Making the switch
It's important to have alternative outlets for the less-than-perfect fruit.
Culls from Jim Koan's organic apples are used in the making of organic, fermented hard cider sold under the J.K. Scrumpy's label. Scrumpy's, now sold on the East Coast, is being marketed in California, Oregon, and Washington this spring.
In the late 1990s, Jim Koan seized upon what he saw as a business opportunity and diversified into organic apples. At the time, no one in Michigan was producing organic apples on a large scale, so he began converting a 20-acre block as his first transition orchard. He found success, and within five years, all of the apples at Almar Orchards, totaling 100 acres, were certified organic.
"I started converting to organic to make more money," he said. "But there's a saying that once you find religion, you can't go back. If you start down the organic path, you will likely go all the way because you are growing food for people and you will get thanked for that."
He said he never received any thanks from consumers when he grew conventionally farmed fruit. Now, he continually receives personal thank yous and e-mails from customers expressing appreciation for his organic apples. "The organic customer appreciates all of the work we do and risk we take to produce food for them," he said.
Before the third-generation orchardist went organic, he struggled to get traffic to stop at his farm market Almar Orchards and Cidery near Flushing. The market includes a cider mill and controlled-atmosphere storage room with a capacity of up to 30,000 bushels. His customer base has increased dramatically since he made the transition to organic.
"Most of our conventional customers stayed with us even with the price increases that we had to add on of about 40 percent, plus many new organic customers were added," Koan said.
The first apple block that Koan converted to organic had ten varieties and several different rootstocks. "It was a great learning experience," he said, sharing his organic story during tree fruit talks at Grand Rapids, Michigan, last winter. "I learned that each variety of apple has its own unique personality that comes out when you start minimally affecting it and letting Mother Nature take over."
Koan, who spent more than 25 years trying to grow perfect fruit, admits that he had to lower his fruit quality expectations when he went organic. "When I packed conventional fruit, my target was to produce 80 to 85 percent of the crop suitable for fresh-market sales. In organics, if I hit 50 percent, it means I'm doing a great job. You have to accept a little less in quality."
However, organic fruit brings returns that are as good as his conventional.
It is important to have alternative or value-added products for the "less than perfect" organic fruit, he said. His organic culls go into his cider mill for hard cider. Most of the fresh-market apples they grow are packed for wholesale and shipped to organic stores. However, they are changing their focus and intend in the future to divert all of their wholesale volume into organic fermented cider.
Koan's hard cider is now distributed from Maine to Florida. He planned to send cider to California, Oregon, and Washington this spring.
He also plans to experiment with running hogs in his orchards at certain times of the year to eat dropped fruit. He has a dual purpose for raising pigs—the hogs would clean up orchard debris and help keep plum curculio in check by eating dropped apples in the spring before larvae move into the ground, and he would have another value-added product to sell to customers. He is working with Michigan State University animal nutritionists to determine feed rations for the hogs, but believes that he could easily sell apple-flavored pork through his farm market.
"Marketing organic fruit is the easy part," said Koan. "Growing it is the tough part."
Many say that organic apple production in Michigan is impossible. Koan disagrees, although he said that organic apple production in his state is a "little tougher" than in some locations like Washington State. Growers must be more sensitive to the ecosystem, be willing to take more risk, be proactive, and use a variety of tools to control pests and diseases.
But with attention paid to nutrition, crop load management, and pest control, "you can keep production levels up," he said.
He hires three spray operators during the season so he can cover all of his 100 acres of organic apples within 20 hours. A fourth person fills the spray tanks. He estimated that a grower, without outside help, could take care of about 30 acres of organic apples.
Koan built a strong integrated pest management program before he began the transition to organics, using manure for fertilization, soft chemicals, and moving away from most fungicides except sterol inhibitors.
Codling moth, with only two generations in Michigan, is no longer a major problem in his organic orchards. Plum curculio is his toughest pest. Often, many of the minor pests that plague conventional growers are no longer problems for organic growers, he said, explaining that natural predators help keep pests in check.
He uses Surround (kaolin clay) at bloom and four to five times later during the season to help control pests. Lime sulfur is used for thinning, but there's a narrow window when he can apply it without knocking off too many leaves. Some years, his thinning sprays are interrupted with the need to apply scab control materials.
He begins preparing the ground for new plantings three years before trees are put in the ground, using legume cover crops to help break up his heavy clay soil and top-dressing manure down the tree rows. He places emphasis on nutrition and weed control in the early years to help young trees become established.
Koan began experimenting with growing organic Piñata apples a few years ago and planted a small block of organic Piñata apples this spring. The variety is managed by Stemilt Growers, Inc., of Wenatchee, Washington. He will be planting the block at a density of about 1,000 trees per acres and said he is "curious to see if we can grow these successfully under Michigan conditions."
He encouraged growers moving toward organic to start the certification process early, before they have completed the three years of transitional growing. By choosing a certifying organization during the transition phase and going through an audit and inspection process, growers can "know that they are doing things right," Koan said.
He explained that recordkeeping is the cornerstone of organic production. Every input to the crop must be tracked—when it was sprayed, mowed, fertilized, etc. Every bin must be tagged with who picked it and when, and where it is stored in the cold-storage rooms.
"Once you put a system in place, it's not difficult," he said. "But you need to be able to track everything for food security."