The Nicholsons opened their fruit stand in 1992. Dennis recalls selling his family’s apples on Highway 97 when he was a child, earning money for his first transistor radio.
Dennis and Nancy Nicholson use a combination of organic, soft, and conventional practices to produce their apples, pears, and cherries. They also use a mix of markets to sell their products, from their on-farm fruit stand, to organic and natural food markets, to traditional outlets like grocery stores.
About a decade ago, when tree fruit prices were falling below the grower’s break-even price, the Nicholsons began exploring alternative ways to produce and market tree fruit from their 50 acres at Peshastin, Washington. "Organic was one way to go," Dennis said, adding that they chose to go "almost" organic. "We started as soft as possible, figuring that if we got into trouble with insects, we could always spray."
Today, they have about ten acres of certified organic and ten in transition, with the remaining acreage produced under conventional methods.
His tree-fruit-growing neighbors, who were also members of the Peshastin Creek Growers Association, had similar thoughts about trying to differentiate their fruit in the market. The association of about ten growers represents 300 acres of tree fruit grown along the Peshastin Creek, a tributary of the Wenatchee River.
The group banded together in 2002 to form the Peshastin Creek Areawide Organic Project, a joint effort between the association and Washington State University pear entomologists to establish an areawide insect pest management program based on organic tactics. The concept was to start with organic practices, adding tactics as the season progressed instead of eliminating them. It was believed that growers would be more willing to adopt organic practices if tactics were viewed as a starting point rather than a restricted end point.
WSU entomologists sampled project orchards weekly for codling moth, pear psylla, secondary pests, and natural enemies.
Fruit was tested after the first season and found to have no pesticide residues, explained Nicholson. That led to the "Gently Grown" label being created for the association growers by Blue Bird, Inc., a Peshastin packing house. The growers also had their sustainable agriculture practices certified by the Food Alliance. Both the Food Alliance certification seal and "Gently Grown" are included on the label of the association members’ fruit.
It took time to find markets interested in the almost-organic concept and residue-free fruit, Nicholson said during a recent orchard walk sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington and the WSU Small Farms Program. "But in certain market segments, the Food Alliance label has been a bonus."
Nutrition has been one of the biggest challenges for the Peshastin growers, said Blue Bird organic field representative Jon Folden. Blue Bird has one of the few cherry, apple, and pear packing lines in the state dedicated solely to organic and packs about 50,000 bins of organic pears and apples annually—a number that continues to grow. Folden, with his own orchard in the areawide project, has assisted the growers in pest and nutrition issues.
"Organic nutrients have a slower release than synthetic fertilizers," Folden said. "They don’t have as much ‘oomph’ power as conventional." Growers must be diligent and pay attention to what’s happening in the orchard, he added.
Timing of nutrient release is a challenge for organic orchardists, especially if the nutrient source is from cover crops, said Dr. David Granatstein, coordinator of WSU’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resources. "The challenge is getting available nutrients to the roots when they’re needed and getting the cover crop to shut off when wanted. Tree fruit is very sensitive to nutrition and timing."
For a long time, organic tree fruit growers relied on compost to supply nutrients, Granatstein said. Compost, such as chicken manure, was inexpensive compared to organic fertilizers, but it also released nutrients much more slowly. Today, handling and transportation costs have significantly increased the cost of compost. "We need to come up with a more concentrated form of manure so that it costs less to haul," he said, noting that scientists are working with dairy farms to do so.
WSU Extension educator Tim Smith describes big fruit trees as a large reservoir of many nutrients. "You’re really only topping off the tank every year a little bit," he said. Ideally, nutrients would be added in the fall so that by spring, the trees can use nitrogen to grow flowers and shoots. "After that, you don’t need much, but you can’t back off with your organic fertilization program and just assume you have enough."
Nicholson noted that several growers who transitioned to organic were happy with yields the first five to six years, but then productivity started falling off. "As it falls off, it multiplies itself into other problems. Those growers went back to being conventional."
Natural enemies lacking
When Nicholson first tried organic controls in his Golden Delicious apples, "Codling moth got us and got us good," he said. It took several years to regain control, and he had to use several treatment strategies. "Mating disruption alone didn’t do it. Mating disruption and oil didn’t do it. I kept adding things until finally mating disruption, Entrust [organic spinosad], and Cyd-X, [codling moth granulovirus] together got us out of trouble."
Last year, his blocks were clean of codling moth, he said. "But it’s been a learning curve, and you have to time your sprays perfectly."
Dr. John Dunley, WSU entomologist, said that the areawide orchards had fewer natural enemies than they’d hoped. "I was raised with the dogma that if you removed all the ‘nasty’ chemicals from the orchard, that you’d get all these natural enemies to move in," he said, adding that, in the areawide project, that hasn’t happened. They could get natural enemies to come into the orchards, but only at the end of the season. To have a large enough food source to attract natural enemies early in the season means that insect numbers must be high, he explained. Dunley is working with other WSU entomologists to find better ways to attract beneficials into the orchard.
As part of the project, Dunley compared the growers’ insect control costs and also reviewed their spray records, including the number of applications made. He found that the growers had the same costs and same number of applications in the soft and organic acreage as conventional. "The caveat is that organic takes more work, and you have to think about it more. The slop factor that’s built into conventional programs is gone."