David Benner, center, owner of El Vista Orchards, explains the process of establishing new orchards to a group of local and state legislators during a farm bureau legislative tour.

David Benner, owner of El Vista Orchards, Inc. in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, recently hosted a group of local legislators on a county farm bureau tour. The discussion included water, the cost of wire for trellising, obtaining and maintaining a labor force, dealing with wildlife, and apple bins.

After explaining what goes into planting a new orchard, Benner and other growers fielded questions about the challenges they face. Benner brought up one of the many topics consumers aren’t aware of: the availability of bulk bins. El Vista uses both wood and plastic bins, but Benner noted that bins are tough to come by.

“He’s probably working a year out,” Benner said in response to a question about a small company that supplies wooden bins. “If one of us growers called and asked how soon he could make 400 bins, he’d probably say next year. We aren’t going to see them for this fall.”

Although some growers are switching to plastic bins, Benner said plastic isn’t the answer. “There’s the cost and also availability,” he said, noting that plastic bins are manufactured on the West Coast. “If the industry had to switch to all plastic bins, there’s no way they could make enough.”

John Lott, president of Bear Mountain Orchards in Aspers, Pennsylvania, noted that Washington state needs 1 million more bins this year, and Pennsylvania probably needs about 20,000 more bins. “Wood makes a lot more economical sense,” Lott said. He explained that the need for more bins is due to a shift in the market.

David Benner explains how the packing line works.

“York apples harvested for processing can be stored outside in November and December and they’ll be fine for sauce,” Lott said. “The shift is away from processing apples to fresh-market apples, which are more tender and have to be stored in a building. The bins wear out. I have bins that are 40 years old.”

However, plastic bins aren’t the solution. The biggest enemy of plastic bins is the forklift, and tears in plastic bins can’t be repaired. Although many growers prefer wooden bins, new food safety regulations may force a shift to plastic.

Benner noted that the biggest apple crop ever harvested in Pennsylvania was in 1896. “That crop was more than double what we’re growing now,” he said. “They did that without electricity, refrigeration or hydraulic power. The reality is that all of the apples, peaches and other fruit were harvested into wood crates and bins. Up until the 1950s, when corrugated boxes came on the scene, apples were packed into wooden [containers]. We needed wood for everything from harvest to packing to market. Then we went from wooden crates to wooden bins, and the industry is still using wooden bins.”

A concern for growers is the availability of new crates. While some growers have switched to plastic, plastic crates aren’t always readily available and are more expensive.

During the period when fresh apples were picked and packed in wooden containers, there were no documented cases of fresh apples causing a health problem. So why is there a push to eliminate wood? Benner maintains that the issue is consumer-driven, and that new food safety rules are designed to solve problems that don’t exist.

Jack Bream of Bream Orchards in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania, said, “Fresh apples have not been a problem, but the fresh fruit and vegetable industry has had problems. We’re caught up under the same umbrella, and we have to jump through the same hoops as the guys who have had E. coli problems.”

Chris Baugher of Adams County Nursery in Aspers, Pennsylvania, noted that there are several third-party audits available to growers, and all require a tremendous amount of paperwork. “We have a thick loose-leaf notebook with documentation that we’ve inspected the orchard for flooding, dead animals and feces,” he said. “It’s all documented. We have to pay for an inspection after filling out all of that paperwork, and it hasn’t been proven to me that we get more for our product.”

Baugher said the new food safety rules are market-driven, and that retailers like to use social and environmental aspects as selling points for fresh fruit.

One of the concerns growers discussed was the availability of water and how important it is for growers to have access to water for irrigation and other farm applications. Legislators become more aware of specific problems when they see orchards in person.

Growers agreed that the costs they incur for inspections, audits and certification will inevitably be passed on to the consumer. The price of food products will increase to cover the cost of implementing buyer-driven rules and regulations, and any costs associated with problems that arise from food safety issues will also be passed along to consumers.

One grower explained what happened recently to a major West Coast packer: “They found listeria on an organic product that was going to be shipped to Australia. They ceased shipping, which probably meant $1 million per day of product did not leave that building. That was for four weeks; then that extended to six weeks. They could not find the source of listeria in the packinghouse. But what came out was that they weren’t using chlorine as a disinfectant; they were using ozone gas because it was an organic shipment. Now they have the cost of millions of dollars of product destroyed … plus the recall costs of Costco, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. There are litigation costs associated with it too.”

Another grower said the most important part of this listeria story is that no one got sick. He pointed out that like E. coli, listeria is common in the environment. Growers agree that many of the new regulations are consumer-driven, but consumers don’t understand the many steps growers already take to ensure safe products. What’s the answer? Keep in touch with local, state and national legislators to make sure they’re aware of issues and concerns, and take every opportunity to communicate with customers about the many measures you take to ensure food safety.

Sally Colby is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.