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The Ecological Orchard

By Gord Hawkes


In early 1996, we bought Log Cabin Orchard with a dream firmly entrenched in our minds—a dream of owning our own acreage where we could grow our own healthful organic produce and maybe, just maybe, grow it for others who also want organic food. The decision was easy; the reality, however, was far from expected.

Before purchasing the Eastern Ontario orchard, our horticultural background consisted of maintaining a half-acre subdivision lot. We had nurtured flower beds, grown raspberries, asparagus and strawberries, and had a tiny vegetable garden—and six apple trees that had never produced fruit. Buying the orchard was the realization of our dream: an opportunity to commune with nature, grow apples organically to an established client base, and fulfil our destiny.

It’s amazing how sometimes one ventures into situations oblivious to the realities that ought to be inherent in making that choice. After purchasing the orchard but prior to taking possession (you’ll notice I said "after purchasing" the orchard), I attended a day-long apple seminar at a local agricultural college. Apple Day is put on for apple growers (orchardists) to give them an opportunity to discuss strategies, and to provide them with information on new developments, equipment, products, etc. Here I was, the new kid on the block, ready to learn about apple growing so that I could take my newfound knowledge and put it to good use.

Remember, my experience in apple growing to this point in time consisted of maintaining 6 fledgling apple trees in a backyard setting. I was entirely unaware of the disease and pest pressure in an orchard setting and definitely inexperienced in the ways of conventional apple growing. The first session was on chemical thinning—how to thin the overabundance of the small developing apples by spraying the orchard with thinning chemicals. The next session dealt with early season strategies to control the apple sawfly by using more chemicals. By the end of the day I was left with the impression that it was impossible to produce apples without chemical intervention in the form of fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, thinners, stop-drop, mouse bait, fertilizers, foliar supplements, and more. I was thoroughly discouraged and felt so naive to have thought that apples could be grown in an ecologically balanced environment. At this point I bitterly regretted not having taken the apple course prior to purchasing the orchard.

The next step in my education as an orchardist was the Ontario government’s pesticide licensing course. Here I learned about the nasty and dangerous side of agricultural chemicals, including their level of toxicity and the proper handling that they required. When one thinks of chemicals in the agricultural context, one typically thinks of parts per million on the produce, not necessarily the toxicity of the actual chemicals in their concentrated form. As a result of this course, I became intimately aware that those chemicals could, upon dermal contact in their concentrated form, cause seizures so severe that death would occur in minutes. I also became aware that most insecticide labels suggest that no one enter the orchard for a minimum of 24 hours after spraying; for some insecticides, the restricted time could be as long as 72 hours. I wondered about the birds and other animals that would venture in and out of the orchard during that period.

Fully versed in all aspects of chemical warfare—and believing that this was the only way one could grow apples—I was prepped and ready to take on the insect enemy. On June 2, 1996—I still think of it as I-D (Insect Destruction) Day—at 5:30 a.m, nervous and filled with trepidation, I suited up like John Glenn in a water-resistant head-to-ankle suit, spray-protectant goggles, neoprene gloves, and respirator. I was ready. In the spray tank, I mixed the chemicals: a powdered formulation of insecticide that guaranteed death to almost anything that moved or breathed, and a chemical fungicide to protect the apples from scab spores. My nerves almost got the better of me—never had I been so aware of the effects of man-made poisons as I was at that particular point in time. And the ridiculous part was that I was hauling out to the orchard 200 gallons of toxic liquid that would allow me to produce the most healthful of fruits!

That first season I sprayed the orchard twice with insecticide— three times fewer than the recommended five sprays—and approximately five times with fungicide—again, far fewer than recommended. Even as I write this article almost three years later, I am still attempting to minimize the impact of those sprays.

The toxicity of the sprays, the re-entry periods, the unknown aspects of the chemicals, the hypocrisy, the safety of my family—I finally realized that this was insane. At the end of the 1996 season, I made a vow to convert to ecologically sensitive and safe practices or sell the orchard.

Over the winter of 1996–97, I scoured the Internet and the local libraries, contacted various branches of Agriculture Canada, made contact with other organic apple growers and endeavoured to learn as much as humanly possible on ecological apple growing. I learned that rotenone, pyrethrum, Bacillus thuringiensis Kurstaki (Bt), diatomaceous earth and soap were good botanical controls and that fish emulsion and seaweed were good foliar supplements. Sulphur, I read, could control apple scab. Things were looking up.

As the spring of 1997 approached, I was armed with information and fully prepared to tackle the orchard in a more enlightened fashion. My arsenal was to include rotenone (for insects), Bt (for Lepidoptera pests), sulphur, and fish emulsion. Deciding on what to use was simple; locating suppliers of those products proved to be more challenging. After many calls, I slowly came to realize that most of the products that were required were either not locally available or not available in the quantity required. Because petal fall, typically the time of greatest pest pressure, was fast approaching, my search for sources of botanical controls became desperate. Although I resorted to spraying half the orchard with a half-rate application of insecticide, I did locate a Canadian supplier of agricultural quantities of diatomaceous earth and an insecticidal soap and pyrethrin formulation. Along with fish emulsion foliar sprays for feeding the trees and sulphur for scab control, the ecologically acceptable applications provided encouraging results although there was some damage.

However, I was still uncomfortable using intervention strategies that were designed to kill both good and bad insects indiscriminately, as pyrethrins do. Through the winter of 1997–98, I went back to the Internet, back to the libraries, and back to the organic apple growers to pick their brains some more.

Our 1998 approach relied on an intervention strategy that was less invasive, relying mostly on natural insect repellents and controls that were not indiscriminately toxic, including mechanical controls and products that would repel insects. The regime consisted of four garlic sprays, two of which included diatomaceous earth, combined with a soap formulation derived from oranges (which served as a surfactant), six sulphur sprays and three fish emulsion/seaweed sprays. In some circumstances sulphur, fish emulsion and garlic were tank-mixed together to minimize the number of spray trips through the orchard. We hung 100 red sticky balls on perimeter trees in mid-July in an effort to control apple maggot; this method proved to be 99% effective.

The secret to organic apple growing, be it in the backyard or in an orchard setting, is to understand what is happening in the orchard and when. From our experience, a simple description of what to do and when to do it would be as follows:

Early spring: Feed the soil around the trees with compost and minerals, then mulch.

Mid spring to early summer: For scab, spray sulphur or sodium bicarbonate with soap before periods of extended leaf wetness. Hang traps before the emergence of the insect pest (just prior to bloom for apple sawfly, and early to mid July for apple maggot). Apply repellents (garlic and hot pepper wax) when leaves begin to emerge and before the pest becomes established; apply these at least three or four times a season. Use foliar sprays of fish emulsion and/or seaweed upon leaf emergence, just prior to bloom and upon petal fall.

Fall: At the end of the season, clean around the trees (removing fallen fruit and leaf litter) and pull back the mulch.

I regret that this article cannot be as detailed as I would like, but I encourage those interested in growing organic apples to consult any of the following books:

The Apple Grower by Michael Phillips (an environmentally and reader friendly account of organic apple growing) - Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Copyright 1998

The Orchard Almanac by Steve Page & Joe Smillie (a month-by-month account of apple tree and orchard maintenance) - agAccess, Davis, Calif. 1995 (3rd edition)

Ecological Fruit Production in the North by Bart Hall-Beyer and Jean Richard (an informative and detailed account on all aspects of apple growing) - published by Jean Richard 1983

I have become a believer that there is nothing that cannot be accomplished. I salute all people who attempt to make our world a little safer and more ecologically balanced, and who toil to provide health-giving produce to others who cannot produce their own.



Gord Hawkes and his family - wife Debby and two daughters Meaghan and Kristin - reside at Log Cabin Orchard, north of Osgoode Village, Ontario. Part of their orchard will be certified organic this year with the remainder to be certified organic next season. Log Cabin Orchard represents a dream come true for the Hawkes' and maybe, just maybe, the orchard will, in the not too distant future, be a full time endeavour.



Copyright 1999 Gordon Hawkes. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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