Going organic in the Northeast is tough
Singer Farms of Appleton, New York, produces organic apples, a difficult feat to accomplish in the Northeast because of disease and pest pressures.
“It’s next to impossible to do here,” said Jim Bittner, president and general manager of the 600-acre diversified tree fruit operation located near the shores of Lake Ontario, which is one of the few certified organic producers in the Northeast. “The insect issues are huge because we are surrounded by alternate hosts. There is constant pressure from the hosts around us.”
Conventional apple orchards in New York typically receive four to five sprays for apple scab in a normal year. Sprays for scab usually take care of other diseases like apple powdery mildew.
Singer Farms has 25 acres of certified organic apples grown for organic processed products like applesauce and juice. Growing for the fresh market would be even more difficult, he adds, therefore, they target only the juice and peeler markets. His apples are found in Eden Organic applesauce products and juices. Singer also produces organic dried apples from their own dehydrator.
Bittner said that he got into organic production “on a dare” in the early 1990s. “It’s strictly for marketing reasons and not a lifestyle choice.”
He chose an older block of apples with obsolete varieties as their organic block. At worst, he figured he would pull out the block if going organic didn’t work.
Although prices for organic processed product have softened considerably since the 1990s when demand was great, Bittner believes the experience has educational value.
“I’m losing money with the organics, and yields keep sliding,” he said. “But I stay with it because there are things to learn that can apply to conventional farming.” Farming organically keeps him connected with scientists at Cornell University, New York.
Major pests he must deal with include codling moth, oriental fruit moth, obliquebanded leafroller, and apple maggot. Mating disruption techniques for codling moth, successful in the Pacific Northwest, have done “notoriously poor” on the East Coast, he said.
“We try to key in on pests with trapping so that we know when to time sprays,” Bittner explained. “Organic materials are so short-lived that without proper timing, you can miss the guys that you’re after.”