CASE STUDY: Transitioning to organic
Pine Creek Orchards

Lessons learned in a mature organic sector
To some extent, organic apple growers in the Pacific Northwest are suffering from their own success. But the rewards of organic orchard management go beyond price premiums, say the owners and managers of Pine Creek Orchards.

By Don Lotter
Posted October 18, 2007

Farm at a glance

Pine Creek Orchards
Eric & Deanna Strandberg
Tonasket, WA

Organic since: 1997

Size: 400 acres

Crops: apples, pears, cherries

Markets: own label, through CF Fresh, and to some specialty processors

 

The great Columbia plateau, between Washington’s Cascade Mountains and the Rockies, defies the “rainy forests, rainy Seattle” image that many people have of Washington state. In the rain shadow of the Cascades, the plateau is a vast, semi-arid, glaciated expanse underlain by deep volcanic deposits.

The town of Tonasket, in the northern reaches of the plateau, sits on the Okanogan River, a tributary of the great Columbia River. Tonasket was named after the Okanogan chief whose people originally inhabited the area, but today this is orchard country—and increasingly, organic orchard country. Washington leads the U.S. in the production of apples, sweet cherries and pears, and it accounts for nearly 40 percent of the roughly 20,000 acres of organic apples in the U.S. Fully five percent of Washington's apple acreage is organic.

Eric Strandberg comes from an apple-growing family. His grandfather originally homesteaded land near Okanogan, Washington, in 1915, and the Strandbergs have been growing apples ever since. They bought the 400 acres of Tonasket land in 1998.

Eric became interested in farming organically after talking to organic farmers made him realize that the way he was farming conflicted with his family's interests and ideals. “Using toxic chemicals on the farm was not consistent with our lifestyle—we like jogging and camping, and enjoy the environment,” says Eric. “I didn’t like coming home to my kids after spraying Guthion and knowing I could put them at risk.”

Eric and his wife, Deanna, and their three kids also wanted to foster a more balanced farming system. The conventional way of dealing with pest problems by spraying, they had noticed, often just created other pest problems, which then necessitated more spraying. Finally, Eric preferred to think of himself as a fruit grower rather than as a commodity producer, and to develop his business accordingly. “Farming organically, you’re more food-oriented, and less commodity-oriented,” he says.

Pine Creek’s main crops are Honey Crisp, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and Gala apples. They also grow pears and cherries.

There are two basic strategies for transitioning a medium- to large-sized farm to organic. The first is to begin by transitioning part of the farm, staggering the changes over a period of years and conserving the known production strategy in order to minimize risk. Organic standards require that in a mixed operation (one with both organic and conventional crops), all equipment must be thoroughly washed each time it is taken from a conventional area to be used in an organic area. Buffer areas must be established to protect organic fields from drift from conventional fields. For practical reasons, equipment that is difficult to clean thoroughly or is in simultaneous demand in both parts of the operation—like bins or even buildings—must be dedicated to either organic or conventional use.

The other strategy is to jump into organic with both feet, taking a greater risk but avoiding the expenses of keeping two sets of equipment and enforcing practices to prevent contamination of the organic areas. This is the way Strandberg went, and although it wasn’t easy, he says he has no regrets.

Successful transitioning to organic apple production requires:

  • Good information about effective organic management of insects, weeds, diseases and soil fertility. Consultants, extension personnel and other organic farmers are generally most important, with some wary dependence on agrichemical company reps.
  • Good site selection. Often the best defense against diseases and insects is to grow the crop on a site where it does well and can “outgrow” the pests or develop strong systemic resistance.
  • Adequate planning for the stronger biennial bearing habits of organic trees in your yield and marketing projections. Because thinning is less accurate with allowed organic materials, apples tend to under-produce flower buds in years in which fruit yield is heavy, leading to biennial bearing.
  • Optimal varietal selection for fruit that grows well under organic management and is in demand.
  • Thorough researching of the market prior to making the switch. The global organic apple sector is changing fast, with high demand in the U.S. and Europe matched by rapidly increasing production in countries with lower labor costs.

The transition

The three-year "no man's land" transition period—in which operating expenses can go up, yields often fall or remain steady at best, and prices received are the same as for conventional fruit—was really difficult, Strandberg says. "Operating expenses don’t go that much higher than conventional—those conventional growers pay an awful lot of money for chemicals," notes Gene Burns, Strandberg's partner and marketing manager at Pine Creek Orchards. The real kicker is the lack of a price premium in the transition years.

Back in the ‘90s there was some marketing of apples under the “transitional” label for a price somewhere in between organic and conventional prices, but generally closer to organic. According to Burns, this can still occur, but only if there is high demand for that particular apple—for instance, if a new apple variety comes on the market and is well received, like Ambrosia or Honey Crisp, marketers may be interested in pushing transitional apples of the new variety if they're faced with a shortage of organic apples of the new variety.

Transitioning has also gotten harder now that organic price premiums have fallen due to increased supply. Five or ten years ago, organic premiums were so high they could compensate for the lost income of the transition years within the first year or two of full certification. Now it takes longer.

Washington has its own certification and inspection program—the Organic Foods Program of the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). Strandberg says his experience with them has been good. Pine Creek transitioned back in the pre-USDA National Organic Program days, when inspectors were important sources of information for new organic growers. Under federal organic program rules, implemented in 2002, inspectors are prohibited from giving advice to growers.

For both Strandberg and Burns, building the orchard soil has been a major goal. This was the advice the WSDA Organic Program staff gave them from the beginning, and they took it to heart. Eighty percent of the problems of transitioning to organic are solved by building the soil, they say.

“Conventional fruit trees are accustomed to being pumped up with fertilizers, and when you change over to organic, they need to adjust to doing more work to get that fertility. The soil-root system needs to be built up,” Burns explains.

“Our trees were nitrogen deficient for the first couple of years,” says Strandberg, “because we didn’t disk in the compost. If I were to do it again, I would disk the compost in at least six inches." From a hill above the orchards, he points out an area that is still showing yellow patches and unthrifty growth. “That is what the whole farm looked like the first year of transition,” he says soberly. “Actually, it was worse.”

“You also need to build up your populations of beneficials to bring pests under control. Farming conventionally you kill all of the beneficials with pesticides, and that transition in which you build them up again takes a couple of years,” says Burns.

“Because of the nutrition changeover and subsequent deficiencies, you can also expect to have your fruit size drop one class,” Burns adds. “But they generally recover back to your old size class after a couple of years.”

“One thing we noticed right away in the transition to organic was the improvement in fruit quality. Fruit keeps better, it’s firmer and [it's] sweeter.”

A permanent improvement in quality can offset the temporary loss of size, however. “One thing we noticed right away in the transition to organic was the improvement in fruit quality. Fruit keeps better, it’s firmer and [it's] sweeter,” says Burns.

Strandberg’s information sources are mainly other organic farmers, a consultant now and then, and, of course, the American farmer’s old standby, agrichemical dealers. Many of the dealers in this area have field reps who specialize in organics and carry lines of approved-for-organic products. “The problem is that they always want to solve your problem with something from their warehouse,” says Strandberg.

“For example, an agrichemical guy and some farmers were in our organic pear orchard and the agri-chemical guy grabs a bunch of pears and some earwigs fall out. Well, he maintained that the earwigs are eating and damaging the pears and recommended a spray (an organic one). I knew full well though that earwigs don’t eat pears and that they were just sleeping there. They are actually beneficial, we depend on them as predators of the pear psylla,” says Strandberg. “The other farmers didn’t know that."

The agrichemical reps are good at keeping track of what's on the OMRI list (the Organic Materials Review Institute's list of approved and prohibited substances, which the U.S. National Organic Program follows). This is important, since the list is frequently revised and materials can change status from one year to the next.

“If you sprayed a compound that has recently fallen off the OMRI list, say an adjuvant from a certain company, up until now the WSDA would consider it minor violation, note it, and keep you certified,” says Strandberg. However, “the USDA NOP is taking a zero-tolerance attitude on these things, and is forcing WSDA to take much more drastic measures, like de-certification, if these things happen." Some kind of national discussion of issues like this needs to take place, Strandberg argues, otherwise a lot of organic farmers are going to get hurt.

Strandberg makes sure the Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for every product they use is accessible to employees and goes on file with their Organic System Plan records.

Operations

The annual cycle at Pine Creek farm starts with pruning and compost applications in January. Strandberg uses no winter sprays. They make compost from purchased chicken manure and apply it at a rate of four to five tons/acre while the snow is still on the ground. As the snow melts the compost is drawn into the soil. The compost tests out at about four percent nitrogen.

Strandberg doesn’t plant cover crops. Instead, he allows a natural cover of native grasses, lupin and dandelion to come up in the orchards. This is mown three or four times a year.

In the fall, Strandberg applies a foliar spray of zinc and boron, using petiole analysis as a guide. “The zinc helps the trees go into winter better, [and] it helps them with the leaf shed,” he says.

Lime-sulfur and fish oil are also applied in the spring. This controls powdery mildew and helps to thin the fruit.

Strandberg rents bees for pollination. This requires a degree of judgment, he notes. “If bees are left in too long, you can get too much fruit set. You need to take them out, even though you want to keep them there because you’ve paid for them. Bees are really just insurance, in case the wild pollinators fail."

Irrigation is via a drip system called a drop tube, with a deflector to splash the water out. The half-inch plastic pipes are laid through the trees' lower branches, about four feet off the ground. This allows tillage and mowing operations to pass directly under the tubes, so that nearly 100 percent of the orchard floor can be covered by the equipment.

Computer weather stations are a critical part of organic apple growing for Pine Creek. Strandberg uses Spectrum dataloggers to collect microclimate data for predicting disease potential, mostly for apple scab and fireblight. The dataloggers are shoebox-sized weatherproof boxes that collect temperature, humidity, wind and leaf wetness data at different points in the orchard. The data are then uploaded to a microcomputer and analyzed with special software. Strandberg uses one datalogger for about every 100 acres, although a 1:50 acre ratio is optimum, he says.

Apple scab potential is based on leaf wetness and temperature data. Leaf wetness is particularly critical, but it's also the most difficult condition to accurately measure. Spectrum offers several computer modeling programs that calculate when environmental conditions are favorable enough to the growth of the scab fungus to warrant spraying. Strandberg sprays lime-sulfur for scab.

Doing your own weather monitoring is important because disease conditions in your orchard can be different from those prevailing on a neighboring orchard or from those predicted by the local extension agent’s weather data. “The old way of doing things was to go down to the local agrichemical dealer and look at his daily blackboard posting—spray or don’t spray,” says Strandberg. “But his conditions might be correct for your orchards only half of the time, and besides, in borderline situations, he’s always going to err on the side of spraying.”

Fireblight, a serious disease of apples and pears caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora, is the other disease monitored by Strandberg's dataloggers and computer. He uses a biological control agent called BlightBan, containing the beneficial bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens, which competes with the fireblight bacterium for nutrients on the apple blossoms.

Careful sanitation practices and pruning of fireblight-caused cankers are the primary strategies against this disease.

Strandberg also brews and applies compost tea about once every 10 days. “It’s not a panacea, but we like to use it,” he says. According to Pine Creek partner Gene Burns, the benefits of compost tea are subtle. “I’m not sure how to measure its benefits, but I’m one of those who believes it has done some good. It’s like organics in general: the differences are often very subtle and take time—many years sometimes—to really see.”

For codling moth control, Strandberg uses a multi-pronged approach including dormant oil, mating disruption and the biological insecticide spinosad. The dormant oil (a lightweight oil that kills insect eggs) must be applied at least two weeks after any application of lime-sulfur, otherwise it can burn and defoliate the crop. In his first transition year Strandberg made the mistake of applying the oil too soon after lime-sulfur and defoliated a lot of trees. “I was a little too eager to get it on," he recalls. "The leaves did grow back that season."

Strandberg also puts up 200 to 400 pheromone-dispensing “ties” or cards each year for mating disruption. Commercially available formulations of the granulosis virus are also used against codling moth, Strandberg says, “But you have to make sure it is viable and that the dealer has stored it well. It is also very UV sensitive.”

In 2003 spinosad (brand-name Entrust) was approved for use in organic orchards to control codling moth. Spinosad is an insect-specific toxin produced from the soil actinomycete Saccharopolyspora spinosa, and is the first of a new class of natural insecticides known as naturalytes. Strandberg’s experience with Entrust has been good. “It’s expensive, but it works.” Strandberg doesn't use Surround, the kaolin clay product used by many apple growers in the eastern United States.

Apple farmers in nearby British Columbia have no codling moth problems and don’t have to use any of these expensive defenses due to a very successful sterile-release program run by the provincial government. The program raises, irradiates (sterilizes) and releases codling moths in apple growing areas in large enough numbers that the wild codling moths invariably mate with a sterile individual. The program has been so successful that an apple farmer I talked to in the Similkameen Valley, just 50 miles north of Tonasket, never has to apply anything for codling moth. “I don’t know why we don’t have a program here,” Strandberg comments. “I know it’s been talked about.”

Strandberg uses a surprisingly low-tech, down-home strategy against another serious pest, the pear psylla. Pear psylla (Cacopsylla pyricola) is the worst pear pest worldwide and is largely responsible for the decline of the pear industry in the eastern United States. However, earwigs prey on psylla eggs and are an effective way of controlling the psylla. Strandberg uses crumpled up newspapers put in crotches of trees to promote earwigs. Earwigs hide in the newspaper during the day and come out at night and feed on pear psylla eggs.

In the first transition year, Strandberg went around Tonasket asking householders with fruit trees if he could put newspaper in their trees to catch earwigs. He built up his orchards’ population of earwigs this way.

Strandberg also sprays Spinosad for the pear psylla. Pyrellin used to be a common organic spray for pear psylla, but it was taken off the OMRI list in 2002. In that year there was no organic spray product available for psylla. Then, in 2003, the spinosad products were approved.

“You want to mix up your strategies and alternate things when managing a pest like the pear psylla,” Strandberg advises.

The pear slug (the larval stage of a sawfly, Caliroa cerasi) is also a problem. Strandberg hits it with Ecotrol when the insect is flying.

Cutworms can be a problem in some parts of the orchards. Several genera of moths of the Noctuidae family are cutworms in their larval stage. The soil-borne larvae emerge, move into the trees and feed on the foliage, eventually defoliating the tree. Strandberg is using chickens to combat the cutworms. He targets problem areas, fences the birds in and they scratch up and eat the cutworms.

“Chickens are very effective, but the problem is they are preyed on by coyotes,” Standberg says. He thinks turkeys may be better because they would be less susceptible to coyote predation. They've also thought about getting the kind of dog that is raised with chickens and guards them. “But we’re too big of an operation to be able to do that—we would need several groups of chickens, each with its own guard dog, for that to work."

“Pest management in organic farming is all about paying attention to cycles," Strandberg says, in summary—when the pest emerges, how much humidity or warmth it requires to hatch, where it feeds and how quickly it reproduces. Once you understand the cycles you can try to figure out ways to disrupt them.

The only major new pieces of equipment Strandberg had to buy when Pine Creek went organic were a manure spreader and the drip system. Everything else was washed with Nutrasol. The herbicide spray rig now lies unused.

Markets

Pine Creek markets its fruit under its own label and, less often, through CF Fresh, a Washington-based company that has specialized in organic fruits since its founding by organic farmer Roger Wechsler in 1993. CF Fresh is now the largest marketer of organic apples and pears in North America as well as the largest importer of organic fruits from South America.

Growing the latest, best, most popular varieties is critically important, Burns emphasizes. “We try to replace 30 acres of trees each year with new varieties." This translates into a complete turnover of the orchard every 12 years.

The effects of the global shift toward free trade are increasingly felt by apple growers in Washington state. You can hear the tension in Strandberg’s voice when he talks about competition from Chile in organic apples and other fruits. “They don't have to pay seven dollars an hour for labor, they might pay a dollar an hour, no benefits. It now costs four dollars a box to ship fruit from Chile. They can grow and ship and come under the cost of producing in Washington.” Strandberg's organic apples currently sell for anywhere from more than $40 per box of Honeycrisp to between $20 and $25 per box of Red Delicious.

Burns says he would like to see country-of-origin labeling on all fruit, arguing that it would help U.S. growers compete with imports.

When asked what advice he would give to tree fruit farmers about how to survive the difficult transition years, Gene Burns recommends trying to sell directly to consumers—at a farmstand or farmers' market, for instance—as "transitioning to certified organic."

“Consumers appreciate that you are going organic, and they will pay close to organic prices even if you are transitional. So farmers' markets and the like are good places to sell transitional fruit, since it is rare nowadays for fruit to be sold on the organic distribution market as transitional. They just don’t do that anymore unless there is a real shortage of some variety."

Burns also advises farmers to stay in close—even daily—touch with their marketing agents and distributors. “It can really make a difference in the price you get.”

Farmers of organic apples and pears face many challenges— the shrinking organic price premium, increased competition from Chile, and the National Organic Program's zero-tolerance approach to materials regulation, to name a few. The only farmers who may be in an even more difficult situation are conventional apple and pear growers—making it likely that despite the challenges, the transition to organic by apple and pear farmers will continue.