Organic apples a possible cash cow

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the demand for organically grown fruit increasing and more Pennsylvania producers considering the opportunities in organic apple production and marketing, researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences decided four years ago to see whether it was economically feasible to grow organic apples in the Keystone State.

It absolutely is, they have discovered, and with the premium prices organically grown fruit brings, it is a business more growers should consider, according to Jim Travis, professor of plant pathology who oversees the organic apple project at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville, Adams County.

Task force

Apple growers in Pennsylvania, which ranks fourth in apple production, asked Penn State to participate on a task force team to investigate growing organic apples, recalled Travis.

“It had always been said you can’t grow apples organically on a large scale in Pennsylvania, so in 2003, we decided to just give it a try,” he said.

“This project, when it started, was the only organic-tree-fruit research program on the East Coast,” he said. “We have very little experience to draw on, so we are seeing what works and what doesn’t, one step at a time.”

On the 5 acres designated for organic production at the college’s apple orchard in Biglerville, tree numbers vary from 250 to nearly 1,000 trees per acre.

The first demonstration orchard was planted with two disease-resistant varieties of apples — Enterprise and Goldrush. Additional organic research orchards at the Penn State fruit center include other disease-resistant varieties and Gala, a cultivar well known by consumers, but one that is also very susceptible to apple scab.

Production, pests

The research is focusing on production and pest issues, but transcends the questions surrounding growing organic apples. Additional questions of profitability, pricing and marketing also are being addressed.

“One thing you don’t want to do is grow a crop you can’t sell,” Travis said. “In the beginning, we were asking not only whether we could grow organic apples, but can we sell them? The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ But we still aren’t sure how many organic apples we can sell in the Northeast.”

Clearly, disease-resistant apple varieties are best for organic orchards, Travis noted, with varieties that resist apple scab being favored. Conventional apple growers spray fungicides several times a year to thwart that disease.

“In the beginning, we were asking not only whether we could grow organic apples, but can we sell them? The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes.'”

Jim Travis

Penn State professor of plant pathology

In organic orchards, trees are planted in rows a little farther apart to promote more air circulation and reduce disease-enhancing moisture. In high-density organic orchards, taller trees are planted closer together, but narrower canopies allow sunlight to suppress diseases.

Transition

It took three years to transition the orchards to organic, Travis pointed out. During that time, no nonorganic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers could be applied.

“In organic apple orchards such as our demonstration project, we must control weeds with organically acceptable methods so the weeds don’t compete for nutrients and water and so mice can’t live in weeds and girdle the trees,” Travis said.

“To accomplish that, we must cultivate under trees because there are no good herbicides that are allowed for use in organic orchards. That kind of cultivation, done on a regular basis, is labor intensive and expensive.”

Growing organic apples in the Northeast is demanding, Travis explained. It requires close attention to all possible production practices to make up for not using most of the synthetic insecticides, fungicides and other chemicals that are so useful in conventional apple production.

Balanced system

“We are trying to encourage the growth of beneficial fungi, bacteria and insects — organic is a balanced ecological system,” he said.

“For example, we don’t control aphids and mites because beneficial insects such as lady bugs and lacewings take care of them in the organic orchard.”

Travis acknowledges that because of some very specific differences in organic methods, transition to organic apple production in the state is a slow process.

Relying on natural biological cycles and products and abandoning proven conventional tools and practices is, for many, too unfamiliar. But organic production and marketing is proving to be a perfect fit for some Pennsylvania apple farmers.

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