This is the question apple growers in Bucks County get asked all the time. And it’s a tough question because there is no simple answer, and that’s what people often want. Is it, or isn’t it?
Let’s step back for a moment and define “organic.” When the USDA certifies a particular food “organic” what it essentially means is that no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are used in the growing of the ingredients, nor genetically modified organisms (GMO).
But apples are tricky to grow completely organic in Bucks County. I spoke with Brad Berry, farm manager at Snipes Farm & Education Center, one morning at the Wrightstown Farmers Market about what Snipes is doing to grow their apples as organic as possible. It’s a little complicated, but I think you’ll find it interesting. And if you are committed to buying local apples – as opposed to Washington State apples – it will reassure you that you are doing the right thing.
BCT: Why can’t we grow apples organically in Bucks County?
Brad: Growing organic apples in the northeast of the country is far more challenging than in the northwest of the country and it is all due to dramatic differences in our environments. Humidity, length of season, rainfall and prevailing winds are the largest obstacles for us and in the favor of northwest organic growers.
Essentially we use a holistic approach to managing our apple trees. Our goal is to grow a healthy tree that has the strength and resilience to defend itself against the biological difficulties of the season.
BCT: How do you do that?
Brad: One way is that we continuously feed our trees and soil with probiotics, humic acid, fish emulsion and seaweed to boost the tree’s vitality. The probiotics are a lactic acid ferment of rice bran, organic molasses and minerals. It’s not unlike a recipe out of the book Wild Fermentation.
Humic acid is basically a prehistoric compost. It’s the most complex chemical structure known to man, holds water like nobody’s business, binds free radicals and helps plants take up nutrients they need better. It’s essentially the best compost tea you can imagine.
We also use neem oil which is derived from a tree in India. The benefits of neem are that moths don’t like it and it has a probiotic effect on the growth of the tree.
BCT: What are some of the problems you are up against and how do you deal with them “organically?”
Brad: Because of the humidity, we get many fungi that attack the trees. Apple scab is among the most challenging. The great spore release of this fungus occurs in the spring after a certain amount of degree days (the accumulated temperatures of our daily highs and low temperatures). In a range of these degree days these spores can latch onto trees if the leaves are wet during the day. So we only defend against it when we have to in the window before a daytime rain.
We combat the spores by spraying sulfur. The sulfur, being acidic, blocks the spores from attaching. But being a natural and abundant element in our world, it washes away with the rain and we have to reapply it before the next daytime rain.
The length of our season allows oriental fruit moths and coddling moths (among many others) to have many generations. To defend against these worms/moths we use something called mating disruption. We don’t spray this onto the trees. Rather we place pieces of plastic that have pheromone scents on branches throughout the orchard. As these pesky moths try to mate they are confused by the smell and can’t meet up to procreate.
We also use Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) to defend against moths. Bt is a soil dwelling bacteria that as it grows creates microscopic sharp edges. This structure when ingested by soft bellied worms is deadly. And like everything we spray, washes away in the rain quite quickly.
Plum curculio is a bug that makes dimples and can destroy apples. To defend against them we spray earth, specifically kaolin clay, on the fruitlets. They are only a severe problem for the fruit when it is tiny so we use this in May about three times to cover the fruit in this window.
Because of these factors, to keep our apples safe and healthy, we do spray, but it’s what we spray that makes the difference. Since 2007 or so we have eliminated all but synthetic fungicides (for scab early in the season) from use in the orchard. The last two seasons we have only used products certified by the National Organic Program although we are not USDA-certified.
Interested in learning more? Visit groworganicapples.com.
For a listing of all apple growers in Bucks, see our recent post, The 2015 Apple Report.
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