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