Pennsylvania's organic apple research initiative
A grower- and processor-driven movement explores how to produce apples with fewer chemicals in the moist and buggy East

By Laura Sayre

photo courtesy of Jim Travis
May 11, 2004: Can Pennsylvania's apple sector figure out new production methods and systems that will meet even certified organic standards?

Some industry leaders are beginning to think the answer may be yes. On November 12, 2003, the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania (SHAP) called for the formation of a task force to encourage sustainable and organic apple production in the Keystone state. The task force has been taking its assignment seriously, and task force chair Dr. Jim Travis says he is strongly optimistic about the possibilities.

"There are 25,000 acres of apples in Pennsylvania, 70 percent of which are harvested for processing apples each year. We think as much as 20 to 25 percent of those acres could be transitioned to organic."

"There are 25,000 acres of apples in Pennsylvania, 70 percent of which are harvested for processing apples each year," says Travis, a plant pathologist with Pennsylvania State University's Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville. "We think as much as 20 to 25 percent of those acres could be transitioned to organic."

The barriers lie not so much in production methods, Travis explains, or even in markets, but in the availability of certified organic processing facilities and—more fundamentally—in coordination among different segments of the fruit business. "Some growers say the markets aren't there. But then buyers tell me, give us more organic fruit—we can sell whatever they can grow."

The idea behind the SHAP task force is to build that coordination and thereby rachet up Pennsylvania's organic capability over time. Converting conventional orchards takes three years under certified organic growing practices before the fruit can be sold as USDA organic. Bill Kleiner, Penn State Cooperative Extension agent for Adams County, is the task force's vice-chair; other members include growers, processors, and fresh-fruit market representatives.

The full committee has met twice, in December and March, to find out "what's possible, what's required, what needs to be learned." In addition, Travis has been traveling the state, gathering the pieces of the fruit-growing and -processing puzzle that could be assembled into an organic whole.

The overriding goal is to keep Eastern fruit growing viable

One of those pieces is keeping the flow of Pennsylvania apples consistent into the “Eastern apple” stream—the broad marketing label for apples from this side of the Rocky Mountains. The use of controlled atmosphere (CA) storage by more Eastern producers has increased retail buyers’ interest, but keeping a consistent supply of high-quality apples is critical to competing with Washington and foreign imports, says Diana Aguilar, executive director of the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program.

Developing new organic market sectors at the commercial level is always a matter of balancing dependable, certifiable supply with the expanding—but not consistent—demands of the organic marketplace.

photo courtesy of Jim Travis

“The task force research will show whether Pennsylvania can actually produce enough low-spray or organic applies that will work in the processing market, and that will be a good thing,” she said. “As the task force and the industry explore the specialty markets, find the techniques, work on quality control and develop the necessary processing infrastructure, I can work with buyers to promote our sales.”

Knouse Foods, for example—an apple growers' cooperative and one of the largest Pennsylvania-based apple processors—is interested in launching an organic line. (Knouse labels include Musselman's and Lucky Leaf apple sauces and juices.) Another major Pennsylvania processor, Mott's, already has an organic line, and is reportedly interested in finding more local apples to supply it.

Knouse Foods has also agreed to consider accepting a scab-resistant apple variety for processing—a step which could have a significant impact on growers' ability to manage their orchards organically. "Scab control accounts for up to half of fungicide applications in orchards," Travis says, "so right there we could save 50 percent of fungicide use on apples statewide."

Pennsylvania's apple growers seem to be equally interested in organics. Travis said he was struck this year by the fact that "the majority of the research projects selected for funding by the growers this year were organic-oriented." (The state's apple growers fund research through a voluntary, self-imposed tax and mandatory assessments.)

"Processing is our first target, because it's most achievable," says Travis, "but the fresh-fruit people are interested too."

Redefining the research agenda

A final and critical component of the SHAP organic apple initiative is to redirect university research toward sustainable and organic management objectives. Travis says he and his colleagues at Penn State are already conducting some experiments relevant to organic management in existing, non-organic research orchards, and a new, 2-acre block dedicated to organic apple research is on its way toward organic certification.

photo courtesy of Jim Travis

In addition, the Penn State Fruit Center in Biglerville hopes to work with a nearby grower to transition a 7 year-old orchard—one that includes some promising varieties for organic production, such as Gold Rush and Enterprise—and establish some research plots there.

Finally, Travis and his colleagues are coordinating with The Rodale Institute® researchers to develop a research program in the Rodale farm orchards, where the trees are between 15 and 20 years old. (Click here to read more about organic apple growing at The Rodale Institute.) This will give the scientists three orchard life-stages to look at—new, mature, and in between—as they begin to examine such topics as tree spacings, training, fruit rots, pests, and weeding in organic systems.

Travis believes that a focused research effort could yield dramatic advances in sustainable and organic fruit production for the Northeast. A veteran of progressive, conventional fruit production and research—he grew up on an Adams County fruit farm, and has been on the Penn State faculty for over 20 years—Travis says he became convinced of the viability of organic methods a few years back when he conducted a trial comparing fungicide treatments to a foliar fertilizer treatment in grapes. The foliar fertilizer had no direct fungicidal effect, but nevertheless, it completely arrested the spread of the fungus.

"Frankly, I expected low efficacy," he admits. "But instead we found that these materials are just as effective, are less expensive for the grower, and have reduced environmental impacts. . . The only way that could be working is by stimulating a disease resistance in the plant itself."

"We've spent 25 years making synthetic methods work. What if we spent 25 years making organic methods work? Just imagine what we could do."

This phenomenon, known as systemic acquired resistance or induced systemic resistance, involves using a benign material to trigger an immune system-like reaction in the crop plant. It is one of the many promising new areas of research in organic agroecosystems.

"It made me realize, we've spent 25 years making synthetic methods work. What if we spent 25 years making organic methods work? Just imagine what we could do."

Pennsylvania's fruit sector, Travis says, has a lot going for it: a favorable topography; highly skilled and dedicated growers, some of them fourth- and fifth-generation fruit farmers; and good soils that produce flavorful fruit, prized by processors nationwide.

Exploring organic growing and marketing makes sense because the system offers a way to preserve and build on that heritage while at the same time improving profitability, satisfying evolving consumer demands, and taking better care of environmental resources. "The science is there," he concludes. "All the pieces are there. We can do it."

James Travis is a co-author of the "Mid-Atlantic Orchard Monitoring Guide" and of Penn State's "Small-Scale Fruit Production" guide for home orchardists, and has a hand in the university's "Tree Fruit Production Guide" and Fruit Times newsletter. He has also co-written "A Practical Guide to the Application of Compost in Vineyards," describing the first three years of an on-farm research project designed to reduce the use of synthetic inputs in Pennsylvania grape production.

Laura Sayre is senior writer for The New Farm.