In this interview, Harold Ostenson, the Organic Program Manager at Stemilt Growers, describes the challenges of producing fruit organically, and the creative solutions organic farmers use to overcome them. He also offers helpful tips on how to pick the best organic fruit off store shelves.
Q: What are some of the major challenges associated with growing fruit organically?
A: In the short term, weed control, soil nutrition, disease and pest management are all more challenging in organic crop production compared to conventional methods of farming. The keyword here is ‘short term’. Growing fruit organically is challenging in the short term because the grower must successfully develop a very, often complex, integrated pest control. It takes about 5-6 years to establish predator insect populations and habitat for overwintering predator insects in a newly developed fruit orchard. In the short term, this process is challenging, costly, and fruit quality issues can arise. However, once the organic system has had time to develop, it requires fewer inputs to sustain itself.
Organic crop production is a more sustainable farming plan than its conventional counterpart in the longer term. As time goes by, the conventional approach requires more and more inputs to sustain growing the same fruit crop. By contrast, organic in the ‘long run’ requires fewer inputs, and overtime will have less impact on the environment.
In my opinion, education is one of the major challenges to successfully growing organically. Organic is a set of standards, but behind these standards is a “farming system.” For example, the organic farming system uses organic materials [compost, etc] to produce more with fewer inputs. It is a system where mistakes cannot be corrected the next day with a synthetic chemical spray, and it is a system where knowledge and education are key.
In this way, organic is a balancing act between managing inputs and sustaining high quality levels of crop production. Organic fruit farmers see that this approach is the key component to their long-term success.
Q: What tools are available for organic fruit farmers to overcome these challenges?
A: Twenty years ago or so, in the organic fruit production industry, we were short on knowledge and short on known effective options that were available for disease and pest control management in organic orchards. Today, mostly because of the growth worldwide in organic, organic fruit growers have been able to join together to share “lessons learned”and advance the science of how to overcome common disease and pests that threaten organic fruit quality. Let me share one example with you.
There are organic tools now available that have always been available to organic growers, but they have been improved and are now more robust in scope and scale. Predator insects for biological control of a pest would be a good example. Today, an organic fruit farmer identifying a pest in his orchard can select from numerous insect options and get his biological control in place within a short period of time, helping to minimize economic damage. In most cases, this approach provides pest control against future pest generations.
New organic tools and methods are also being developed thanks to increased interest in and funding for organic fruit. A great example of one new method for organic growers is the use of sterile Codling Moth males to control this fruit worm from damaging fruit. By releasing thousands of sterile males into the orchard, females do not produce offspring and new generations of moths are no longer present to do damage. We knew in the past that sterile moths worked for pest control; the difference is that today organic fruit production has grown to a level that this tool and method is an economically viable option— particularly for a company to produce live sterile moths on a large scale.
On the organic funding front, the 2008 Farm Bill is a recent example of increased focus on and USDA funding for studying and obtaining the new knowledge and tools necessary to successfully transition agriculture to organic farming systems.
Q: What is Integrated Pest Management and how do organic growers implement it in their production?
A: Integrated Pest Management or IPM is one of the balancing acts I spoke of earlier. It is the art of controlling pests at a low enough level that they don’t damage the quality of the crop being grown, but at the same time having enough pests present to keep predator insects from leaving in search of new food sources. This balance can be easily disrupted by nature, and long periods of very hot, very wet, or very cold weather.
Here is a simple example of IPM that I found to be very effective. Several years ago, I planted wild roses on the edge of my 20-acre apple tree block. A local predator wasp chose the wild rose as its favorite place to spend the winter. In the spring and summer, this wasp fed on orchard leaf roller pests that often chewed on my apples. By mid-summer, this small wasp could control the entire pest population and eliminate fruit damage. In this case, all I had to do was to provide an environment that supported the predator insect population growth.
Q: What are your top 5 tips for consumers looking to pick the best organic fruit off store shelves?
A: Here are some of the things I look for when searching for the best organic fruit at the store:
- Always look on the PLU [Price Look Up] sticker and make sure it starts with a “9,” followed by four digits. This is your assurance that the fruit is indeed organic.
- Early in the fruit season, look for fruit in the larger sizes; later in the season, lean more toward mid-sized fruit, which will normally result in firmer, crunchier eating experience.
- If you plan to eat your fruit soon, look at the calyx or bottom end of the fruit for full color. This usually indicates full ripeness.
- Organic apples and pears should be firm to the touch with little to no blemishes on their skin. “Blush” and “freckles” on the exterior of some varieties is very common and certainly not reason for one to throw the produce away.
- Once you’ve purchased the organic fruit, be sure to store it properly at home. Apples should be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator (crisper drawer) and away from strong-smelling foods. The same is true for pears, unless they are too firm. To ripen pears, place them at room temperature. Then, check for ripeness daily by gently pressing the neck of the pear. Once it gives slightly to pressure, it is ripe and ready to enjoy.
Q: What do you think the future holds for organic?
A: The future is bright for organic for a number of reasons. One of the most significant reasons is that the consumer around the world is making it much clearer at the store level that they are looking for fruit that meets a high standard: no synthetic pesticides, no synthetic growth hormones, no antibiotics, no GMO’s, etc. Certified organic is currently the best indicator for consumers to be assured that the fruit they buy meets these expectations.
Organic will also continue to grow as more and more farmers gain experience in organic systems. Already organic growers are achieving production levels competitive with conventional growing methods, and they are doing so using fewer inputs.
Finally, organic will grow in the future because more and more farmers are realizing that residues from current farming practices are accumulating in our drinking water, in our rivers, and in our oceans. Environmental sustainability demands a change in current farming practices. The good news is that more and more farmers are looking to organic as the sustainable option for their future.
About Harold Ostenson
Harold Ostenson first became involved in the organic industry in the late 1970’s, when he began implementing organic farming practices in his Entiat, Washington orchard. The son of a biology professor, Harold grew up helping in the laboratory and was fascinated by anything related to nature. While he studied psychology in college (eventually earning a Masters in Psychology), Harold’s background and interest in biology led him to begin growing fruit.
In 1980, Harold planted his first organic orchard in the Columbia Basin near the town of George, Washington. At the time, organic orchards only spanned one or two acre blocks, not the 60 acres Harold committed himself to farm organically. Harold has been dedicated to advancing the organic industry ever since.
Currently, Harold serves as the Organic Program Manager for Stemilt Growers, the largest organic tree fruit supplier in the nation. During his 30 year career in organics, Harold has touched all sides of the industry – from developing new or improving existing growing and packing techniques to recruiting new growers, building organic programs, and lobbying to advance the presence of organic products among consumers. His organic tree fruit expertise, especially in bloom thinning, alternate fruit bearing and organic systems integration, has been shared in a number of regions around the United States, and in a number of countries around the world.