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
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
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
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.