From IPM to organic and back again

Diane Souther peels apples in the commercial kitchen of Apple Hill Farm’s stand.
Photos by Kathleen Hatt
This once-bright red sphere lured pests to this trap tree on the periphery of the orchard at Apple Hill Farm.

Back in the 1990s, as the Northeast’s wholesale apple market was drying up, Chuck and Diane Souther searched for new markets, and organic was looking like the next big thing. Despite having been told that tree fruit could not be grown organically in the Northeast and that some 23 varieties of pests would welcome a new nursery and dining destination, they decided to try it anyway. Knowing that surrounding forests could be home to a host of pests, they planted the 30 trees they planned to have certified organic in the middle of their Concord, N.H., orchard. Shielded by a buffer zone and conventionally grown apple trees, they reasoned the organics would be safe from migrating pests. However, the opposite proved true. The organic apple trees attracted pests that normally would have remained on the perimeter.

The Southers have always been willing to experiment, but not without consideration to pesticide use, environmental impact and fruit quality. Their experiment with organic apples began in 1999, primarily for economic reasons. Because their sales of organic apples never exceeded $5,000 a year, they were never officially certified organic.

Magic pest and disease control

The introduction of Surround seemed to Chuck to be the “magic bullet” that would enable Apple Hill Farm to grow apples organically. The kaolin clay-based product promised control of plum curculio. Although plum curculio generally lives outside the orchard, it moves in early spring, then mates and lays eggs in the apples, creating a half-moon-shaped scar. Protecting trees from this pest involved surrounding them with kaolin, a process Chuck likens to whitewashing. While Surround was meant to create a barrier through which pests did not like to walk, it also served as a disguise. Because pests apparently did not see trees coated in white as the trees they are, they migrated to untreated trees in other sections of the Southers’ orchard. Another issue the Southers experienced with the kaolin-based protection was its susceptibility to moisture. As little as .1-inch of rain could wash off 90 percent of the product. At an application rate of 50 to 100 pounds per acre, Surround quickly became an expensive alternative. Sulfur, a previous product of choice in the organic orchard, was, despite its pine-based adhesive, also susceptible to rain wash.

Is it sprayed?

As customers encountered the white residue left on apples by Surround, they would ask, “Is it sprayed?” Explaining the difference between products potentially harmful to humans and those more benign became a constant challenge for the Southers.

Because the integrated pest management program they developed over the past 30 years for their farm’s crops included the organically grown apples, and because organically grown crops are sometimes sprayed, there is, of course, not one answer. Adding to the confusion were the annual changes in the Organic Materials Review Institute’s list of approved organic insecticides.

In a two-page informational sheet covering organic and IPM practices prepared for their farmstand, farmers’ markets and other retail customers, Chuck explains Apple Hill Farm’s pest management practices this way: “We have established acceptable levels of both helpful and harmful organisms within the Apple Hill Farm ecosystem. When any pest population reaches our ‘action threshold level,’ we look at what actions we could take to manage that population so that it will not do economic harm. Action might consist of bringing predatory insects into the crop, managing fertility levels in the plant so that it can better ward off attack, or rotating crops. While crop rotation is a viable option with some crops, it does not work on apples and other tree fruits which, by their very nature, have a rotation cycle of 25 years or more. As we work to control a pest population, we might determine that a pesticide is needed. Then, we look for the right pesticide, one which will achieve the necessary action with the least impact. Before we consider the potential efficacy of a pesticide, we consider our own health and safety and that of our workers, our customers and the environment in and around our farm.”

Apple Hill Farm in Concord, N.H.
Apple Hill Farm in Concord, N.H.

For now, the Southers will continue occasional use of neonicotinoids and pyrethroids as part of their IPM program. Although they had stopped using pyrethroids decades ago because pyrethroids kill some beneficial insects, they recently discovered that pyrethroids applied to 30 trap trees around the orchard perimeter worked really well. Neonicotinoid use is only occasional, restricted to nighttime when dandelions are closed and to times when there are no other blooms in the orchard. This conditional use is to avoid contributing to colony collapse disorder, to which neonicotinoids have been linked.

Other issues with organic

It’s not news to anyone who has attempted to grow organically that products certified for organic use are more expensive than other similar products. The Southers found that, per acre, growing apples organically using OMRI-certified products costs 2.5 times as much as growing apples conventionally. The increased cost can, in part, be attributed to the increased number of applications of organic products. In 2008, the Southers sprayed the 30 trees in their organic block a total of 22 times using 264 pounds of OMRI-approved pesticides per acre. IPM blocks of similar- sized trees were sprayed only nine times using a total of 98 ounces of pesticides. (An additional three applications of foliar nutrients were also applied.) Yields from Apple Hill Farm’s organically grown Macs, Cortlands and Liberties were lower than yields from their other 25 acres of apples, and declined more each year. In addition, the saleability of their organically grown apples was, says Chuck, “significantly lower.”

“In terms of pesticides used, environmental impact and fruit quality, we think we can do better with IPM. We will continue to work to discover how we can get between the pests and our crop. Can we do something to affect the pests’ fertility? Are there ground things we can plant? What can we do to figure out and alter pests’ behavior? Will that be something visual, like the large red apple orbs hung around the orchard’s periphery? Will pheromone attractants be part of the answer? Will a beach plum extract work to get plum curculio to come to trap trees? A knowledge-based system (such as IPM) for managing pests makes lots of sense to us,” says Chuck, “and continuing research is really important. We need to fight for research dollars.”

Other crops and different markets

While the Souther’s experiment in organic apple production did not prove a viable means of diversification for them, they continue to experiment with other crops and different markets. In 1995, they began pick-your-own apples and later added pick-your-own berries. The same year they also built a large farmstand, which includes a commercial kitchen in which Diane prepares baked goods. “The pies, cookies and breads are a great way to utilize excess fruit,” says Diane, “including the tired produce that sometimes remains after farmers’ markets.” Diane has also developed an extensive line of jams and jellies, both one-fruit and combinations of small fruits from Apple Hill Farm’s 4 acres of strawberries, 2 acres of blueberries, an acre of raspberries and some black currants. She also utilizes some of the farm’s 38 acres of tree fruits (27 acres of apples, 5 of peaches and 1 of pears and plums). Some 40 varieties of apples grow on Apple Hill Farm’s 4,500 trees, and all but the 10 varieties grown for hard cider can be used in the kitchen.

Of the tree fruit markets the Southers have developed since the years when Apple Hill Farm wholesaled 100 percent of its apples, pick-your-own now accounts for 30 percent of the farm’s gross sales. Retail at the farm accounts for 30 percent, and three farmers’ markets make up 20 percent. Other sales are to New England’s one remaining apple wholesaler, to a winery and to a peeling operation that supplies a pie maker and a group of restaurants. “We always know where the market is before we pay to pick apples,” say the Southers, who may employ up to 30 people a week, including six apple pickers from Jamaica.

Apple Hill Farm’s most recent retailing venue is a new farmers’ market at the Tanger Outlet Mall in Tilton, N.H. Here they have found a wireless credit card machine to be particularly valuable for sales to outlet mall customers, who often do not carry cash. While at the outlet mall, Diane cultivates the community involvement essential to a successful farmers’ market by distributing some of Apple Hill Farm’s produce to salespeople in nearby stores. Keeping the market running smoothly is also essential. To the busiest markets at the busiest times, Diane takes up to four clerks.

While they have no immediate plans to increase farmers’ market participation, the Southers do plan to expand their offerings. Land previously hayed is being put into rotation (also a strategy for reducing pest and weed pressures) and vegetable acreage will increase. More peach trees will be planted, including several new varieties, and the Southers also plan to continue growing heritage apples and marketing Uncommon Apples (a joint effort with their friends at Poverty Lane Orchards in Lebanon, N.H.) in upscale big city markets.

Meanwhile, the pests that appear in Apple Hill Farm’s crops will continue to be managed in an environmentally responsible way, but the Southers will remain open to trying new options.

Kathleen Hatt is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Henniker, N.H.