Lone organic grower finds it tough
Most of Owens’s orchards are surrounded by mature timber. On this mountain, he has three isolated orchards, each about a half mile apart. Luckily, infrastructure is good, as the landowner built good roads at his own expense.
Anthony Owens’s decision to go organic wasn’t popular with many of his fellow growers back in 2000. But his current standing is quite good. He is president of the Blue Ridge Apple Growers Association and the only organic producer in the group.
Owens believes in organics—he thinks organic fruit is healthier—but growing organic produce is like climbing a wall with one hand tied behind your back.
Apple thinning can be tricky, he said. He uses lime sulfur and fish oil at bloom. Hand thinning is cost prohibitive, he said, but small apples impose a huge penalty when juice prices are weak.
Among the 18 varieties of apple trees that were in the orchards when Owens leased them, most were Rome, Granny Smith, and Red and Golden Delicious. He has since found that Goldens and Grannies show the blemishes of summer diseases most and pack out poorly. He’s now concentrating on redder varieties that don’t show blemishes as readily.
“We have in this area a strain of Rome called Jackson. It was found here locally, and it’s so red, it’s purple,” he said. “Only a few growers have it, and I have 30 acres. It has good taste, I can sell it for fresh eating, and I tell customers it is healthier for them. The red flesh contains more antioxidants.”
“It bleeds beyond belief,” he says of the reddish-tinged flesh.
Growing apples in the Southeast puts growers into an environment of higher heat, higher humidity, and a longer season.
Owens sprays every five to seven days and after every rain and relies on computerized models of insect and disease development to tell him when to implement controls.
For apple scab, it is important to get good control early in the spring, he said. He uses sprays containing copper and oil while trees are still at the dormant stage. He uses copper sprays in the fall as well, on the leaves before they fall or even after they’re on the ground, to lower the amount of inoculum that overwinters in the orchards.
Summer scab control relies on sulfur but some effective modern materials pass organic muster. Serenade and Sonata are now being widely used—and not just by organic farmers—for control of foliar diseases like scab and powdery mildew. They are made from naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus subtilis and Basillus pumilis, respectively. These bacteria produce antibiotics that suppress other microorganisms, either killing them or reducing their growth rate.
Another spray product Owens uses is the pyrethrum Pyganic, a botanical insecticide approved for organic use and made from chrysanthemums. Surround (kaolin clay) is used both for insect control and to protect apples from heat and intense sunlight.