TALKING SHOP: Third National Organic Tree Fruit Conference, Chelan, Washington, June 6–8, 2005
Not your mother's backyard orchard

U.S. organic tree fruit production comes of age

By Kathleen Delate, Iowa State University

Posted July 14, 2005: The Kachess Lodge near Snoqualmie Pass, 50 miles out of Seattle heading into the Cascade Range, advertises “TOWING” as opposed to FOOD or GREAT VIEW. When we reach the top of the pass, at 3,022 feet, the temperature has fallen from 67°F on Puget Sound to 44°F, and sprinkles of rain have turned to snow.

We’re making our way over to the Third National Organic Tree Fruit Conference on the banks of Lake Chelan and praying our transmissions hold. Shades of Twin Peaks appear in the toothless grin of the logging truck driver who gears down for the long climb next to us on I-90. Once over the pass, the transition from temperate, Douglas fir-dominated rainforest to sagebrush-encrusted desert begins. Acre after acre of lush green orchards fill valley floors and ridge tops, creating an illusion of eternal spring amidst the otherwise gray-green native steppe vegetation, occasionally studded with spikes of purple lupines.

In 2004, certified organic apple acres reached 7,049 in Washington state, says our host, David Granatstein of Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Organic pears account for 1,509 Washington orchard acres; organic cherries, 581 acres. But what led the pioneers to found the United States' largest apple-growing region in this rugged land? we wondered when we finally reached the Chelan area, three hours out of Seattle. Steep basalt rock faces framed valleys ending in azure blue lakes and reservoirs. The landscape was dotted with hydroelectric dams and apple packing plants, the latter edged with small mountains of wooden fruit bins.

Or plastic bins, in the case of organic apples. Plastic bins are easier to clean, we learned, and the codling moth likes to take up residence in the wooden bins after wriggling out from apples awaiting washing on the packing line. The bane of apple growers everywhere, the “little cod” (Cydia pomonella) gorges itself on sweet fruit-flesh for months before descending to the ground to rest in its pupal shell for the winter.

Anthropomorphically, it is easy to understand why the moth wants to give her larvae such a sweet life. In addition to their wonderful flavor, apples have enormous nutraceutical power, supplying antioxidants to fight cancer and decay (the old “apple–a–day” adage still holds true). But because of this pest, the most intensive spray program of any organic crop must be rigorously followed to obtain the best-looking fruit. This is not farming for the faint of heart: While all of the products are naturally derived and generally regarded as safe, many require the use of respirators and other protective gear. More than one person on the orchard tour expressed a preference for the relatively simple worlds of organic vegetable and grain production.

But oh, the cherries!

But one mouthful of the best sweet cherries you have ever tasted could change your mind. It’s not apple season yet, but in many minds, cherry season is even better!

The cherry harvest stretches from May 31 to September 1, according to Andy Gale, a Field Services Manager at Stimilt, the largest packer of organic fruit in the country. Their famous ladybug-perched-atop-twin-peaks logo greeted us at every turn in the facility. Called Responsible Choice, it’s a brand that people feel good about eating.

We all marveled at the intense flavor-–truly the best sweet cherries we had ever tasted! “Bursting with flavor” doesn’t do them justice. The deep red color alone sets your senses reeling. The packing plant is industrial-size, filled with cherries sluicing through a cleaning line worthy of Rube Goldberg and ending up in perforated bags holding two pounds of the jewels.

The numbers boggle the imagination: 65,000 bins of organic fruit; 700 tons of organic cherries. (I put it into organic soybean figures–-1200 tons from Iowa alone–to put everyone on notice that Iowa is big in organics too–just in a different crop.)

A new challenge for organics

In the Peshastin (pronounced peh-shash-tin) district, Dennis Nicholson grows organic pears that melt in your mouth. His biggest problem, he explains, is not insect pest management. Washington State and USDA-ARS researchers have found that creating “predator gardens” of wild roses and strawberries attracts a parasitic wasp to control leafrollers, while NOP-compliant materials, including mating disruption with pheromone dispensers, spinosad (Entrust™), Bacillus thuringiensis (Dipel™) and a new granulosis virus formulation (Cyd-X™) help manage other insect pests.

Instead, Dennis, like many of the other organic fruit growers we met, worries about price. Widespread conversion to organics in Washington—a full five percent of the state's apple production is now certified—along with increased competition from Chile and Argentina has brought organic apple prices down to conventional levels.

The organic growers have started to organize, however, and are working towards receiving prices that meet their economic needs. A merchandiser from Dovex, another large company that packs organic (as well as conventional) fruits, opines that it’s a matter of adding new markets. Just that morning, he says, he was contacted by a “very large corporation” interested in making organic juice.

Does this mean that smaller organic juice makers will get squeezed out? Not necessarily. Another new label is on the rise: SOFF (Sustainable Organic Family Farmed). It proposes to showcase the exact identity of the organic fruit, as opposed to the single label of a packing shed or corporation, and identify for savvy consumers that the higher price represents the real costs of raising organic fruit on a family-owned and operated farm.

Organic fruit: separate but equal?

Interestingly, while there were many conference talks and poster sessions concluding that costs of production could be equivalent in conventional and organic fruit production systems, discussions about market prices were few and far between. “The farmer only receives 19 cents to every $1.99 per pound of organic apples sold in retail outlets,” said Harold Ostenson, an organic grower who received an award for his pioneering work in organic fruit production in Washington.

One problem lies in the fact that organic fruit is graded by the same standards as conventional, and in conventional produce, it’s all "size, size, size.” The fact of the matter is that organic fruit is typically smaller, with enhanced taste and storage life trumping mere size. But the industry has chosen not to promote separate grading standards for organic fruit. An organic grading system could reward growers using lower inputs and reduced N-P-K rates, in keeping with the spirit of organic regulations.

In the meantime, many organic growers have opted to investigate alternative marketing strategies. Dennis Nicholson reports excellent sales from his roadside stand, which features photos of the entire operation–-from production to postharvest storage–-to give customers an appreciation of the extra labor and care that goes into an organic crop.

The mixed blessing of low rainfall

There is no doubt that the success of the organic fruit industry in Washington relies on dry weather, which keeps the diseases at bay. The coastal California and Northeast organic apple growing regions, by contrast, must rely on weekly doses of stinky sulfur to stop scab from infecting the orchard. The Midwest has the highest adoption of scab-resistant varieties-–cultivars like ‘Liberty’, ‘Jonafree’ and ‘William’s Pride’—that are just as flavorful as McIntosh and Red Delicious (if not more so) but have lower name-recognition for customers. (When I talk to growers tempted to try organic McIntoshes in Iowa, I ask them, ‘What would you value more: A crisp apple right off the tree without worry of residue–-or a McIntosh subjected to multiple sulfur sprays?’)

Rain, however--and the lack of rain--is on everyone’s mind in the West. Installing drip irrigation systems can save water and on repair costs from elk and deer trundling through elevated irrigation lines, Dennis informs the group. He and his neighbors are active in the Peshastin Creek Watershed Association and volunteer many hours of service devising methods to keep their watershed alive.

Washington: A model for the country

Washington’s U.S. senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray like organics; so does Christine Gregoire, the Democratic governor who, while we were in Wenatchee, passed an external review of the November gubernatorial vote tally that the Republicans had challenged. With over $200,000 in federal support to enhance their sustainable and organic ag program at WSU, the Pullman campus now boasts the nation's first degree program in organic agriculture. A dozen researchers from WSU and USDA presented organic research results at the conference. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission also supports an active organic research program, currently focusing on blossom-thinning and apple rootstock selection for replant disease.

According to growers at the conference, the USDA led the way in working with organic orchardists in this area; WSU entomologists came on board later, once the organic sector grew to a size they could no longer ignore. Growers also credit the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, a statewide advocacy organization, with bringing about better support for organic producers. The WSU students I met at the conference were enthusiastic and committed to organic research–-a rising generation that is sure to have a lasting impact in years to come. A unique partnership between WSU and Wenatchee Valley Community College gives WVCC students access to WSU professors while working in the community college's organic research orchard, where a GF-120 NF Naturalyte™ organic fruit fly bait is being used on cherry trees with much success.

Despite this improved overall climate for organics--backed by substantial funding--you still heard researchers use words like “organic-ish” and “soft chemicals,” as opposed to 100 percent certified organic methods. “They’ll work with us as long as the grant requires it, but I can’t see them buying organic apples for the family,” one grower told me. Currently, only four land-grant universities have research positions exclusively dedicated to organics.

Still, organic growers here are extremely grateful for the help researchers are providing. One conundrum that haunts some growers is "the replant situation.” Nematodes and various soil-borne diseases have been implicated in the condition that arises when an orchard is replanted and the new trees never seem to take to the old field. Certain rootstocks appear to do better than others, reports Mark Mazzola of USDA–Wapato, but they've also had good results with wild mustard seed meal (Brassica juncea). Mazzola believes that the meal may prompt a condition called SAR (systemic acquired resistance), which enhances activity from beneficial microorganisms (Streptomyces spp.) and protects the trees against critters trying to colonize it.

Ray Fuller of Stormy Mountain Orchard is anxious to test the material on his farm–-an idyllic 110 organic acres overlooking the lake and offering some of the most spectacular views in the state. On the final stop of the tour, Ray described his various weed management tools, including the “Weed Wonder,” which chops cover crops into a nice, loamy mulch.

Sitting on the lawn overlooking this family-run orchard as the sun went down, conference goers had one thing in common: A hope that Washington's success with organics will continue to spread across the country.

Dr. Kathleen Delate is organic agriculture extension specialist at Iowa State University.

This material was developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the Risk Management Agency, under Agreement No. 031E08310147.