Organic cherries are doable
Organic cherry growers are challenged by pest and horticultural issues.
Orchardists interested in joining the growing organic-cherry movement need commitment, patience, and intimate knowledge of their block, a panel of organic cherry producers and marketers advised during the annual Cherry Institute meeting in Yakima, Washington.
Organic cherry acreage has grown significantly in recent years in the Pacific Northwest, and shows little sign of slowing down. According to Washington State Department of Agriculture and Washington State University data, there were fewer than 200 acres of certified organic cherries in 2000, but by 2007, there were more than 1,000. It's estimated that there are now more acres in transition than those already certified, which will bring the total certified organic acreage to about 2,300 acres in the near future.
Cherry grower Dain Craver of Royal City, Washington, credits GF-120, an organic compound used to control Western cherry fruit fly, as one of the reasons organic acreage has increased. In the past, shippers didn't want to take the chance of having fruit fly in the packed boxes, he said. "GF-120 is an awesome product."
While fruit fly can be kept at bay with the spinosad GF-120 product, black cherry aphid has become a "game-breaker" pest, he said. It has taken some organic blocks out of the program because control is so difficult. "We don't have anything you can spray with unless you have drip irrigation and can put Azadirect (azadirachtin) in the system," Craver said. In his orchards that are under sprinkler, he releases ladybugs to help control the aphid.
Powdery mildew can also be a hassle with late varieties, Craver said. Products used to control mildew include sulfur, Sonata (Bacillus pumilus), and Kaligreen (potassium bicarbonate). He added that organic growers must do the same things that conventional growers do to manage the disease—get air movement into the canopy and time sprays to be most effective.
"If you have Pseudomonas [bacterial canker], don't even think about getting into the organic program. There's nothing you can do about it," Craver noted.
Harold Austin, who oversees organic cherry production for Zirkle Fruit Company in Zillah, Washington, warned growers that they should expect to see as many failures as successes. "You need to step into the transition to organic with commitment," he said. "It's tough. It's a lot tougher than apples."
Black cherry aphid makes it difficult to grow young trees and develop a tree structure, Austin said. For cherry trees under sprinkler irrigation where Azadirect is not an option, physically clipping off aphid infestations is about the only control method for black cherry aphid. "Growers know that for every cut you make on a tree, you'll get something happening on that tree structure. If you have to go in eight to ten times to clip for cherry aphid, you have branching taking place that you really don't want."
Conventional growers don't know how good they have it until they try growing cherries organically, he added, especially when it comes to tree structure. Conventional growers have a variety of chemical tools to help them solve problems quickly. Organic growers must be patient because there are no quick fixes for pest management or horticultural issues.
"With organics, you've got to be thinking ahead of the problem before the problem hits you," Austin said. For example, when using compost as a fertilizer, organic growers must think in terms of tons per acre and apply months before response is needed.
Craver and Austin both recommend that growers establish their orchards conventionally before transitioning to organic. As the trees become established and develop the desired tree structure, orchardists can prepare for organic conversion by doing things like releasing beneficial predators.
Craver also encourages growers to produce big cherries on small trees. Workers won't "run" to your orchards because you are organic, he said. "Pickers come to your orchard because they can make money."
West Mathison, President of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, suggests that only growers at the top half of the packing house pool go into organic farming. "If you're not a really good conventional grower, then organics is not for you. Do a little soul searching—if you're not an excellent grower, then stay away from organics."
Growers must be true horticulturists when going into organic farming, Austin said. They must know their blocks, have the right variety at the right site, and be willing to take their skills to a higher level.
"Your patience and tolerance has got to be there. It's hard, but organic is definitely doable," Austin said. •
Organic cherry production is not the niche market it once was. Certified organic cherry acreage in the Pacific Northwest is poised to more than double in the next couple of years when nearly 1,300 transitional acres become certified in Washington. In the Northern Hemisphere, an estimated 5,000 acres are transitioning to organic.
Consumer demand for organic foods continues to grow, David Granatstein reported during the Cherry Institute's annual meeting in Yakima, Washington. In the United States, organic foods increased from 1 percent of all food sales in 2000 to 3 percent in 2007, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
"That's a huge increase over that period of time," said Granatstein, coordinator of Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. Food-industry analysts predict organic foods will represent 4 percent in 2010, he added.
"The line is not flattening out," he said, referring to a chart depicting growth of organic food sales from the Nutrition Business Journal (see "Organic food sales" chart). "This is great news for organic producers," he said, noting that demand doesn't seem to be dampening off. "If anything, it's accelerating. "
In Europe, he estimated that 5 to 10 percent of all food sales are organic. "Is that where we're headed?" he asked. "It certainly is feasible because Europe is a pretty good indicator."
Though statistics on organic acreage can be difficult to obtain, he estimated that Washington State has 1,026 certified cherry acres, with 1,284 in transition to become certified. It takes three years to transition from conventional to organic.
California has 302 acres certified organic, and Oregon has 184. For a global perspective, he estimated that Italy has 3,964 cherry acres organically certified, with 3,243 in transition; Turkey has an estimated 924 cherry acres certified organic and another 493 in transition.
About 6,200 acres are certified organic in the Northern Hemisphere, with another 5,000 in transition, he said, adding that producers in the Southern Hemisphere are also beginning to grow organic cherries.
Organic cherry acreage in Washington increased by 30 percent increase from 2006 to 2007, Granatstein said. Projected acreage of organic tree fruit in Washington (apples, pears, and cherries) is still trending upward.
"We've got more cherry acres in transition than are certified," Granatstein said.