Considering Organic? Insights from Washington Grower Panel

Organic farming involves more than just farming without chemicals. It requires changes to many parts of the crop production system such as enhanced use of integrated pest, weed and nutrient management techniques. These include using such preventative measures as crop rotations, cover crops, resistant cultivars, stress management and sanitation. They are essential to improving plant health since many chemical tools for pest control are not used in organic production.

The transition to organic needs to be carefully considered. Making the transition too quickly can create financial hardship or crop failure. To help with planning, it can sometimes help to hear from others who have gone through similar experiences and the lessons they have learned in the process.

The Washington State Tree Fruit Association hosted their annual meeting on Dec 7-9, 2020 during which they held an Organic Transition Panel with three growers from the Washington area: Don Gibson (Mt Adams Orchards), Jason Matson (Matson Fruit Co.) and Ray Schmitten (Schmitten Orchards). The following are some key insights shared from these growers for those considering transitioning to organic production.

Keep in mind, there are differences in organic standards and regulations between the United States and Canada. Refer to Resources for Ontario Growers at the end of this article or speak to your certifying body for more information.

Location, Location, Location

Proper site selection is key in the success of ANY orchard, but organic farming is a long-term choice and one that is not easy to move locations. Climate, neighbouring pest pressure, soil health and surrounding landscape present significant challenges.

Consider the impact climate will have on winter hardiness and select cultivars and rootstocks that are suitable for the area. Winter injury can leave trees more prone to seasonal issues and secondary infection. Climate can also directly influence pest pressure. If you are in a region where spring tends to be warmer, fire blight is a big risk and not one that is easily managed organically. Understand conditions that are conducive to the development of critical pests.

Get to know the neighbouring farms and landscape around the block you plan to transition. Unfortunately, pests like scab and fire blight don’t follow farm boundaries and your neighbour’s issue could become your own very quickly. Movement of pests such as codling moth, plum curculio and apple maggot are known to come from adjacent woodlots and wild apple or crabapple trees. Potato leafhopper or tarnished plant bug in neighbouring hay fields can migrate in large numbers to a new host when the hay is cut. Knowing what you may be up against will help you be prepared.

Soil type and health, including drainage, fertility, pH and organic matter are critical factors to maintaining tree health. You’ll likely find more success with loamier soils and high organic matter. Management practices that enhance soil flora and fauna are essential to prepare a site, reduce pest pressure and build soil diversity. Depending on the situation, poor soil health may take years to reverse.

To protect organic crops from potential spray drift generated by neighbouring farms, organic growers must establish specific buffer zones from an adjacent non-organic block. The ability to maintain this buffer zone throughout production should be considered during the site selection process.

Plan Your Orchard Design

 With the large investment required to be successful, it is important to plan well and consider all details. All three growers on the panel were in agreement that an ideal organic system is a small, high density block with drip irrigation. Yields can be lower in organic blocks compared to non-organic if not managed properly.

Irrigation is important to prevent water stress which could leave the tree susceptible to other stressors and reduce fruit quality. Mulch works similarly but an organically acceptable source can be difficult to find at times and may introduce new weed species.

Selecting resistant cultivar and rootstock combinations is essential for dealing with pest pressure from scab, fire blight and Phytophthora. However, it is a fine balance selecting resistant cultivars that will grow well and still sell to your customer base.  

Be Prepared to Maintain Records for Audits

To be “certified organic” is to produce products according to organic standards as certified by a provincial certifying body (see Resources for Ontario Growers below for more information). To maintain certification, numerous documents, records and inspections are required on top of the standard documentation most growers in the province provide. Research and understand the standards and regulations required. Ensure there is someone in your operation who can properly keep track of these records.

Know Why You Went Organic

Many hardships and challenges can be faced when transitioning to organic. It is important to always keep in mind why you wanted to grow organically in the first place:

  • Environmental? – To protect the environment, reduce agricultural chemical use, minimize soil degradation, maintain biological biodiversity
  • Economics? – Access to a premium market
  • Social? – Concerns of over personal or community health, consumer market demand

Take your time to research, understand the market, learn the organic standards and assets needed, and then set realistic expectations about your own farm.

Determine Market Requirements

Before even planting, ensure you have a market or potential buyers and are aware of the quality specifications. Does your operation match what customers want in regard to cultivar type and size profile? Size and grades that are standard for conventional are not always the choice for organic.

How to Transition

Interestingly, growers on the Washington panel start a new orchard block conventionally to build up soil fertility, fumigate and reduce pest pressure before transitioning to organic production. The logic for this approach is that there are more conventional tools available to get an orchard to full production and reduce potential stressors that could be detrimental when managed organically. However, the intention is of converting in 3-4 years, so it is not just ‘manage as usual’ until then. The focus is on building soils and managing weeds and other pests so that you’re setting yourself up for a successful transition.

The first few years of organic production can be difficult. In Canada, there is a required ‘transition period’ prior to harvest of the first certified organic crop. Cash flow can be a problem due to the unstable nature of the yields and the fact that price premiums are often not available until the fruit is ‘certified organic’.

Carefully prepare a plan for conversion. Try small orchard blocks initially and expand organic acreage as knowledge and confidence are gained. It may take 5-10 years to become totally organic, but a long-term approach is often more successful than a rapid conversion, especially when financial constraints are considered.

When Does Organic Not Work?

Unfortunately, there are situations when pest pressure is too high to maintain an economically viable organic program. There may be conditions conducive to epidemic-level infection of fire blight or scab, insect pests like codling moth or apple maggot may be resident in the orchard block or weed escapes may occur. Transitioning an orchard block with scab susceptible varieties is very likely to fail.

Specialty varieties are also difficult to produce organically, not because of management but rather the market. Specialty varieties are a niche as it is; producing organic specialty varieties then becomes a niche of a niche. If the market is too small, return will be low regardless of yield.

Understand Pest Biology and Available Control Strategies

The first step to effective pest control is understanding the biology of the pest. In organic production, available pest management tools are often limited, can be labour intensive and have a focus on integrating multiple strategies. The following are some specific pest-related approaches from the Washington grower panel:

 Rodent Control 

  • Till next to tree.
  • Use predators such as cats.
  • Rake debris to remove habitat.

Weed Control 

  • Rely on burning and cultivation.
  • Use herbicides sparingly since quite expensive.
  • Often organic weed control is the most serious pest problem.

Disease Control

  • Orchard sanitation is critical including removing / destroying infected wood, leaves and fruit.
  • Application timing of many biofungicides are different from conventional fungicides and need additional time prior to disease development to:
    • alter the environment (e.g., citric acid in Blossom Protect).
    • inhibit establishment and growth (e.g., Blossom Protect, Serenade, Double Nickel).
    • trigger natural defense mechanisms of plants (e.g., Regalia).

Insect Control 

  • Cultural practices are important such as dust abatement on roads or borders, avoid sucker growth, remove overwintering sites.
  • Use preventative codling moth measures including mating disruption, granulovirus, tree banding and following degree day models for precise timing of control materials.
  • Know your enemies.
    • Enhance natural enemy habitat (landscape modification) in and around the orchard, including partial mowing (i.e. leaving strip unmowed in alley).
    • Know impact of spray on beneficial insects.

An important note for Canadian growers considering organic production, certifying bodies are accredited by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to certify food commodities as organic in accordance with the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime. While your certifying body is able to tell you if a control product is considered organically acceptable, it is the grower’s responsibility to determine if the control product can be LEGALLY used on their crop.

 Resources for Ontario Growers

Looking for more information on transitioning to organic production? Resources are available on the OMAFRA Organic Agriculture website or other organic links in Ontario.

Kristy Grigg-McGuffin
Kristy Grigg-McGuffin

Horticulture IPM Specialist, OMAFRA