Oct 12, 2015
TruEarth strategy draws Midwest apple growers

More than 20 apple growers in Minnesota and Wisconsin are pursuing earth-friendly growing practices in the upper Mississippi Valley, to compete against the growth of full-fledged organic operations that are more apt to thrive in the arid climate of the Northwest.

Members of the Mississippi Valley Fruit Co., a growers’ marketing group, have banded together under the auspices of the Elgin, Minnesota-based Honeybear Brands – developer of new apple varieties – to launch TruEarth. Honeybear growers are known most recently for having released a new variety – Pazazz.

Developed in conjunction with the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Institute of North America, TruEarth is being billed as a “thoughtful and conscious approach to farming for the good of the land, grower communities and consumers.”

“We started as a small orchard in the 1970s, and even though we’ve grown to become a major apple variety developer, we’re still a local company at heart,” said Fred Wescott, president Wescott Orchards and Honeybear Brands. “We eat the same fruit we offer to retailers, who then sell to their customers. We are very deliberate about every single improvement in the way we grow and market our produce, because everything is still very personal to us. TruEarth is the latest step in our ongoing quest to do best by the land, our growers and apple lovers everywhere.”

The TruEarth program is designed to help growers farm as much within nature and natural processes as possible, while still employing modern technologies to solve on-farm problems and produce a commercially viable crop. Protocols assist growers in their efforts to develop balanced nutrient profiles, improve soil fertility and encourage beneficial insects by providing suitable living conditions.

The biggest challenge in implementing TruEarth’s strategy has been changing the habits of growers.

“Many of these growers have been growing apples for 30 years,” said Don Roper, vice president of marketing for Honeybear. “We had to change behavior, and that really came through education, multiple grower sessions to identify product alternatives, application changes and much more.”

What has been the growers’ acceptance level for the program?

“As a marketing group, the Mississippi Valley Fruit Growers, we are there,” Roper said. “We made it, but it took nearly six years to get everyone converted over from their historical practices to these new protocols. It was slow at first, but with anything, you have early adopters and then you have to get the rest of the masses to move towards the desired end game. Very open discussions led to the team consensus that this was just the right thing to do.

“In 2015, all of our orchards that market fruit under Mississippi Valley Fruit Company have been TruEarth certified,” he said.

Honeybear growers undergo a TruEarth assessment process and an annual audit by the IPM institute. The TruEarth promise includes: GMO-free growing prohibition of high-toxicity pesticides, cleaner water by reducing soil erosion, energy conservation, water conservation in orchards and packing facilities, ongoing recycling of all waste and protection of biodiversity, including beneficial insects and wildlife.

TruEarth protocols will also help protect the natural habitat of the threatened honeybee, Wescott said. Honeybear growers are working to mitigate the use of pesticides that are toxic to the bee population before or during bloom. Bee populations are also monitored and surveyed for abundance and diversity in an ongoing effort to create and maintain best practices for bee protection.

“The honeybee pollination process affects one in three of the foods we put in our bodies,” Wescott said. “And they’re incredibly important to the delicate eco-balance in our orchards. Our TruEarth program is designed to certify each of our growers to standards and practices that look after the land, natural habitats like those of the honeybee and keep us focused on finding ways that we can all do better as an industry going forward.”

Roper said Honeybear/Wescott is the marketing arm for 20-plus regional growers in the upper Mississippi Valley. He credited Wescott for getting the TruEarth program started.

“We recognized nearly six years ago the need to be implementing the best growing practices designed to guarantee premium, healthy fruit to retailers and their consumers,” Roper said.

He said with the help of the IPM Institute, David Green and his associate Peter Werts, “we worked in a collaborative manner to identify standards and formalizing growing practices that became the basis of our program. By organizing these practices into the TruEarth Certified Protocol, we hope to contribute to the supply of quality local foods and improve our soil and water resources, wildlife biodiversity, farm worker safety, farm stability and farmland preservation.”

A key element in the program is to make the members’ farming practices “bee friendly,” Roper said. They do this in a couple of ways. They initiated a Bee Abundance/Diversity Survey at each orchard, conducted during bloom. They have created a composite index for program orchards and work each year to improve that index value by identifying orchards that are at the low end of the curve for our index. They identify the opportunity areas for these blocks to increase their overall score the next year.

“We won’t solve the problem in one year, but we want to see progression being made each and every year by our growers,” Roper said.

Roper said the IPM institute is responsible for final decisions on standards, approval of certification status and use of the TruEarth trademark.

“The institute contracts directly with growers to provide an on-site inspection which will be conducted by the IPM Institute or an independent third party,” Roper said.

The initiative’s marketing strategy and importance is clear, Roper said.

“All of our packaging and branding will reflect the ‘TruEarth’ inside logo, with the main message going to our retail partners explaining the benefits of the program and its impact on the environment, how it conserves water, energy and much more,” Roper said.

The growers that are involved, Roper said, are all part of the Mississippi Valley Fruit Growers marketing group.

“Our grower base has been working together over the past 20 years and we all recognized that this is the right thing to do,” Roper said. “We see the handwriting on the wall – it will be critically important to have these programs in place so consumers are confident that you are utilizing all of your best efforts to put the safest product into their homes. Our retail partners support this effort, as they are getting many of these questions right in their stores.

“This proactive approach does make the cost of farming more expensive, but in the long run we hope to achieve efficiencies, deliver a cleaner product and provide that confidence and assurance to mom that we are looking after her food,” Roper said.

Roper said additional costs for the grower are tied to increased input and scouting costs, annual certification expenses and more administrative work.

He said the key to the program’s success will be “continued improvement of our practices we have implemented, and diligent analysis of the farming inputs we utilize to minimize our impact on the farming ecosystem.”

Gary Pullano


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