We love nature and our home here at the orchard and we plan to be here with our pets and our family for many years to come. We want to be good stewards of our land and live a healthy life here. To that end, we use methods of growing apples that rely on as few harmful external inputs as possible.
Whenever you grow a great deal of one type of fruit or vegetable, you’re inviting pests. The apple tree in your backyard may not attract very many pests, but imagine what an entire orchard of fruit trees looks like to insects that depend on fruit to live their lives: like they’ve hit the jackpot. Put simply, an apple orchard is a magnet for an insect like plum curculio or a fungus like apple scab. And since we mean to make a living from the orchard, we need to protect our crops — not 100%, but to a degree — from the harm that these and other pests can effect.
Conventional apple growers treat their orchards with synthetic pesticides and according to the calendar, whether the orchard needs treatment or not.
Integrated pest management (IPM), which is what we use, involves monitoring orchard pests and treating the orchard for those pests when they reach a certain threshold. The tools we use to monitor pests include weather data (temperature and rainfall), a leaf wetness monitor, and insect traps. The thresholds we use have been determined through many years of research and are advocated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in its IPM Manual for Apple Orchards.
We take some easy wins: for example, we don’t use Round-Up or any other herbicide underneath our trees. Mature trees can handle competition from weeds and actually do better with weeds than with grass. Though it means our orchard might look wilder than most, we’re happy with the trade-off.
Another reason our orchard can look a bit wild, especially if you visit during the summer, is because we don’t keep the rows uniformly mowed all summer long. We mow in June, at harvest, and after harvest and only those times. Frequent mowing isn’t necessary and it disrupts the thriving insect life occurring in the orchard’s “understory” (the plant life underneath the trees). Besides, mowing uses fuel.
Orchards face four major pests: apple scab, plum curculio, codling moth, and apple maggot fly. We’re currently using synthetic fungicides to deal with apple scab, which usually affects orchards in spring and early summer. For the insects, which are a factor during the summer, we’re using traps and organic, OMRI-listed insecticides. We have much more to say about how we deal with each of these pests so if you’re interested, read on . . .
The Even Longer Story
For those of you who are interested, we’re happy to be as transparent as possible about our pest management practices and we’re happy to talk with you about them even more when you visit the orchard. Below, we’ve written about our approach to major and minor pests in the orchard.
Apple scab is a fungus that first infects leaves and, if left uncontrolled, later affects apples. We use a leaf wetness monitor to let us know when a scab infection period is likely and then treat the trees as needed with a synthetic fungicide that we chose for its low toxicity to humans (Sovran or Vanguard). Although we anticipate that apple scab will be the most difficult pest to treat without synthetic pesticides, there are still steps we take to reduce our pesticide use. Scab spores overwinter on fallen leaves, so by chopping the leaves up with our new flail chopper and then spraying the chopped leaves with urea, we can help the leaves break down more quickly and thus reduce the population of scab spores by as much as 95%. This spring, we’ll be getting a microscope so we can do scab spore monitoring to get an even better-targeted sense of when scab spores are the most abundant and when we actually need to intervene.
The plum curculio (PC) is a weevil that lays eggs in fruit in early June, hatches, and then eats orchard fruit later in the summer. The key to controlling PC is to control that first generation so that a second generation never hatches to do harm in the orchard. PC is notoriously difficult to monitor and IPM guides recommend treatment as soon as you notice any damage. We use an organic insecticide (Pyganic) when we notice PC damage and apply it at dusk when it’s less likely to hurt bees and more likely to hurt the PC, which are more active overnight.
Codling moths lay eggs on apples and once the egg hatches, the larvae burrow into the apple and begin consuming the seeds. An apple infected with codling moth will have a dark brown, very distinctive and gross-looking core and possibly an exit hole too if the moth matured completely. We never seem to completely avoid codling moth damage in our apples, but the number of infected apples is low; this seems to be a good indication that our monitoring and organic pesticide (Conserve) approach is working.
Apple Maggot Fly
Apple maggot flies contribute to the classically wormy apple. Like codling moth, we don’t completely avoid them in the orchard but it’s also pretty easy to notice a damaged apple. The apple maggot fly is the pest attracted to red spheres, which is why we blanket the orchard with red spheres covered in sticky trap starting around July. We try to trap out as many as we can but if their numbers get to be too great, we can use an organic pesticide (Dipel).
The poor apple growers on the East Coast have worse pests than we do (and the rascals on the West Coast have hardly any, which is why so many organically-grown apples come from Washington) and they always get them first. The latest, worst pest to strike them is the marmorated stink bug, which is not yet an issue here for apples. But other insects have migrated here: European apple sawfly, European red mites, and others. For a comprehensive list of apple pests, see Cornell’s IPM resource. Some of these insects emerge at the same time as one of the three major insect pests, so a single insecticide treatment limits their harm. In other cases, damage is minimal and we just try to keep trees healthy, for example, by spraying neem oil. And we’ve also made a Costco run to spray soybean oil on the trees in an effort to deal with the mites. In 2013, we were grateful for some cold snaps during the winter that really seemed to deal a blow to insect populations. But every year, it’s a case of monitoring through a lot of slow orchard walks and a lot of research when we see something new or a new degree of damage.
We don’t use Roundup or any other herbicide under the trees and, frankly, it looks a little wild out there. Add to that the fact that we bring the mower through only three times a year (June, at harvest, and after harvest) and it looks really wild out there. But, believe it or not, “weeds” are better for the trees than grass, and frequent mowing serves no purpose other than an aesthetic one. It’s actually been rewarding to observe the progression of plant life under the trees since we took over: nettles grew immediately; last year the asters were abundant; this year, we’re seeing a lot of blackberry canes under the trees. A more diverse understory is better for apple tree roots because of the deeper roots weeds develop and because of how diverse plants make different minerals more available to the trees.
Do All of These Practices Make Apples Healthier or Taste Better?
We have to believe that an apple grown with fewer synthetic pesticides is less harmful for you to eat than a conventionally-grown apple, which ranks at the top of the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. Do our management practices lead to a more nutritious apple or a better tasting apple? Peer-reviewed research has been inconclusive on this front. But — we can say with certainty that there are two aspects to our orchard that do make our apples tastier than the norm. The first is our soil: our trees are growing on Lester loam (Minnesota’s state soil), which has kept our trees hydrated, even in drought. The second has to do with when we pick the apples: apples shipped over large distances are typically picked before they’re ripe, but the apples we bring to market are perfectly ripe, and we don’t let you pick in the orchard until the apples are ripe either. A truly ripe apple has seen sufficient sugar development and will be sweeter and tastier than if it was picked too early or too late.
And There’s More
We love talking about growing food, but we do have a pet peeve, which we’re articulating for the sake of all apple growers: please don’t ask your apple grower if he “sprays.” Of course he “sprays.” Even if he’s growing apples organically, he sprays. And especially if he’s growing apples biodynamically, he sprays. Let us explain . . .
As we wrote above, commercial orchards host a number of pests and every orchard has to do something about those pests. Conventional growers use synthetic pesticides, which they apply every two weeks from dormancy (early spring) to as close to harvest as they can get. Organic growers also use pesticides, but of different sorts. For the apple scab fungus, organic growers use sulfur. For plum curculio insects, organic growers use kaolin clay. Kaolin clay’s not so bad, but the sulfur-based treatments don’t seem that harmless and both treatments need to be reapplied every time it rains, which requires the use of fossil fuels. And those treatments, along with other organic pesticides, are applied through spraying.
Biodynamic growers, who are few and far between, actually spray a lot — but with compost tea. So it’s not a matter of spraying or not — it’s a matter of what you’re spraying.
Frankly, we’re most philosophically aligned not with standard organic approaches to apple growing, but with holistic approaches like that of Michael Phillips at Lost Nation Orchard, or with traditional approaches, like rotating hogs through the orchard.
Hogs are definitely on our horizon but as for the “holistic” or biodynamic approaches to orcharding, we’re still hoping for more research. Scientists at Michigan State University and Cornell University do excellent research relevant to alternative methods to orcharding, so we continue to follow their work and draw lessons where we can.