Until now, Owens has worked with orchards established conventionally and converted to organic.
This year, Anthony Owens will start his second decade as a grower of organic apples. That’s likely a record for his location.
Back in 2001, Owens and a few other growers in Henderson County, North Carolina, decided to shift to organic production and capitalize on the increasing interest in organic produce. Today, Owens is the last man standing in this group. He is one of the few growers of organic apples on the entire East Coast, and perhaps the largest.
Despite Mother Nature’s “help” providing new lessons every year, Owens has yet to solve some production problems, the greatest of which is summer disease control: “If only consumers understood what goes into it, what I have to do, they’d have a greater appreciation for a fresh apple without sooty blotch,” he said.
Last year was not a good one for growers in Henderson County, organic or conventional. “I was hailed on five times,” he said, and that was after damage from three late-spring frosts. He had very little fruit to sell last fall, and lack of crop also set back his plans to start a retail produce market near Hendersonville. He has bought and renovated a building on a major road, and hopes to open with peaches early this summer. He hopes that with more direct contact with customers, he can capitalize by being both local and organic—and sell more fruit at a better price.
“I want to give the consumer who can’t afford retail pricing, organic fruit at an affordable price, and also sell value-added products like cider and applesauces,” he said. The value-added products are made from lower-value fruit.
Owens grows about 125 acres of organic apples, but is diversified with some peaches and a wide variety of vegetables. “Growing vegetables organically is a lot easier than growing apples organically, and my 25 acres of organic tomatoes saved me last year,” he said.
125 acres of apples
Owens has been able to sell all his fresh-grade apples during the harvest season, to Whole Foods, to regional supermarkets like Ingles and Earth Fare, and to local stores like the Hendersonville Food Co-op. So, he hasn’t had to invest in storage. But he sure needs his sorting line.
He estimates his packout of top-grade apples is only 25 to 30 percent—maybe 40 percent in a good year. The rest of the apples go for processing or for cider.
One thing that frustrates him is consumer pickiness over appearance. The biggest reason for sort-outs are the summer diseases—apple scab, sooty blotch, and flyspeck, which cause surface blemishes.
“I wish consumers knew how easy it is wipe off sooty blotch and still have a perfectly fine apple,” he said. “So far, they haven’t been able to understand that.”
He hopes that, with two-tier pricing and signage in his new store, he can educate customers and bring more fruit into the fresh sales category.
Bugs are not a big issue, he said. Using mating disruption and approved organic insecticides, he has few problems controlling codling moth and oriental fruit moth, but does need to focus on some secondary pests like green fruitworm.
He rotates Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis) and Entrust (spinosad) in his spray program.
“We have several more insects and diseases to deal with here than they have in Washington,” he said. Two years ago, he estimated his cost of production at $18 a bushel, compared with about $8 for conventional.
“Our cost of production is going up, and the price premium for organic fruit is coming down,” he said. “Prices are almost the same for conventional and organic apples for processing or juice.”
Needs more sprays
While many consumers view organic production as using chemicals less intensively or not at all, Owens figures he makes two or three times as many sprays as conventional growers do. Organic materials wash off more easily or have less residual activity, and are more often preventive than curative.
“If I could use conventional fungicides, I could fix sooty blotch and flyspeck in a hurry,” he said. “Sulfur is not very effective.”
When Owens decided to become an organic apple grower in 2000 (he was certified in 2003), he made some decisions that made the transition easier. He found land already in apples, leased the land, and then began the conversion. Only this last year did he face the challenge of growing organic apple trees from scratch. He planted 15 acres of Honeycrisp and another 10 acres to an early strain of Pink Lady, and wishes he had a better solution to weed control than tillage and mowing.
His approach is to plant the trees on a more vigorous M.7 rootstock and a spacing of five feet in rows with 22-foot alleys. That makes it easy to mow and makes the trees more competitive with vegetation.
Rainfall is high, so no irrigation is used at all. The orchards have grass floors, kept under control by mowing and workers using hand-operated line trimmers around the trees.
His leased orchards are somewhat isolated from the main apple-production area in the county, most of them on mountainsides of 2,800 feet elevation or more. The isolation and elevation give him good color on the apples, some relief from the southern summer heat, and some distance from insects and diseases. He worries about what might happen with an outbreak of fireblight if organic growers lose access to antibiotics.