Harold Ostenson, center, discusses organic farming practices with Chelan grower Ray Fuller (left) and Stephan Bellon, a research horticulturist from France.

Harold Ostenson, center, discusses organic farming practices with Chelan grower Ray Fuller (left) and Stephan Bellon, a research horticulturist from France.

PHOTO BY GERALDINE WARNER

When you heard at the coffee shop that organic Honeycrisp apples were returning well over $1,000 a bin to the growers this spring, it was probably true. Even other organic apple varieties have been averaging a premium of $150 a bin on top of the already high prices for Washington apples.

So how can you get in on this bonanza?

Demand for organic tree fruits is growing faster than production, but before you leap into organic production, organic consultant Harold Ostenson has some words of caution. Past experience shows that growers looking at going organic as a way to keep their heads above water could make their situation worse unless they are making the transition for the right reasons.

“If you don’t have everything lined up in your conventional operation, you’re going to fail at being organic, and you’re not going to get the prices you hear about in the coffee shop,” he warned.

Ostenson recommends growers consider the following five points before deciding whether or not to go organic:

1. How successful is your current operation?

Don’t think about transitioning to organic as a path out of unsuccessful growing situations. Organic production will be even more challenging and complex, particularly during the transition phase.

If you are already using organic products, such as pheromones, Surround (kaolin clay) or the GF-120 bait for pest management and organically approved foliar nutrients, the jump to organic might not be that big. However, some practices, such as weed control, are more challenging in organic, and improving soil health can be a slow process after 20, 50, or 100 years of using synthetic fertilizers.

Do you have an operational/horticultural team that can handle the increased challenge and complexities of organic horticulture?  Do you have access to experienced outside organic expertise and support that can help guide you through the transition?

2. Do you have the right varietal mix?

Don’t take older cultivar strains into organic because you are no longer making a profit conventionally.

Ostenson said he’s heard growers with outdated, poor-coloring strains reason, “My Fuji packouts are down and the prices are down, I’m going to convert to organic because they don’t care about color.”

This is a “sure kiss to a slow death,” he said.

Organics is a premium market with a premium price for the unusual, or the newest strains and varieties. Organic consumers will pay extra for exactly what they want, and they want a nice, midsized, red Fuji. Your largest organic bonus will come by growing the most grower-unfriendly varieties, such as Honeycrisp. Are you up to the challenge?

3. Is your warehouse dedicated to an organic program?

Assess your warehouse’s dedication to storing and packing organics, and the marketing company’s capabilities and success in handling organic fruit. Don’t be afraid to go to the warehouse manager or sales office and ask how much organic product they’re handling and what they’re selling it for.

Be ready to switch warehouses and marketing company if your current conventional fruit packer/shipper and sales organization do not have a proven track record in organics.

Evaluate your packer/shipper to be assured that its organic program is large enough that they won’t end up selling your fruit as conventional for lack of organic buyers.  It should have enough organic apples to be able to fill controlled-atmosphere (CA) storage rooms so it can hold the fruit and hit the market in the spring when prices are high.

With cherries, particularly, it’s important that there is a dedicated line or dedicated line time for running your fruit in a timely manner, so it doesn’t have to wait for ­several days to be packed.

4. Can you produce the premium product that organic markets desire?

Organic markets will pay a bonus, but only for high quality fruit of the desired size. Organic consumers are more interested in the fact that it’s organic than in a special deal on lower grades of fruit. “Organic is not a pass for marketing poor grades,” Ostenson said.

The organic market is basically the top two Washington grades, Washington Extra Fancy and Premium. If your conventional packouts don’t show a high percentage of fruit in those two grades, then organics is not for you.

The most profitable sizes for the organic market are generally in the midsize range (80 to 100). If your current fruit size profile peaks on much smaller or much larger sizes, organics may not be for you.

5. Can you survive economically during the transition period?

Plan and project the economic impact on your orchard for the next three to five years. It takes three years of transition to organic to become certified. Production costs during this transition period will be higher than in conventional production and there is no market bonus for transitional organic fruit.

You will likely need to buy new equipment for organic production, such as a compost spreader and soil cultivator.

Ostenson said he would also buy a tower sprayer because it will put more spray material in the tops of the trees and good spray coverage is critical in organic production. “If you don’t get good coverage with organic-type sprays, they really don’t work,” he warned.

Grafting older varieties to new strains that are in high demand while transitioning to organics is a good economic plan for many operations that have not updated fast enough and have not taken advantage of the growing demand and price bonus of organics.

For example, a poor-coloring strain of Fuji or Red ­Delicious can be grafted over to Honeycrisp and the three-year transition to organic can take place while the trees are out of production. About the time they bear fruit again, the orchard can be certified organic.

Ostenson said this is a much quicker and cheaper option than replanting the orchard and incurring the expenses of pulling out trees, fumigating the ground, and buying new trees. “If you do a good job of grafting, a new planting will not catch up,” he said.

Harold Ostenson is a long-time fruit grower with more than 20 years in organic production. He retired from orchard operations in 2010. He managed the organic program of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, for five years, and consults on tree fruit production in Washington, California, and Chile.