in the systems. Conventional crop systems employ synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Organic systems use composts, manures, and biological pest controls. Weeds are controlled with cover crops, mulching and mechanical methods, including burning.

Integrated systems, popular in Europe where growers receive subsidies for integrated fruit, blend elements of each of the other two.

The researchers measured the potential impacts of the systems on soil quality, horticultural performance, orchard profitability, environmental quality, and energy efficiency.

Soil quality measurements were made by analyzing physical, chemical and biological soil properties and incorporating the data into a soil quality index. The researchers measured accommodation of water entry and water movement, availability of water, resistance to surface structure degradation and support of fruit quality and productivity.

Largely because of additions of compost and mulch, the soil quality ratings were significantly higher for the integrated and organic systems, according to the researchers.

Measurement of horticultural performance included an assessment of yield, fruit size, tree growth, leaf and fruit mineral contents, fruit maturity and consumer taste preference. There were almost no differences across the systems, except that the organic fruit was generally firmer and slightly sweeter than the integrated and conventional fruit.

“There’s been criticism that organic yields are lower than conventional yields,” Reganold said. “In general that is true, but not always. This study showed that with apples, organic yields can compare favorably with integrated and conventional systems.”

Crunching the numbers.

Enterprise budgets were generated each year to calculate net returns from total costs and gross receipts. Receipts for fruit from the integrated system were estimated using prices for conventional fruit, since there is no price premium for integrated fruit in this country.

Receipts for the organic system were estimated using prices for conventionally produced fruit for the first three years, the number of years required to make the transition from conventional to certified organic. The price premium to the grower for each grade of organic fruit in the next three years averaged 50 percent above conventional prices.

All three systems became profitable in the sixth year.

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