The Secret Life of Fruit: Moving Beyond Organic
When I moved back to Fishkill Farms in 2008, as I was deciding to pursue a career in farming, I became fixated on fruit. It was a tradition that had been woven into my family history for almost 100 years, and was filled with romance and nostalgia. The act of tending the trees to produce a crop each year was like a conjuring, a fundamental mystery to me.
At its surface, fruit is all romance. A piece of ripe fruit is nature yielding its most immediate form of culinary enjoyment. Fruit demands none of the slicing, chopping, soaking or parboiling of vegetables; it takes nothing more than a rinse or simple rub on your shirt to eat. Walking through an orchard or a berry patch at harvest, the irresistible to devour fruit until juice is running down your chin, or your lips and fingers are stained with juice seems to be woven into our DNA. Indeed, my farm’s business model relies on it as a fact. Even on a chemical level, fruit’s energy is more accessible and more mobile- there are no complex starches to break down. But behind all the sweetness and instant satisfaction, a piece of fruit tells a different story. Hard work, great risk, and often multiple failures, are behind fruit’s effortless façade.
Good apples were apples grown naturally and organically, I thought. But it turns out good organic fruit does not come naturally in any sense of the word. In the warm and humid climate of the Hudson Valley, fruit is beset by a dizzying array of insect pests and fungal pathogens- more than nearly any other region in the world. Here, if an organic fruit crop succeeds at all, it comes as a drop of goodness wrung from ceaseless effort and action amid the unforgiving forces of nature. From the moment the first blossom’s petals fall and the flower’s ovaries swell into tiny fruitlets, up to harvest, 120 days or so later, a single fruit contends with a murderer’s row of fruit rots and insect pests, each of which wants a taste just as much as we do.
There’s the ubiquitous apple maggot fly which, with a prick, implants its offspring into an apple during the summer months. They gleefully tunnel their way through the fruit, leaving behind brown spirals of droppings. Then there’s the perverse codling moth, which prefers to enter and chew through the calyx or tail-end of the apple. The grand-master of apple destruction must be the plum curculio, a veritable Houdini of insect pests, who appears at night to lay a single egg in each apple, still only the size of marbles. Soon, the entire crop may drop and disappear, or else grow up badly scarred. This is to mention nothing of the fungal diseases such as apple scab and cedar apple rust. They can be even more devastating to your crop, in bad years completely defoliating your trees.
When I started farming, I thought the most sustainable way to grow apples was without spraying. But two critical questions helped my understanding evolve. The first question was: what are we spraying? As it turns out, it makes a huge difference. I set out to grow fruit as organically as possible, but found a happy medium in low-spray Integrated Pest Management.
We became certified growers of Eco Apples in 2009, a third-party audited program in which the health of the farm’s ecosystem, the safety of our workers, and the health of our customers are all paramount. The risks inherent with any crop protectants- whether organic or synthetic- are given the utmost consideration. Organic pesticides are encouraged, but low-impact synthetic materials, generally harmless in the concentrations necessary to protect the crop, are permitted. They’re used only when scouting in the field indicates they are absolutely necessary. This is quite a different approach to conventional farming, where prophylactic sprays are made whether or not there is evidence of a threat.
Perhaps the most critical component of the Eco Apple program is that the worst chemicals (endochrine-disrupting organophosphates, ecosystem-toppling pyrethroids, proven carcinogens etc.) are never applied- they’re on the “do not use” list, and result in immediate ejection from the program. It took two seasons of spraying with low-impact conventional materials using the Eco Apple approach before a quarter of our orchard’s previously-neglected trees were healthy enough to begin a true organic regime.
The second question that framed my developing understanding of sustainable fruit production was: at what cost?
Was I willing to lose my whole crop, and lay off employees? Was I willing to run tractors, fertilize with expensive organic fertilizer, prune, mow and put other resources, human and otherwise, into growing the crop, only to lose it because of the rigidity of my principles? This didn’t seem particularly sustainable.
In growing fruit, as with so many other pursuits, when ideals and reality come to a head, it is the ideals that must adapt, or the pursuit is given up altogether.
Luckily, farming good, sustainably-grown apples in the northeast didn’t require me to give up my ideals, so much as to re-center them. In the end, we chose the following approach: if we can grow a crop successfully with organic methods and not lose lots of money every year, we do so. Which is why all our berries and vegetables are organically certified. If we can’t grow a consistent crop organically, we take the next best approach- certified ecologically grown. As we’ve become more proficient at growing organic apples, we’ve actually increased the acreage. They now represent more than 30% of our apple production.
Orchards and fruit trees have a special potential to span generations and to link the years. America’s longest-lived apple tree was supposedly planted in 1647 by Peter Stuyvesant in his Manhattan orchard and was still bearing fruit when a derailed train struck it in 1866. Most of the fruit trees my grandfather planted were pulled out and replaced long ago. It also turns out that many heirloom varieties, often considered ugly by modern standards and no longer favored by commercial orchards, have some innate disease resistance. So we began planting them in our orchard as early as 2009.
In our supermarket culture, fruit has become so visual, so linked to beauty and perfection, that people ignore the fundamental paradox of modern fruit production—high levels of chemicals are the cost of unscathed and cosmetically perfect fruit. In pursuit of this ideal, we’ve lost a sense of how good fruit might actually look, warts and all. And the varieties we are planting now, against the current of increased yield and aesthetic improvement, are some of the same varieties he once raised. He probably stopped growing them because they’d fallen out of favor in our homogenized food culture due to their offbeat flavors, low yields and strange shapes and colors–many of the same reasons they are becoming popular again.
But, for all the reverence I have for the past, I’m now careful not to idealize the farming of long ago. From the 1890s through mid century, lead arsenate was the number one pesticide used on apples. We’ve come a long ways since then. Now, some of the newer synthetics are far gentler on wildlife and humans than the high rates of sulfur and copper commonly used on organic farms. They operate not by poisoning all the bugs in the field, but by targeting a particular bad bug, through disrupting a stage in its lifecycle.
And new, disease-resistant apple varieties, the product of years of concentrated research efforts, hold out some of the greatest hope for growing organic fruit in the Hudson Valley. Next time you’re buying local organic apples, look for Crimson Crisp, Goldrush, or Liberty. Show your support for these delicious varieties, as none of them require season-long sulfur sprays common in organic orcharding. We live, after all, in a changed world, with different resources, new information and changing popular tastes.
I am a firm believer that organic farming, in itself is not the solution to our food production problems. To understand why, it’s helpful to look back at how the organic farming movement started. It originally gained steam in this country in the 1970s, when a group of farmers, concerned with the increasingly obvious devastating effects of chemicals such as DDT, swore off synthetic pesticides entirely. That’s to say: that if it didn’t come from a plant or from the earth, they wouldn’t use it. This made sense in light of the dearth of good research on these chemicals in existence at the time. These farmers also developed a holistic approach where the health of the whole farm system was fostered to protect their crops. Sadly, organic farming today has kept the binary approach of “synthetic” v. “organic,” but much of the emphasis on whole farm systems has been lost. This black and white thinking is becoming quickly outdated. For instance, just because it’s “organic,” doesn’t mean it’s less toxic: pyrethrum, derived from the chrysanthemum flower, is a broad spectrum bug-killer approved for organic use which can wreak havoc on a farm ecosystem. There are about a dozen safer (and cheaper) synthetic pesticides I’d rather use on my farm on a day to day basis.
At the same time, conventional agriculture has changed a whole lot since those days. The EPA, which did not exist before 1970, has developed a wealth of information and resulting regulations. The knowledge pool on synthetic crop protectants coming from agricultural research universities, independent institutions, and the EPA has resulted in many generations of newer, safer materials. Sadly, in many cases, the EPA continues to allow the use of materials that should have long been banned because of pressure from the agrochemical and commodity ag-industries.
An analogy that often comes to mind when thinking about the two approaches two farming is that of eastern and western medicine. Like “modern ag” views a crop, Western medicine views the human body: a monotypic organism in which irregularity and disease are synonymous and must be “treated” with a cure. Eastern medicine, on the other hand, embraces irregularity, and tends to view the human organism as a constellation of forces and mechanisms, recognizing that we must each maintain our own balance for mental and physical health. This is similar to the original philosophies of organic farming, where the uniqueness and robustness of each farm system is encouraged. Both approaches have their strengths. E.g. healthy eating, moderate exercise, and relaxation exercises like meditation or yoga almost certainly do more to promote long-term health than any prescription drug or multivitamin can. But when a loved one comes down with pneumonia, we’re all thankful we have antibiotics.
Certified organic farming is still an important and powerful tool for farmers and consumers. It gives shoppers, normally in the dark about how their food is produced, a needed dose of transparency. But as a community of farmers and eaters, we need to look forward to a smarter way of growing food. We need to celebrate not only tradition but innovation in the name of sustainability. Combining the best of organic and ecological IPM farming can help us produce food that is safer and more sustainable than either method on its own.
Our “split” operation here at Fishkill Farms allows us to do just that- utilize the best methods we have at our fingertips to push the envelope every season, with the goal of always growing better food.
(adapted from an essay from “Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement,” 2012)