Overview of Growing Organic Fruit
Organic fruit growing in the Mid-Atlantic Region can be successful and profitable with careful study and planning. There are natural features in the Mid-Atlantic region that offer nearly ideal conditions for growing high quality organic fruit. The climate offers frequent rain to support healthy trees and fruit. A moist environment provides an abundance of naturally occurring beneficial insects and microorganisms. Well-drained soils hold adequate moisture for healthy and abundant root growth while draining off excess water to prevent water logged soil and root death.
Sunlight and warm temperatures support the production of sweet peaches in summer and crisp fall apples. The natural topography of hills and valleys provides orchard sites with excellent exposure to sunlight and air circulation and allows cold air to drain off orchard sites reducing the risk for frosts in the spring. And most importantly, the market in this area for locally grown organic fruit far exceeds the current production capacity of existing organic fruit farms. It's all here - everything that is needed to successfully grow and market organic apples, peaches and other tree fruits.
The key to successful organic fruit production depends on the organic grower. Organic growers must be willing to commit to exhaustive investigation into the best organic crops and practices for a specific orchard site and continual education and implementation of improved organic growing practices.
The same regional attributes that support organic fruit production, if not managed properly, however, can destroy orchards and turn fruit into culls. Moist climatic conditions foster fungal and bacterial diseases resulting in root and fruit rots. Naturally occurring and invasive insect pests thrive in this region and will attack every part of the tree and fruit throughout the growing season. Since organic fruit production is a relatively new farming venture for the area there is little educational and advisory support available. Therefore, the key to successful organic fruit production depends on the organic grower. Organic growers must be willing to commit to exhaustive investigation into the best organic crops and practices for a specific orchard site and continual education and implementation of improved organic growing practices.
Basic Components of an Organic Systems Plan for Tree Fruit
For the fruit grown to be labeled "organic," the production practices must follow national standards for organic crop production set by the USDA. It is not legal to label fruit as organic if it has not been USDA Certified. There are several local certifiers that will review and approve an organic grower's Organic Systems Plan and conduct an on-site yearly inspection of organic production practices. Organic certification is yearly and specific to the crop certified.
Certification is not difficult and should not deter a grower from having fruit certified organic. Certification requires attention to acceptable organic practices, careful record keeping, yearly revision of the farm's organic systems plan and a willingness to participate in a yearly inspection by the certifier. Fees are reasonable and for part of the cost dependent on organic sales.
Market Decision for Organic Fruit Sales
Determining the market for the organic fruit is the first step in developing an organic production plan. Markets for organic fruit abound in the Mid-Atlantic region. However, it is not wise to plan on growing the fruit and then determining the market. Market choices made before the fruit trees are ordered from the nursery will determine the success of organic production and profitability. The market decision will affect every aspect of production, farm infrastructure and farm life style.
Organic Orchard Site
The organic orchard site is one of the most critical components for success in organic fruit growing. A good orchard site provides the foundation for success, whereas a poor site will make success difficult no matter how good the planning or practice. An orchard site with a southern exposure provides excellent sunlight interception by the trees and fruit. An elevated site permits cold air drainage and improves air circulation throughout the season. Sunlight and air movement are two of the primary disease management tools in an organic orchard. Most fungal and bacterial diseases that commonly occur in fruit orchards will not grow in sunlight and fail to infect leaves and fruit if they dry quickly. Well drained soils are also an important tool in organic fruit production. Soils must be capable of holding adequate moisture for good tree and fruit growth and not lay wet for an extended period of time after rains. Wet soils favor fungal root rots and increase the humidity of the air surrounding the fruit thus favoring disease development.
Fruit Variety Selection for Organic Production
The wise choice of variety, tree size and tree training system will provide a foundation for high quality organic fruit. All peach and apple varieties have differences in their susceptibility to fruit diseases. The organic grower must make careful selections of varieties to be grown. Often, the most popular fruit varieties such as the apple varieties Gala or Honeycrisp or the new white peach varieties are difficult to impossible to grow organically in this region.
Choosing a fruit variety with a high disease susceptibility will doom the success of the orchard before it is ever planted. There are several good quality apple varieties known as disease resistant varieties that are immune to apple scab, one of the most difficult apple diseases to manage organically. The quality of several of these varieties is excellent and increasingly being grown by conventional fruit growers. These varieties are susceptible to several other common apple diseases but all can be managed using organic practices and materials. Peach varieties also differ in their susceptibility to disease . One of the most difficult peach diseases to control in this area is bacterial spot. This disease destroys the fruit quality and will cause leaves to defoliate. It is recommended that organic growers select peach varieties that have low susceptibility to bacterial spot. One of the reasons that white peaches are difficult to grow organically in this area is that most are highly susceptible to bacterial spot.
Tree Size and Training
Tree size and training system should be selected to maximize sunlight and air circulation within the canopy. As mentioned earlier sunlight and air circulation are foundational to organic disease control. Several fruit diseases including foliar leaf spots and fruit rots thrive in shady, humid conditions found deep inside tree canopies that are too thick. Apple rootstocks control the size of the tree and ultimately the success in using sunlight and air circulation to manage fruit diseases organically. Peach tree size is not controlled by rootstocks but by fertilization and training system. Both should be managed to achieve good sunlight and air circulation. Apple trees are grown as free standing, individually supported by posts or by using a trellis system of wire and posts. Only non-treated natural posts can be used in organic production. Many believe black locust posts to be the best choice for our area due to availability, strength and longevity. Peach trees are free standing. Increasing tree and row spacing above what is recommended for conventional orchards will improve sunlight and air circulation in the orchard.
Managing Fruit Rots and Spots
During the growing season, many different diseases can infect tree leaves and fruit. Sanitation or the removal of infected fruit is an important organic practice in controlling diseases. Sanitation removes the disease from the orchard and prevents further spread. There are also many approved materials to suppress disease spread in the organic orchard. These materials are useful but typically have limited effectiveness in stopping a disease outbreak. It must be stressed again, that variety disease resistance, sunlight, air circulation and sanitation are far more important to successfully managing disease in the organic orchard than relying on spraying organic disease management materials.
Insects: Good and Bad
Insects are a challenge and a blessing in an organic orchard. Aphids and mites, while pests that feed on the tree, are also a perfect food source for beneficial lady bird beetles and syrphid flies. It is common in an organic orchard that aphids and mites are well controlled by lady bird beetles and syrphid flies. Internal fruit worms are controlled using a pheromone that prevents mating of the moth adults. Some pests such as stink bugs can be managed by the use of several organically approved materials. But care must be taken in using organic insect management materials so that beneficial insects are not harmed. It is also a common practice in the organic orchard to hand thin out insect damaged fruit, which improves fruit quality and fruit size.
Weeds Weeds Weeds
Weeds suppress tree growth and fruit size by robbing the tree of soil moisture and nutrients. Weeds that grow up into the tree also promote fruit rots and spots by reducing sunlight and air movement within the tree. Weeds may also harbor virus diseases that can move into the fruit trees. Moles and mice are attracted to thick weed thatch under the trees and may cause tree death by girdling the trees at the base or feeding on the roots. So, weeds are a big problem in organic fruit orchards. Managing weeds in the organic orchard relies on mowing grass row middles, limited cultivation next to the tree trunks and management of weeds under the tree and between the tree trunks. Weed control under the trees is accomplished through mowing and string trimmers. There is experimentation with low growing cover crops, mulch and plastic covers under the trees to suppress weeds. However, moles and mice can thrive under the cover of mulch and plastic covers so caution must be taken with these methods of weed suppression. There are a few commercially available organic herbicides that burn down weeds.
Harvest for Quality Organic Fruit
Harvesting the fruit at the peak of ripeness is a critical component of successful organic fruit production. Apple ripeness can be determined by measuring the sugar/starch ratio and by taste. Peach ripeness can be observed while picking when background green colors on the fruit change to yellow or orange. When fruit is picked too green or unripe it lacks flavor and may even impact how well the fruit stores. Over-ripe fruit is more susceptible to rot and lacks peak flavors. It is always important to cool down apples or peaches after harvest to remove the field heat. Cooling preserves flavors but it also prevents fruit rots and blemishes after harvest.
It's Your Conclusion
Can you grow organic apples or peaches based on the review you just read? If you are willing to work at it, study hard, make some mistakes but keep moving forward you probably are ready. Plan on attending grower field days and workshops and talk to an organic fruit grower if there is one in your area. The list below will get you started with some sources of organic fruit production information.
Prepared by Jim Travis, Former Penn State Tree Fruit Plant Pathologist and current organic fruit producer