Growing apples in the eastern United States under USDA organic certification standards is not easy, and it’s still not clear whether there is much future in it outside of a few niche markets.

The recent invasion by the brown marmorated stinkbug poses one more hurdle, a high one, since this fruit feeder is difficult to control even with synthetic pesticides and is only minimally deterred by approved organic insecticides such as neem oil and pyrethrums. Weekly applications of Surround (kaolin clay) may be the organic grower’s best chance at controlling BMSB. There is a small, solid core of consumers who want East Coast organic apples, and researchers from at least six eastern land-grant universities have projects under way to help potential growers overcome production and marketing challenges.

In 2007, according to research conducted by Dr. Gregory Peck, eastern growers needed consumers to pay a 56 percent price premium over another certification scheme called integrated fruit production (IFP) to be paid enough to grow them. That premium might be achievable for direct market operations—particularly those catering to affluent clientele—but the large volume of organic apples that are grown in Washington State largely dictates the price premium in the wholesale marketplace.

Peck is an assistant professor of tree fruit horticulture at Virginia Tech. He obtained a doctorate from Cornell University in 2009, where he worked with Dr. Ian Merwin and co-authored with him “A Grower’s Guide to Organic Apples,” a 71-page  A-to-Z guide for would-be-organic eastern growers.

Peck spoke about the future of organic apple production in the East during a session of the International Fruit Tree Association annual conference in Boston in February.

History is not on the side of the eastern growers, he said. “When the National Organic Program was put in place in 2002, large parts of the USDA standards that were adopted came from West Coast certifiers,” he said. The standards tend to reflect what needs to be done in arid, desert climates like California and Washington State, not what needs to be done to control the huge complex of diseases and insects that thrive in the humid, rainy East.

Not surprisingly, there are, according to the last agricultural census, 13,000 acres of organic apples in Washington and 3,200 in California, but only 465 in New York and 358 in Michigan—the two largest apple producers in the East. But even in Washington, Peck said, research has shown that organic growers need at least a 35 percent price premium if they are to be as profitable as conventional growers.

When compared with IFP, a certification system aimed at verifying sustainable production practices, organic production involves higher costs for insect and disease control—31 percent more, Peck said, because growers need to make two to three times as many applications of materials that are less effective and wash off easily. Their cost for fertilizers is 47 percent more and for fruit thinning, 22 percent more.

Barriers to overcome

Some of the barriers organic growers face include crop-load management, where the blossom thinners lime sulfur and oil are phytotoxic, hand thinning is expensive, and there is a penalty for small fruit size if they don’t thin enough.

Organically approved herbicides tend to be only minimally effective at controlling the grasses and perennials that can grow under orchard trees, so growers rely on mulching, mowing, and cultivation to reduce competition for water and nutrients.

Organic consumers are not more tolerant of blemishes, Peck said, so it is hard for eastern growers to compete with regions that have more favorable climates and can produce larger organic fruit free of blemishes, russet, and superficial insect and disease damage.

Organic growers rely on sulfur and liquid lime sulfur, and sometimes copper, for disease control, and apple scab is a scourge in humid climates. Organic growers can choose to grow disease-resistant cultivars, but face ­marketing barriers with cultivar identification in the mainstream marketplace.

Additionally, scab resistance based on the Vf gene has been overcome by the fungus that causes apple scab, Peck said. The potential delisting of antibiotics for fireblight control by the National Organics Standards Board would further complicate the management of organic apples in the East.

While it may have been easier to grow organic apples in the East if Easterners had written the rules, that choice isn’t available, Peck said. Many Eastern growers would like to farm under an IFP management scheme, but Integrated Fruit Production doesn’t have the cachet of organic. “There are a few successful IFP marketing programs here and abroad that have been able to capture a premium,” he said.

Needs for success

To be successful at growing organic apples, eastern growers need “a system developed from the ground up,” Peck said, and outlined what it would need to include:

  • An efficient orchard design with trees that allow good spray penetration and are small enough to allow for greater handwork
  • Disease-resistant rootstocks with high nitrogen and water use efficiency
  • Disease-resistant cultivars and careful management of the Vf gene by spraying sulfur and/or lime sulfur during the primary scab infection period—even on resistant cultivars
  • Crop-load management with lime sulfur and oil and mechanical thinning machines
  • Mechanical weed control
  • Disease control based on lime sulfur, sulfur, copper, streptomycin, and possibly some of the newer ­biocontrols
  • Insect management based on pheromone mating disruption, kaolin clay, Bt, granulosis virus, and spino­sad—and, to a lesser extent, pyrethrums and neem oil
  • Appropriate expectations from wholesale buyers and consumers, who would ideally be willing to tolerate some russet and some disease and insect damage. “It would be helpful if they would accept the many high quality scab-resistant varieties that are available, but they like Gala and Fuji as much as ­conventional consumers,” Peck said.
  • High price premiums to compensate for higher production costs and lower yields