The Holy Grail of Organics
By Joshua Brown Article published November 1, 2006
The plum curculio is a nasty weevil: pimply, snout-nosed and hump-backed, “not to mention ill-mannered,” contends agriculture specialist Guy Ames from the National Center for Appropriate Technology. By itself, this pest has been enough to drive many New England apple growers away from trying to grow their fruit organically — that is, without using synthetic pesticides.
And it’s not alone in chomping on apples. Following the curculio, a bestiary of apple maggots, Oriental fruit moths, tarnished plant bugs, thrips, leaf miners and mites hungrily prowl. If that’s not enough, mildew, fireblight, bitter rot and other diseases attack many varieties of apples; the regional favorite, Macintosh, is particularly susceptible to scab.
“It is extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to produce organic tree fruits in eastern North America,” concluded Cornell University’s orchard expert Ian Merwin in 2001. And apples seem the worst of the lot.
Or you can look at it like Lorraine Berkett does.
“It’s the holy grail of organics,” she says, walking toward a razor-straight row of new apple trees at the UVM Horticulture Farm off Shelburne Road. “If we can produce marketable organic apples in New England, we’ll be doing something that many growers say is impossible.”
That’s exactly what this professor of plant and soil science aims to do. With a $657,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture, she and her colleagues are leading the only significant university research effort in New England studying organic apple farming, and one of only a few such efforts nationwide.
Berkett stops and points to two stands of apple trees, both still green against a curtain of orange and yellow maples. Here, this past spring, she, along with assistant farm manager Terry Bradshaw and others, started planting and grafting five varieties of apple trees on a nearly two-acre research plot.
In one block, 250 branchless stems, with trunks wrapped in white tape, are connected to aluminum rods and wires, stretching like leafy telephone poles across the field. In the other stand, 216 older trunks, many Macintosh, have been cut with a chainsaw and new varieties grafted onto each stump. These two stands represent the two major paths farmers could choose in pursuing organic apples: start with new trees or cut old ones and add disease-resistant stock on top.
With Honeycrisp, Zestar! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the name), Ginger Gold, Macoun and scab-resistant Liberty varieties — plus the two age categories, various soil amendments, irrigation piping, and differing spacing between trees — the researchers have a menu of variables that they can use to study the effects of organic treatments.
At the top of the treatment list is kaolin clay. The same stuff that’s used in toothpaste, this inert wettable powder leaves a protective film on the leaves and on the apples themselves. Discovered in the 1990s and accepted for organic use in 2000, it appears to control or at least fend off many apple insect pests — including plum curculio.
“We absolutely white-washed these,” Bradshaw says, fingering the rough grey-green leaves of one of the older trees. And while you might expect that the clay would inhibit growth, research shows that this non-toxic coating actually increases photosynthesis by keeping trees cool on hot summer afternoons that would otherwise trigger the tree to shut down because of heat stress.
“If you look on Google Earth you can see our white trees from satellite pictures,” he says. And though the clay doesn’t kill insects, it seems that the strange appearance and surface of the kaolin-covered trees is confusing — or at least annoying — enough to pests that they simply stay away.
Combining this treatment with others, like sulphur and natural oils, the researchers expect that at the end of three years they’ll have enough data — and enough apples — to see if the impossible might be overcome. “In these new blocks we’re going to find out what are the challenges, and do what we have to do to manage these organically and sustainably,” Berkett says.
They’re not hoping to find a single horticultural sword to strike down the curculio and other attackers. Instead, they are starting what they see as a nearly decade-long effort to test and combine numerous approaches that all meet the now-federally regulated rules of organic farming, and that would be successful in the marketplace.
“Let’s see if we can do it,” Berkett says. “We’re recording effort and studying the whole system, which includes, of course, the costs and trade-offs of these approaches.”
“There are organic alternatives to all the challenges growers face. It may be a matter of integrating them well,” she says. “But we’ll see what the research shows.”
Dollars to donuts
Only 10 farms in Vermont are listed in the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s directory as producing apples and few of these are, well, ready to plop down on a teacher’s desk.
At Shelburne Orchards, about 6 of their 80 acres of apple trees are managed organically. “We do sell some pick-your-own and press some organic cider,” says Rob Healy who has worked for Nick Cowles, the orchard’s owner, for 15 years. “There are some good ones. But if you hold an organic apple and a conventional apple you can tell which is which. They tend to be smaller, and they’ll be a little off, some scab here. You see where it received a bug bite. That’s a tough sell in the supermarket.”
To see what he means, walk into the produce section of City Market in downtown Burlington and take a look at the apples. You’ll mostly see two types: local varieties grown with synthetic pesticides and organic varieties grown in the state of Washington. You’ll be hard pressed to find a certified organic apple grown in Vermont.
“We sold 35,000 pounds of organic apples last year,” says City Market’s produce manager Matt Landi. And the store sold 90,875 pounds of local apples, he says, but only a few hundred pounds of these were organic. “Local organic apples don’t tend to have the quality customers are looking for,” he says.
“Our goal in this research,” says Terry Bradshaw, “is to grow top-quality fruit for the fresh market. We won’t be satisfied with a whole boat-load of cider apples.”
The root of the problem is rain. New England’s wetter climate, with its numerous insects and diseases, has been a disadvantage to organic apple producers. Washington State produces two-thirds of the nation’s organic apples. “In the West where the largest production areas are essentially irrigated desert there are relatively fewer — far fewer —pests,” notes Guy Ames. The cost of organic apple production in the East has been calculated as three times that of the West. But that doesn’t mean that deserts are inherently the best place to grow apples.
“Here on the East Coast, we have a much broader spectrum of beneficial insects. We could argue that we have the better environment in the long run for organic apples,” says Jim Travis a long-time apple researcher at Penn State. “It’s going to be science-based experiments like Lorraine’s at UVM, combined with grower experience, that show us how.”