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Producing apples organically challenging the norm

by Pat Shaver Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

One of the hardest crops to grow organically is apples. Prone to codling moth damage and apple scab, producing quality eating apples has never been easy.

Two Ontario farmers have converted to producing apples without the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. "Farmer Jack"' also known as Jack van Diepen in Lambeth, has been producing apples, plums, grapes, and pears (and cherries for the birds) organically since 1981. Ted Taylor of Clarksberg, is a recent convert, producing his apples big-dynamically. Both farmers agree, there is an alternative to growing apples with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

A deep rooted concern about changes in our environment gave Taylor the incentive to look for alternatives. I n July 1989, after attending one of REAP-Canada's field days, he decided to quit using any chemicals in his orchard.

- With the assistance of The Society for Bio-Dynamic Farming and Gardening in Ontario, which provided a lot of farmer to farmer advice, Taylor is working through the transition period. A three year period of production without the use of chemicals is required before a product can be certified organic.

Taylor is trying to develop a closed system, using onfarm resources to provide for the needs of the orchard. He uses composted livestock manure, straw and apple pumice to supply the fertility needs. Frost seeding clutch clover into the present sod cover will increase the nitrogen level in the soil. Taylor likes to let the sod cover grow tall in the spring; when it is mown, it acts as mulch, smothering many weeds. 1990 was the first full season that Taylor produced apples without any chemicals. He says he is pleased despite the fact that of 144 acres, only 20 acres had an acceptable level of damage due to codling moth.

Taylor is not surprised with the results; the area of highest damage was also the area with the poorest soil, lowest organic matter, and low pH. These trees were also beside a growth of black walnuts - a recognized host for codling moth.

Farmer Jack started to convert his orchard in 1981. Presently one third of his orchard is in transition to organic production or certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA).

Using similar fertility sources as Taylor, Farmer Jack applies composted horse manure and sawdust under the trees. At first the sawdust seemed to drain the soil of nitrogen, but with the increasing natural fertility and organic matter, nitrogen limitation does not seem to be a problem any longer. The mulch breaks down before the winter sets in so mice damage has not been a problem. Van Diepen has also seeded a 70% white clover -15% creeping red fescue - 15% ryegrass mix throughout his orchard.

Farmer Jack has been working with Mitch Trimble of Agriculture Canada to test the effectiveness of mating disruption to prevent codling moth damage. Pheromone dispensers containing a fluid are attached to the trees. The dispenser is similar to a large white plastic tin tie, and one is twisted to a branch in each tree.

The scent is similar to the pheromone released by the female codling moth. Although it is not known at what level the scent is released in the orchard, the male codling moth seems to be unable to track the female moths, and breeding is prevented.

Two years ago, using only Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) to control codling moth, van Diepen experienced 95% larval damage to his apples. Last year the damage was only 3 to 7%.

The damage level is still high compared to conventional orchards, but Farmer Jack expects the amount of damage to decrease further. The number of Overwintering cocoons in the orchard was very high, due to the high population the previous summer. There should be fewer Overwintering cocoons this year.

Last year was the first year of research and the trials should be repeated this year. There are 10 to 11 pheromones registered for use in the US, but it may be a few more years before the codling moth pheromone is registered in Canada.

Apple scab is also a major problem in apple orchards. Van Diepen has been using flowable sulphur with excellent success. Although sulphur is not supposed to have kickback if it is sprayed after an infection period, van Diepen has had good results. Application times are according to regular monitoring recommendations made by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food crop scouts.

There is some concern that continually applying sulphur will increase the soil acidity, but van Diepen has not seen a change in the soil pH with 15 years of use.

Much research is still needed to produce a better organic apple, but pioneers such as van Diepen and Taylor have come a long way. For Ted Taylor, trees are just an extension of the soil; if the soil is sick, then the plant is sick. Good words to live by.

Pat Shaver is an organs crops intern with the Plant Industry Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

Copyright 1991 REAP Canada

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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