Dec 4, 2008
Eco Apples: Customers buy concept of ‘advanced IPM’

The phrase “Integrated Pest Management” doesn’t exactly flow off one’s tongue, and produces a somewhat fuzzy effect in the brain as well.

“Michael felt the name Eco Apple would have a bit more punch to it than IPM,” said Dan Cooley, a plant pathologist with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The Michael he refers to is Michael Rozyne, the director of Red Tomato, where the term Eco Apple was developed as a marketing tool for apples produced using the best Integrated Pest Management practices. They call it “advanced IPM.”

“IPM is a little more complicated than the term ‘organic,’ and doesn’t have the name recognition,” Cooley said. “That makes it harder to sell. But for apple growers in the Northeast, IPM is achievable.”

Eco Apples were conceived in 2004 and had sales of $400,000 through Red Tomato the first year, Cooley said. In 2003, selling apples labeled as produced using IPM, sales were $150,000, so the new name nearly tripled sales the first year. Sales have grown to $1.3 million a year now.

Thirteen apple growers in the Northeast grow for the Eco Apple program.

One of the key players in Eco Apple is the IPM Institute of North America in Madison, Wis., and its president Tom Green. The institute was founded in 1998 as a non-profit organization with the mission “to maximize the potential of IPM product labeling as a market driver of IPM adoption,” according to its Web site.

Green, who has a background growing apples and a degree in entomology, became involved with growers in the Northeast in earlier IPM projects, with Cornell University, University of Massachusetts, Wegmans Food Markets and others in that region that thought IPM was a good approach to fruit growing and should be a marketable concept.

At the institute, he helped create IPM standards for the food distributor Sysco, which now has IPM practices in place covering the supply chain for frozen and canned vegetables. That covers 80 processors and 4,000 growers. Some of the institute’s other large clients include school systems and hospitals – and the U.S. Army, for which it has developed protocols for pesticide use on Army bases. It has a program called Green Shield for household pest-control companies.

“Red Tomato wanted to market apples based on production practices,” Green said. “They wanted to choose options that minimize the impact of grower practices on the environment, and they wanted to keep the protocol high. They wanted to build on other marketing tools like freshness, localness and flavor. They wanted a way to assess the IPM side.”

What the institute did was 1) work with growers, marketers and scientists to establish a set of standards, 2) create an evaluation form everybody can use to evaluate their performance, 3) set up an audit procedure to assure compliance and 4) educate consumers about IPM benefits and products.

Then, Diane Stalford, creative director at Red Tomato, set about creating identifying marks and logos so Eco Apples could be identified and sold,

There are hundreds of practices that apple growers can use to reduce their impact on the environment, Green said, and all of these can be tabulated and put into a format that growers can use to evaluate their practices. But not all of these need to be explained to every possible customer that chooses an Eco Apple.

“What’s important is that customers understand the growers are reducing the use and toxicity of spray materials,” Green said. “People can relate to that.”

It’s not as easy for growers, however. The Eco Apple IPM self-assessment is 26 pages long (it can be downloaded from the Red Tomato Web site). It is a listing of hundreds of the best practices growers can use when growing apples.

“Almost all apple growers use IPM to some degree,” Green said.

The Red Tomato protocol seeks to elevate that to a more “advanced” level.

The IPM Institute meets every year with Red Tomato leaders, growers and scientists from Cornell University and University of Massachusetts. The purpose is to review new technology, new pesticides and new ideas and incorporate them into a lofty set of goals and practices.

For example, Cooley said, they are evaluating methods of reducing the number of sprays needed to control apple scab. Recent research has shown that scab inoculum in the orchard in the fall is a good indicator of scab pressure and how fast it will build the next spring.

Growers are told how to monitor scab levels in the fall and how they can reduce levels by chopping leaves or applying urea sprays in the fall to reduce inoculum. Using these methods can allow delay of spring fungicide applications until green tip, or even half-inch green. This translates into one or two fewer spray applications, and that becomes something that a consumer can relate to.

Continued evaluation of newer insecticides resulted in a decision this year for growers not to use Imidan or Guthion – and use new materials instead. That corresponds to social goals, as expressed through the EPA, which wants the new reduced-risk insecticides in place by 2012.

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