Dec 27, 2016
Program seeks to reward ecological practices

More than a dozen apple growers in the Northeast are using a third-party certification program called Eco Apple. Not as strict as organic certification, it’s a way for the growers to show they’re using the “most progressive and environmentally responsible growing practices for tree fruit in the Northeast,” according to Red Tomato, the Massachusetts nonprofit that manages Eco Apple.

The goal of Eco Apple is to build market recognition and support for Northeast growers who use advanced ecological growing practices, said Susan Futrell, Red Tomato’s director of marketing.

Aaron Clark of Clark Brothers Orchards, sitting in truck, chats with Red Tomato’s Michael Rozyne. Photo: Red Tomato

The program’s advantages to growers include greater access to customers and markets, recognition of their ecological practices, coordinated marketing, packaging and promotion, collaboration on supply and logistics (including backup from other growers during crop shortages) and the exchange of information with other growers and scientists, Futrell said.

“The Eco Apple program aligns with our philosophy perfectly,” said Greg Parzych, vice president of Rogers Orchards in Southington, Connecticut. “Our decision to expand our Eco Apple acreage to 100 percent of the farm reflects our desire to implement progressive growing practices on a commercial level.”

Red Tomato started Eco Apple in 2005, partnering with the nonprofit IPM Institute of North America, tree fruit scientists from the University of Massachusetts and Cornell University and a handful of Northeast orchards, Futrell said. At first, there were six orchards on 400 acres in the program. By 2016, 15 orchards were certified, representing 1,436 acres, according to Red Tomato.

Farm tours offer Eco Apple members a chance to observe how other growers operate. Photo: Red Tomato

The orchards are certified annually by the IPM institute. The scientists and growers review the production protocols each year to stay current with best practices and new research. Members talk monthly by phone and meet in person once a year, Futrell said.

Red Tomato markets many of the program’s apples to supermarkets and stores throughout the Northeast (and, through Whole Foods, outside the region). Many of the growers market their Eco Apple fruit directly to their customers, Futrell said.

Sunrise Orchards in Cornwall, Vermont, is one of the orchards that adheres to the Eco Apple protocol. Owners Barney and Christiana Hodges and their three kids live amongst the orchards, so to them it made sense to put more thought into what kinds of materials they were applying to their trees. They don’t spray organophosphates, for one thing, and so far they’ve managed every problem they’ve had with Eco Apple-approved materials, Barney said.

Zeke Goodband, manager of Scott Farm, observes an insect trap. Photo: Red Tomato

Their use of biological controls is significant. Chris, an entomologist, scouts extensively for pests. Some pests, like European red mite and apple maggot, haven’t been a problem under the Eco Apple protocol, though codling moth has “exploded” lately – but Barney said that probably has more to do with regional migration.

“We see wild fluctuations in pest populations every year, but I think that has more to do with the changing climate,” Barney said.

Eco Apple pushes growers to spray less, but not to the point where it puts them in economic hardship. Remaining economically viable is crucial, Barney said.

“Your typical family farm isn’t a trust fund,” he said. “It has to work every year.”

Speaking of economics, Eco Apple has given Sunrise Orchards access to buyers it wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, he said.

Barney manages about 200 acres of apples, including McIntosh, Empire, Paula Red, Honeycrisp, Cortland and hard cider varieties. Many of his apple trees were planted by his father four decades ago, and he’s gradually replacing them with higher-density, trellised plantings. The farm yields about 150,000 bushels a year. Harvest starts about the third week of August, and apples are packed and shipped through May or June. Barney also owns Vermont Refrigerated Storage in nearby Shoreham, where he stores most of his apples along with fruit from other orchards. His apples are sold wholesale, he said.

Andrea, left, and Bill Suhr run Champlain Orchards in Shoreham, Vermont, along with raising two young children. Photo: Matt Milkovich

Also in Shoreham is Champlain Orchards, which joined Eco Apple a few years ago. To owner Bill Suhr, the program offers an extra sales outlet, though not a huge one. He’s grateful for the third- party certification, but doesn’t sell much fruit via Red Tomato because some of its customers aren’t able to pay the premium prices he needs to keep his business viable.

“We continue to look for larger-scale buyers that will pay a premium for our thoughtful growing practices and our unusual varieties,” Suhr said.

Champlain Orchards didn’t have to make many changes to adhere to Eco Apple’s standards, because it already had an “eco-focused” horticultural program, he said. Suhr would like to see a “premium level” of Eco Apple certification, one that accounts for growers like himself who have a “heightened level” of ecological, social and sustainable practices.

Suhr sells his fresh fruit almost entirely in Vermont to food co-ops, small grocery stores and larger institutions like universities and a hospital. The interest in buying local has been good for his orchard, but its food safety practices have to be “up to snuff,” he said.

Champlain Orchards is vertically integrated, and offers a very diverse line of products. There are cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, pears and berries grown on about 250 acres on three different farms. There’s also sweet and hard cider, donuts, pies, apple butter, syrup and other products made on the farm, he said.

From left, Peter and John Rogers and Greg Parzych of Rogers Orchards are members of Eco Apple. Photo: Red Tomato

It’s not easy for a farm to deal with its own wastewater, permitting, picking, storing, marketing, packing, pressing, bottling and delivering, Suhr said, but fortunately he has help from good employees.

“I was on a pace of self-destruction trying to do it all myself,” he said. “The best investment is to be surrounded by skilled individuals.”

The orchard has chosen to fend for itself with direct sales, as opposed to relying on brokers, so price is key. It also helps when deciding what to grow, Suhr said.

“If you’re selling to a distributor and you don’t really know what the consumer wants, how do you know what to grow?”

Suhr lives near the farm with his wife, Andrea, and their two young children. He bought the land in 1998, from a family that had been there for six generations. In his late 20s at the time, he gradually worked away from his day job to be a full-time grower. Though he didn’t grow up on a farm, he’s always found fruit growing rewarding. The horticultural and business challenges keep him constantly engaged.

“This business never allows me to lose interest,” he said. “There’s never a dull moment. There’s always an opportunity to improve and refine.”

Matt Milkovich, managing editor

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