Sep 2, 2011
Fruit spurred growth of organic farming movement

If the U.S. organic farming movement has a father, many would point to J.I. Rodale.

In 1947, Rodale founded what became known as the Rodale Institute to “study the link between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people,” according to the institute’s website.

“The concept of ‘organic’ was simple but revolutionary in the post-World War II era,” according to the website. “Manure, cover crops and crop mixtures were standard practices through World War I, but chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, artificial ingredients, preservatives and additives for taste and appearance in the years since the war rapidly changed agriculture. As Rodale communicated the idea of creating soil rich in nutrients and free of contaminants, people began to listen and acceptance grew.”

The Rodale Institute, which survives to this day, played a leading role in the growth of the organic movement over the last few decades. But it wasn’t the only player.

By the 1970s, numerous grower groups had formed organic certification programs across the country. Each group had its own standards, adhered to voluntarily, and didn’t always recognize the standards of other groups. As the demand for organic farm products started increasing, this lack of uniform standards and the rivalries among various groups and regions hampered interstate trade and the growth of organic farming overall, said Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of USDA’s National Organic Program.

According to the University of California’s “Organic Farming Compliance Handbook,” the apple industry gave an unintentional bump to the popularity of organic food in 1989, when “60 Minutes” broadcast a story on the dangers of the plant growth regulator Alar.

“Overnight, the sale of organic commodities increased without any change in practices or availability of organic food,” according to the handbook.

The increased popularity shined a brighter spotlight on the flaws in the organic system at the time, such as “limited supply, overwhelming demand, a patchwork of inconsistent or nonexistent state laws, inadequate enforcement programs and pervasive fraud” – all of which threatened the “meaning and value of the organic label.” In response, a coalition of organic farming, consumer, animal welfare and environmental organizations persuaded Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990, according to the handbook.

Congress passed OFPA with the goal of creating one set of organic standards for the entire United States, so farmers, trade associations and consumers could be assured that USDA’s certified organic label meant the same thing every time and everywhere. Finalizing organic rules and standards took a dozen years, but they were fully developed by 2002, when the National Organic Program (NOP) was born, McEvoy said.

NOP oversees the 94 public and private agencies that certify organic food either grown or imported into the United States. The program’s primary goal is to maintain the integrity of the organic label, McEvoy said.

Since Congress passed OFPA, the organic industry has grown exponentially. The U.S. had under a million acres of certified organic farmland in 1990. By 2002, the area had doubled. It doubled again between 2002 and 2005. By 2008, there were 4.8 million acres of certified organic farmland in the United States, according to USDA.

In a fast-growing industry, fruits and vegetables have led the way. Produce had the strongest growth of any organic category in 2010, with sales climbing to $10.6 billion. That number represented 11 percent of total fruit and vegetable sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.

West

According to USDA, certified organic fruit and nuts took up 121,066 acres (3.2 percent of total U.S. fruit and nut acres) in 2008. Of those organic acres, 75,855 were in California. The next closest state was Washington, with 20,188 acres. No other state had more than 5,000 acres.

There are a few reasons certified organic fruit is concentrated out West. Many of the pioneers and innovators in organic agriculture came from that region, according to UC’s “Organic Farming Compliance Handbook.”

There’s also more demand for organic products out West. But perhaps the most important reason is that the climate is much more conducive to organic produce. The West’s dry environment applies much less pest and disease pressure than the wetter Midwest and East, McEvoy said.
Rich Casale, USDA’s district conservationist for Santa Cruz County, has seen the growth of organic farming in California’s central coast firsthand, much of it ushered along by financial and technical help from USDA. He said there are more organic growers in the central coast region than there used to be, farming on much larger acreages. Traditionally, organic farms in the area were just a few acres, but he’s now seeing averages of 30 to 40 acres, with some of the larger farms up to 80 acres. The farms grow a wide range of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other crops, he said.

Just one example of an organic operation in California is Adastra Vineyards, located in the Napa Valley. Chris Thorpe and his wife bought 33 acres of property in the valley in 1984. According to Adastra’s website, the vineyard began in 1989 with 4 acres of Chardonnay and 4 acres of Merlot. Wine production began in 1995. The vineyard became certified organic in 2005, because Thorpe wanted the plant and animal life in his vineyard to be more balanced.

By 2008, Adastra was producing 1,000 to 1,500 cases per year of certified organic wines, Thorpe said.

Organic certification has not been without its difficulties. Organic methods are more labor-intensive, and the vineyard is restricted in the ways it can deal with pests and other threats. For example, Adastra has problems with the vine mealybug, but can’t use Lorsban or similar chemical sprays to deal with it. The mealybug is protected from its natural predators in the area, such as the mealybug destroyer, through its relationship with Argentine ants. So, in order to kill the mealybugs, traps are placed throughout the vineyard to kill the ants. The ant traps are filled with an organic poison, mostly boron and sugar, he said.

Pest control is more complicated for organic growers, who can’t knock pests out with “big hammers” like Guthion or other broad-spectrum insecticides, said Matthew Grieshop, an assistant professor at Michigan State University.

When Tim Smith, an Extension educator with Washington State University (WSU), started working with tree fruit growers in that state in the early 1980s, the few who were trying to grow organically had a difficult time. Most were small, committed producers who sold their fruit locally. They struggled to control pests like codling moth with the limited tools that were available. There were some “spectacular failures,” he said.

In the 1990s, however, the organic fruit industry – especially apples – experienced what Smith and other sources called a “breakthrough,” or “watershed,” moment: The development of mating disruption for codling moth control. (Smith credited university and government researchers and entomologists with developing the practice.)

Traditionally, codling moth was the No. 1 pest of apple, and controlling it without chemicals was extremely difficult. The development of alternative means of control such as mating disruption, codling moth virus and IPM techniques allowed Washington’s organic tree fruit industry to explode, Grieshop said.

Today, there are 350 organic tree fruit growers in Washington state, which leads the way in the production of organic apples, pears and cherries. In 2010, organic apples represented 9.7 percent of the state’s total apple area and 7 percent of its sales volume, according to David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at WSU.

Stemilt Growers, based in Wenatchee, Wash., is the nation’s largest supplier of certified organic apples, pears, cherries and stone fruits. In fact, 100 percent of its peach and nectarine crops are grown organically, according to the farm’s website.

Stemilt first transitioned a large number of acres to organic production in 1989. Founder Tom Mathison added a ladybug (considered a beneficial insect) to the company logo the same year, while launching a sustainability and social responsibility program he called Responsible Choice, according to the website.

Today, about 25 percent of Stemilt’s apples are grown organically. Twenty years ago, most of its organic apples were Red or Golden Delicious, but more and more modern varieties – Pink Lady, Pinata, Honeycrisp – are going organic, something that needed to happen, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt’s marketing director.

“Organic is very similar to conventional fruit when it comes to demand,” Pepperl said. “Consumers want new varieties.”

So far, consumers have proven they’re willing to pay a higher premium for organic fruit. That premium is necessary if organic growers are going to stay organic. The margin of error is smaller than it is for conventional growing, he said.

East

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, it’s perfectly possible to grow organic tree fruit commercially in the eastern half of the United States. Not only is it possible, there’s a big demand for it, said Jackie Hoch, president of the Organic Tree Fruit Association (OTFA).

OTFA, founded a few years ago, focuses on education, research and advocacy for commercial organic tree fruit production. There are more than 50 members, most of them either certified organic or in transition. Their farms and orchards range across the Midwest, from Missouri and Minnesota to Michigan, she said.

With her husband, Hoch also runs Hoch Orchard and Gardens, a certified organic fruit farm in the southeast corner of Minnesota. As the owner of an organic orchard, Hoch knows firsthand that Midwest and Eastern markets are hungry for organic tree fruit.

The Hochs grow berries, cherries, plums, apricots and grapes, but their main crop is apples. They grow more than 50 varieties. Their entire operation became certified last year, from their 45 acres of fruit to their on-farm processing, packing and distributing facilities, according to the orchard’s website.

They decided to go fully organic three years ago. It wasn’t just a philosophical decision. They were convinced the transition could work for them financially, and it has. They don’t need off-farm jobs anymore to support themselves, Hoch said.

In fact, they’re not even close to fulfilling the demand for organic fruit that’s out there. Hoch isn’t sure how big organic tree fruit farming can be in the Midwest, but she said there’s plenty of room for growth.

A lot of Eastern growers appear to be coming around to the organic point of view, at least somewhat. In New York state, about 100 growers attended an organic orchard workshop in March, and only a handful of them were certified, said Ian Merwin, a Cornell University professor.

“That was significant event for us,” he said.

But Eastern growers can’t produce as cosmetically perfect an apple as they can in Washington state, Chile, South Africa or Australia. Even if they do everything right, they still have a higher percentage of culls. Merwin doesn’t think there will ever be large-scale organic production of apples in the East, but with the interest in local food right now, there’s definitely a market.

New York has 720 commercial orchards with about 40,000 acres among them. Sixty-two of those orchards are certified organic, with about 600 acres among them. New York’s organic orchards earned $1.4 million in 2008 (similar to Michigan, which earned $1.4 million on 703 organic acres that year), Merwin said.

About half a dozen growers farm the vast majority of New York’s organic orchard land. These are commercial growers who’ve been in the fruit business for generations. Their organic acres are only one piece of what they do. Some have contracts with baby food producers or other processing outlets. Some sell their organic fruit direct, Merwin said.

Most of these growers started out by taking an old processing block and converting it to organic. These orchards were obsolete in many ways, however, and growers found it was better, and more profitable, to start over and plant modern high-density organic orchards with disease-resistant apple varieties, he said.

Future

New pests like the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and Spotted Wing Drosophila are posing greater challenges for certified orchards. Organic pest control is going to be more complicated and expensive than ever, according to several sources.

The organic industry hasn’t escaped controversy, either. A few years ago, a handful of manufacturers in California were investigated for spiking their organic fertilizers with non-approved ingredients, an episode that damaged the reputation of the organic industry and led to criticism of NOP. Since then, NOP and California’s state government have tightened their organic rules to prevent anything like that from happening again, said McEvoy, NOP’s deputy administrator.

In other subjects, Grieshop said conventional growers would continue to adopt organic techniques into their own farming practices, a process that might accelerate as input costs continue to climb.

He also said the local food movement will continue to influence the organic movement. More consumers today are looking for “local organic,” as opposed to just organic. That will be good for organic farms near population centers.

By Matt Milkovich, managing editor




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