The apple sector in North America is seeing increased demand for organic apples, encouraging some growers to move toward organic production. According to the USDA, from 1997 to 2008, acreage devoted to organic production doubled to around 18,000 acres, which represents about 5 percent of the total U.S. apple acreage.

Apple diseases, many of which prosper under humid conditions, are a major constraint in apple production and therefore the organic producers in the Northeast and Midwest have a more challenging time than their counterparts in arid Washington State.

Why grow organic in Northeast?

Even though organic apples are transported from Washington State – the number one apple producer in North America – to the Northeast region, there is consumer demand for local organic apples. Many consumers who want organic prefer to buy local organic and, in some cases, are willing to pay a premium for it.

As organic farming practices are designed to benefit the environment by reducing pollution and conserving water and soil quality, growers who wish to use a more holistic production system with less hard chemistry may wish to consider an organic apple orchard.

Before setting up organic orchard

Good weed control obtained with organic chemical herbicide at the organic apple orchard, New York State Agriculture Experiment Station, Geneva, New York.

For successful production, the siting of an orchard is important. The closeness to woods can influence insect and disease issues in the future orchard, soil type will influence fertilizer and amendment requirements, and previous land issue can heavily influence weed population. All are major concerns for the organic producer as they have much less tools in their toolbox for disease, insects, and weed control. Prior to the final identification of a site a potential organic producer should consult with their organic certification agency to establish that the site will allow for immediate certification.

For those considering establishing a new orchard or replanting, the experts recommend use of dwarf or semi-dwarf root stock and the tall spindle growing system. Fencing, trellis, and number of trees needed per acre (1,000-1,200/acre) make the initial financial cost higher than with standard size trees. However, according to Professor Terence Robinson, from New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, this growing system will pay for itself very quickly as with the dwarf/semi-dwarf rootstock it is possible to get an apple crop without having to wait for the trees to become big.

In addition, for those with U-pick operations these types of production systems are more desirable. Without the need for ladders in the orchard, insurance premiums will be lower. Deer can be a nuisance in apple-growing areas in the Northeast and, with these small trees, exterior deer fencing is essential and can be installed using pressure-treated posts; however, for the trellis system the organic producer is not allowed to use pressure-treated posts, and Robinson recommends locust posts.

Tree varieties and marketing

As a result of extensive research of apple breeders in North America and Europe, many excellent varieties with good disease resistance are suitable for organic production in the Northeast. The varieties may not be household names, which may mean that the producer will have to educate the consumer. However, farmers markets, CSAs, natural food stores and farm stores tend to have a clientele interested in trying new varieties. Once consumers try some of the less common varieties they are often hooked. A central New York state organic apple producer said that in early June he already had people calling asking when he would have “Pristine” ready for sale. A few years ago, no one would have known to ask for it. As there are regional preferences a grower should take time to learn the preferences (e.g., tart, sweet, crisp, red, russet) of their clientele prior to identifying varieties to plant.

Rootstock selection

As organic growers strive to manage the orchard using primarily mechanical and cultural practices it will be critical that growers choose tree varieties and root stocks with good disease resistance.

Studies to identify root stock with improved resistance to fire blight (Erwinia amylovora), and crown rot (Phytophthora spp.) has resulted in a number of high quality dwarf and semi-dwarf selections. The dwarf rootstock Geneva 202, similar in size to the industry standard M. 26, is considered by experts to have excellent attributes, and the semi-dwarfing root stock Geneva 935 is also very good. A detailed comparison of the rootstocks from the Geneva program can be found in this table (http://www.ctl.cornell.edu/plants/GENEVA-Apple-Rootstocks-Comparison-Chart.pdf).

A flame weeder can be effective. Cost of operation is relatively low, but care needs to be taken to avoid tree damage. Organic apple orchard, New York State Agriculture Experiment Station, Geneva, New York.

Weed control

Weed control is usually most difficult during tree establishment. Physical barriers such as bark mulches, and fabric cloth have appeal. Results with bark mulch are varied and appear to be related to the degree with which the mulch has decomposed. The price of bark mulch can be very high, and there are also concerns with regard to the mulch providing season-long nitrogen to the trees. Fabric cloth is expensive and provides a good cover for rodents.

There are a number of organically approved chemical products that have herbicide activity. In a study at the organic apple orchard in Geneva, New York, Robinson’s data showed that Suppress Herbicide EC (Westbridge Agricultural Products, USA) worked well. The major concern with the chemical approach is expensive; Robinson estimated the cost to be around $400/acre. The cheapest method is to hand cultivate, but for an orchard of any size this is not going to be practical. Using a flaming implement is another fairly reasonably priced option and gives some control of annual weeds but with perennials such as Quackgrass, they grow back fairly rapidly. Cover cropping isn’t a good option for weed control in orchards as the producer needs to be able to control when to stop supplying nitrogen to the trees.

Fertilizer

This area of production will cost the organic grower a lot more than the conventional grower. Just like the conventional grower the organic grower needs to have the trees establish quickly and growing well during the first year. In the Northeast fertilizer, applications should be timed for mid-April, mid-May and mid-June. It is not advised to apply fertilizer after June 15 as it can result in frost damage. There are a number of commercially available organically certified chicken manure products that work quite well along with a certified organic soil amendment produced using vermicomposting, which can be purchased from Wormpower (http://www.wormpower.net/).

Disease control

Even though organic producers seek to avoid spraying their trees, organically approved chemicals are often needed in the Northeast to provide sufficient disease control. Compared with the conventional producer, the toolbox is not large for the organic grower. However there are some broad-spectrum preventive biofungicides/bactericides, which can control or suppress some of the problematic fungal and bacterial apple diseases and some of the newer sulfur and copper products are more user-friendly than earlier products.

Antibiotics can no longer be used for fireblight management in organic production. The dry organic copper fungicide, Badge X2 (Gowan Company), contains 28 percent copper and does a good job at controlling the blossom blight stage of fireblight and is relatively inexpensive. Pruning of affected limbs can play a part in control, but in serious cases removal of the tree is often best. Summer diseases (sooty blotch and Flyspeck) can be serious issues for the Northeast organic producers. Sulfur-containing products can be used to attempt control.

The limitation with all the products is that they are protectants and require frequent application.

Vigorous apple tree growth observed with organic trees managed using the tall spindle growing system at the organic apple orchard, New York State Agriculture Experiment Station, Geneva, New York.

Insect control

There’s a long list of insects that are pests for apple trees. Even the conventional producer with a significant set of weapons can find it difficult to keep ahead. Plum curculio is top of list for being problematic in an organic apple orchard. The products available to the organic grower for insect control including neem oil, kaolin clay type products, pyrethrums, pheromones for mating disruption, insecticidal soaps, botanicals, and some microbial insecticides. (NOTE: Check with regulating agency for approval and/or certification).

Current and future research

With all the organic apple research currently under way at The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, this is an exciting time to be involved with organic production in the Northeast. At the organic orchard 8 commercially available scab-resistant varieties of apple along with two soon to be patented varieties from the station’s apple breeding program directed by Professor Susan Brown are being grown to allow evaluation of horticultural traits.

Plant Pathology professor Kerik Cox is using the organic orchard to evaluate various combinations of organic fungicides for management of fireblight, and the summer diseases Sooty blotch and flyspeck.

Professor Arthur Agnello, entomologist at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York, is evaluating organic spray programs for efficacy in controlling foliar and fruit insect pests and to determine the cost of each program. In collaboration with Professor Elson Shields, entomologist at Cornell University, they are evaluating the potential of entomopathogenic nematodes native to Northern New York for plum curculio biocontrol. The initial results with the nematodes suggest that in the future the nematodes will be a valuable component of a control strategy for the most problematic pest for organic producers (http://www.nnyagdev.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NNYAppleNematodesPR.pdf).

More detailed information on organic apple production is available in the following publication (http://nysipm.cornell.edu/organic_guide/apples.pdf).

COVER PHOTOS BY HELEN GRIFFITHS