Organic, Conventional, and Everything in Between: Some Thoughts on Sustainable Orcharding and Growing Eco Apples in the Hudson Valley
Here we are, at the height of apple season at Fishkill Farms. Apples abound in our orchards, but hardly a single one of them hangs in our organic section. In fact, our 2018 organic crop is less than 10% of last year’s.
The reasons for this are many. To begin with, we had a light bloom in our orchard this May. Then, the meager fruit set was subject to the whims of dozens of insects such as the plum curculio and codling moth, which migrated into the orchard through the summer and eagerly consumed half of the remaining organic fruit we did have. Finally, rains all season long guaranteed an abundance of maladies for fruits and vegetables across the valley- but perhaps no crop fared worse than organic apples. Without the protection of the gentle fungicides we use in our eco-orchards, thousands of beautiful organic apples rotted on the trees before they had a chance to ripen.
A season like this proves that, after nearly 10 years of growing organic apples in the Hudson Valley, while we’ve made great strides, there’s still a lot to learn. The techniques necessary to produce a consistent organic apple crop still elude us (and the rest of the local fruit industry). Most commercial organic fruit comes from the dry, inland barrens of Washington’s Yakima Valley, or the arid deserts of Chile. Unlike these orchards, which are entirely dependent on irrigation, Hudson Valley orchards are a veritable smorgasbord for fruit pests. The forests and fields surrounding our trees harbor wild apples, chokecherries, blackcaps, mullein plants, and cedars which are host to dozens of pests and diseases that freely migrate into our trees every spring. The Valley’s warm, humid climate and regular rains ensure perfect conditions for fungal and bacterial organisms that spread quickly through orchards, causing fruit rots, and defoliation of trees by mid-summer. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t find apples that are both local and organic in supermarkets, now you know. For us, growing organic apples is a labor of love, and in some years, it simply doesn’t work out.
We’re proud to say that all our vegetables and berries, and over 10 acres of apples are certified organic. But for the reasons mentioned above, we grow the majority of our fruit under the more pragmatic guidelines of the Eco Apple protocol. Eco Apple was started decades ago by a group of would-be organic growers who sought a sustainable approach to growing fruit in the northeast. They worked with a non-profit called Red Tomato and a third-party research group called the IPM Institute of North America to develop their roadmap. By assessing common commercial practices and crop protectants, and eliminating the worst in favor of the best, Eco Apple has done something quite remarkable- found a commercially-viable way to grow fruit in harmony with nature in our region. The Eco protocol is this roadmap- a strict set of guidelines that growers abide by in order to retain their certification. In many cases, Eco Apple can be seen as more sustainable than organic; a recent study by Cornell showed that the diversity of beneficial insects and native pollinators was equivalent in Eco Apple and Organic Orchards- with around twice the density and twice the diversity compared to conventional.
Eco growers do use synthetic crop protectants, but only when absolutely necessary- and the gentlest materials possible. Materials that may not be “organic” but have been proven safe for wildlife and for humans are encouraged. In many cases, these low-impact “synthetics” are gentler than the heavier “organic” sprays such as sulfur and copper commonly used on certified organic farms. Eco growers never use organophosphates (toxic insecticides long banned in the EU), and they must justify their use of any spray with empirical data to back up its necessity.
At Fishkill Farms, we go above and beyond the requirements of the Eco protocol; We never using synthetic herbicides or fertilizers on bearing apple trees. Instead, we mow, mulch and fertilize with composted chicken manure. We avoid spraying insecticides to a great degree by instead using mating disruption and repellents such as kaolin clay. In fact, the majority of the methods we do use are approved for organic production.
For all these reasons, we feel that our Eco Apples are in fact as (if not more sustainable) and just as clean and safe to eat as our organic fruit.
We have a small stand of organic Idared apples to pick this weekend. If you’re interested, check them out- they are all blemished and misshapen- fit for baking more than fresh eating. But they clearly demonstrate the harsh realities of growing organic fruit in the Hudson Valley.