Meeting the organic challenge
A Minnesota grower is finding ways to succeed at producing apples organically.
Harry and Jackie Hoch (center) gather in their orchard for a family photo on Easter weekend, where unusual 80-degree weather advanced the season, requiring sprays for disease control on the apricots and plums. With them are Harry’s mother, Jackie Senior, and their daughters Missy (far left) and Angi.
Photo courtesy Hoch Orchard
To grow fruit organically and profitably in the humid Midwest and East, where diseases and insects flourish, growers need to work hard if they are to compete with growers in the West. Production costs in the West are lower, and packout of quality fruit is higher.
“We’re making progress,” said Harry Hoch, LaCrescent, Minnesota. He and his wife, Jackie, own and operate Hoch Orchard and Gardens in southeastern Minnesota. The Hochs have about 30 acres of certified organic apples.
“A few of us have mastered the production practices, but we’re still not like the conventional guys. We have to work at it a lot harder and still get more damage,” he said.
“I have vertically integrated my farm. We grow and pack and distribute and make other products like cider and jelly and jam. We’re working to improve packout, but 60 to 80 percent is about the best we can get. So, we need to have ways to sell the lower quality fruit.
“Even then, our production costs will be higher for insect and disease control. We have to have a higher premium for our apples than for those coming from the West Coast. We need loyal customers. We sell mostly to local food co-ops, and there we can collect the double premium for being both local and organic.”
The Hochs are leaders in the organic tree fruit production world in the upper Midwest—speaking at conferences, organizing events, networking with other growers. “In the Midwest, there is very little support structure for organic,” he said. “We don’t have dedicated packing houses, for example. Organic growers here try to work together, to collaborate, to solve these kinds of problems.”
The Hochs organically certified their first small experimental block in 1995, but went back to conventional integrated pest management in 2001. Harry Hoch, who has his horticulture degree in integrated pest management, thought IPM would make it easier to solve some difficult production problems. But there was no real premium for IPM fruit.
“In 2002, we started trucking our apples to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where there was strong demand for low input and organic fruit,” Hoch said. In 2006, they again began the transition process to organic. This year, the entire farm will be certified. Being organic is easier today, he added.
In the farm transition plan, which is posted on their Web site at www.hochorchard.com, Hoch wrote that converting the entire farm to organic production had not been considered an option, but things changed. The primary reason for that change was that they had made the investment in a cider facility and commercial kitchen.
“The second reason for considering converting the entire farm to organic production is the improved pest control products that have come onto the market in the past five years,” he said.
In the last five years, burndown herbicides approved for organic use have made weed control easier, although Hoch still relies on in-row cultivation and on alternate alley mowing. He maintains habitat for beneficial insects and, during mowing, throws the mulch under the trees, both for weed suppression and soil improvement.
Apple scab is the most difficult problem for Midwest growers. In the winter issue of “Just Picked,” the newsletter of the Organic Tree Fruit Association, Hoch wrote several pages describing his approach to apple scab.
“I did not want to rely on a protectant program because too many applications of sulfur or copper would be required in my climate,” he wrote. “This could easily add up to over 30 fungicide applications in a season. This may be an approved organic practice, but it is far from a sustainable environmental practice.”
Hoch began using a liquid lime sulfur program, even though the material smells bad and is caustic on the skin.
“If infections are controlled during the primary scab season, fungicides will not have to be applied during the summer because the overwintered spore cases will have expelled all of their spores,” he wrote. “If I am successful controlling primary scab, I can get by with five or six properly timed sprays per season.”
Apple scab spores slowly ripen within their spore cases, within decaying leaves on the ground, in the spring, so a key part is monitoring. “We follow a process of collecting the spore cases, squashing them on a slide, and evaluating the presence and maturity of spores under a microscope,” he wrote.
He also uses a computer model that uses weather data to predict the period of time that the spores will be emerging. He uses a weather data logger to track the temperature and leaf wetness in the orchard so he knows exactly when conditions are right for infection.
“We have found the varieties with low susceptibility to scab, like Honeycrisp, can produce a clean crop with postinfection applications of lime sulfur during the primary scab season,” he wrote. “We could not control scab on the highly susceptible varieties such as Cortland. Even a protectant micronized sulfur program in combination with a postinfection lime sulfur program did not give us 100 percent control of primary scab.”
In the long run, he said, the solution to apple scab includes resistant varieties, and there are a number of them. Still, organic growers must bring to market apples the consuming public really likes—and many of them are not resistant to scab.
The Hochs have planted more than 50 apple varieties, including many from the University of Minnesota breeding program—Honeycrisp, Zestar!, Sweet Sixteen, Keepsake, SnowSweet, and SweeTango—and others like Crimson Crisp, Fuji, Ginger Gold, and Sansa. They have about 11,000 trees now in medium- and high-density plantings on dwarfing rootstock on 29 acres.
Last year, Jackie Hoch left her career as a hospital laboratory manager to work full time to co-managing the farm. To the Hochs, that spells progress.