Not only do Michael and Gayle Thorpe and their six children grow citrus, but they do so organically. Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm, which comprises more than 2,000 certified organic acres in East Aurora, New York, produces an extensive variety of certified organic vegetables, fruit, grains, meat and more. This direct-sale operation sells via community supported agriculture (CSA) shares, as well as at an on-farm store and offers some pick-your-own fields.
However, located about 25 miles from Buffalo, New York, the area does not offer a climate conducive to citrus production. That didn’t stop the Thorpes from getting into the citrus market. Four years ago, the couple purchased a 15-acre grove in Lake Wales, Florida, which had been certified organic since 1989. Last year, an adjacent non-organic 40-acre citrus grove was purchased, and they began the process of transitioning it to organic production. While the fruit on that property will not be considered certified organic until 2017, they’re already utilizing exclusively organic practices.
While citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB), is plaguing many area growers, the Thorpes believe that their organic practices have helped to keep the Asian citrus psyllid, which carries the disease, from becoming an issue in their groves thus far. They allow Spanish needle (Bidens alba), typically viewed as a weed, to grow in the orchard rows. It gets waist high in the summer, providing soil cover as well as hospitable habitat for predatory insects.
Noting the importance of soil health, Gayle Thorpe said they work to promote a beneficial soil environment via a growing system that will “feed and cover” the soil and its inhabitants.
“Our groves look totally different from our neighbors,” she said. “We don’t really have too much of a problem with that [Asian citrus psyllid] because our predatory insects keep it in check.”
The Thorpe’s newly purchased orchard did have some trees showing signs of the disease, but they removed them and immediately implemented their organic growing practices.
“Already the trees look better,” Thorpe noted.
With a strong belief in farming as naturally as possible, the family has found a mentor in an 86-year-old Florida farmer who has a lifelong experience in citrus production.
The practices used by organic farmers today, such as a focus on maintaining soil health and fertility naturally, hand pruning trees, using simple tools such as sickle bar mowers, and utilizing flowering crops to attract predatory insects and control invasive pests, mirror the “old-time” practices, Thorpe said.
To prevent the potential damage that can be caused with the use of circular-blade machines to trim citrus trees, the Thorpes prune their orchards with handsaws. Hand pruning allows them the discretion to “take out limbs that might have fungal problems,” and to shape the trees. For optimal production, not all citrus trees are shaped the same. Providing the individualized attention each citrus variety needs is an important step in maintaining orchard health.
Soil and water
The Thorpes maintain soil health and fertility using natural fertilizers, primarily raw chicken manure and pasteurized, pelletized chicken manure, just as they do on their New York acreage. The raw chicken manure can only be used prior to 120 days of harvest for food safety. It adds “good enzymes” and needed organic matter, particularly important in the sandy Florida soils, Thorpe explained. As the harvest dates approach, a mined source of potash is applied to help get the fruit to size, and they switch to the pelletized manure. During the winter, some Chilean nitrate in minor amounts might be used, pending soil test results.
The irrigation system in the 15-acre certified organic grove is unusual, as it does not sit on the ground, as is conventional for citrus groves. Instead, it is raised 4 feet off the ground, which allows them to maintain the tree rows mechanically without damaging the irrigation lines. The lines in the new grove have yet to be elevated, so maintenance there requires a lot of extra attention.
The groves are home to a variety of citrus fruits, with a mix of dwarf, semidwarf and full-size rootstocks, which have different irrigation needs. Irrigation lines are 0.75 or 1 inch in diameter, and when elevated run through the branches of the trees. The micro-jet system utilizes a “spaghetti line” with sprinkler heads attached. The diameter of the tree being watered determines the application rate and amount of water needed, which is regulated by the size of the sprinkler head used.
“During the summer, you usually get so much rain in Florida that you don’t need to water,” Thorpe noted.
The exception is the newly planted trees, which are put on a timed irrigation system. The dry season, which starts in October, fortunately coincides with the end of the growing season in northern New York, freeing the Thorpes to travel back and forth to Florida during October to mow the grove, begin irrigating, and prepare for the upcoming harvest season.
The groves are a mix of oranges, grapefruits, tangelos, tangerines, lemons and pomelos. There are just a few white grapefruit trees, while the Valencia orange trees are numerous. The certified organic orange grove had some 50-year-old trees that were cut down to allow for replanting. The dwarf Honeybell tangelo trees are 20 years old. The navel orange trees are still very young. Despite the wide age span of the trees, and the need to replant, the organic grove is very productive, Thorpe said, and the yields are comparable and “at least up to conventional standards” per acre.
“I really prefer the large rootstocks because they are healthy and hearty,” Thorpe said. Although they do yield less per tree compared to dwarf trees, there is “increased yield per acre” with the full-size trees.
The Thorpes harvest the citrus crop with the help of some friends. This is the first season with the second, larger grove, so they have yet to determine whether an on-site farm manager might be warranted year-round. The harvest begins in late October with Page oranges. Navel oranges are up next, although their trees are still too small to bear a large crop. December brings Hamlin, a juice-type orange, and red grapefruit. Honeybells and Orlando tangelos ripen in January, with Temple oranges and Honey tangerines following in February. The Valencia oranges ripen from late March through June, long after the Thorpes have returned to their New York farm, leaving their friends in charge of finishing the harvest.
The new grove will be harvested for the juice market until it becomes fully certified organic. Once that happens, the family will most likely hire a commercial harvesting crew to handle the additional workload.
A packing shed at the orchard allows them to pack citrus on-site before it is shipped north. Initially, fruit was packed in 5-bushel boxes for transport to the New York farm, but the Thorpes found that shipping the fruit in stacked 1,000-pound bins caused less damage. Once in New York, the citrus is put in a large refrigerated trailer for short-term storage. Within a few weeks of picking, the fruit has been distributed to their winter CSA customers. They also take orders for 5-pound, 10-pound or cases of citrus fruit.
Knowing your farmer, even when the crop isn’t grown in your region, has become a real possibility for Thorpe’s Organic Family Farm customers.