Even before fuel prices put the "pedal to the metal" on transportation costs, transporting a truckload of West Coast apples to the East Coast cost about $3,000. And now, with consumer appetites whetted for fresh, local and organic foods, the marketplace is paying hefty premiums to meet that demand, according to a Penn State fruit specialist.
Certified organic GoldRush apples, for instance, may be valued at $50 a bushel, versus $25 a bushel for non-organic and $4 a bushel for processing apples, reports Jim Travis, director of Penn State's Fruit Research Center at Biglerville, Pa. "A lot of organic apples are grown in the Northwest. But there isn't much organic apple production on the East Coast.
"It's always been said you can't grow applies organically on a large scale in Pennsylvania – or anywhere in the East," says the research plant pathologist.
That's beginning to change.
Growing technology is catching up on organic apple production. "Organic production is 40% more expensive than conventional production – maybe only 10% higher with disease-resistant varieties – but at least 100% more profitable." Thanks to organic research at Penn State, Michigan State and other eastern land-grant colleges, organic guidelines are much better developed.
"The East has more disease problems than the West. But we also have a much better environment for natural insect predators," says the plant pathologist. "We let beneficial insects such as lady bugs and lacewings take care of aphids and mites." And, pheromone mating disruption programs, improved disease resistance plus more disease and insect control products make it easier to produce certified organic apples. "The playing field is leveling out," he contends.
Now we have to focus on finding those high-value niche markets – the baker who wants to market $50 organic apple pies over the internet, for instance. "It's smart business to produce for such markets," suggests Travis.
A number of younger growers already are starting to work their way into it. "Clearly, disease-resistant apples are best for organic orchards," he says, "with scab-resistant varieties being favored."
Trees are planted in rows a little farther apart to promote more air circulation and reduce disease-enhancing moisture. In high-density organic orchards, taller trees are planted closer together. But narrower canopies allow sunlight to suppress diseases.
Cultivation under trees is necessary because no good herbicides are allowed in organic orchards. Regularly done, it's labor intensive and expensive, adds Travis.
"We try to encourage growth of beneficial fungi, bacteria and insects. Organic is a balanced ecological system," he stresses. "We don't control aphids and mites because beneficial insects, such as lady bugs and lacewings take care of them in the organic orchard."
But Travis says some of the best organic pest control practices were first developed for and are being used in conventional apple production. "A good example is pheromone mating disruption, which requires no use of synthetic pesticides, yet results in male insects not being able to find females, thus preventing reproduction. In many ways, modern conventional apple production and organic apple production are growing more similar."