Jim Travis says starting an organic fruit orchard is daunting but it comes down to a way of thinking.
“The way you think about organic fruit growing is to view the whole system because it’s all interrelated in a very big way,” said Travis. “Everything relates to everything else. Growing organic is not growing fruit as you always do and then using organic substitutes for synthetics. If you set up an orchard that would be great for synthetics and try to switch to organic just by switching to organic materials, it will not work.”
Travis spent 30 years with Penn state extension; the last seven of which he spent doing research on growing organic fruit. Since retiring, Travis has been growing organic fruit in his own organic orchard for the past eight years.
“Prevention, avoidance and a soft reply are the keys,” said Travis. “Everything I do is about preventing or avoiding a problem. If you do have a problem, you have a soft response. There is a balance in the system. If you have too strong a reply to a problem, you can wipe out that balance. If you wipe out the balance for that season, it’s hard to get it back.”
In regard to the process of becoming certified, records are critical. “You need to keep a record of every time you walk into your planting and what you did,” said Travis, “so you need to keep a record of what you’re applying and what you’re doing. They want a daily log so you can just pull it out and show what you’ve done.” Travis added that record-keeping is what teaches the grower about organic production.
Site selection is the first consideration for an organic orchard and sunlight is one of the most critical factors in growing organic fruit. “If you don’t have sunlight hitting the fruit and plant directly, it’s hard to grow organic,” said Travis. “Sunlight is an effective fungicide and will kill most fungi but it can’t work if plants or trees are in the shade.”
The slope should be south or southeast for air drainage and sun exposure and rows should run north and south. “This is old orchard information, but it’s true for raspberries and peaches and everything else,” said Travis. “You want to have the exposure to sunlight from the slope and also from the direction of planting. Sunlight can suppress fungal spores and improve fruit growth and color.”
The site should have good air drainage and good air movement to dry foliage as fast as possible. If the orchard is set up such that air can’t move well, it will stay wet longer. Every hour the foliage stays wet, there’s more chance for fungal infection. Air drainage also reduces frost risk. Travis added there should be no large trees surrounding a planting because they affect air movement.
The site should also have good water drainage. “Any fruit crop on wet ground doesn’t do well,” said Travis. “It only takes two weeks to get root rot and if that happens in April and October, you can count on rot. Choose a well-drained site or install drainage. In organic, there’s not much else to do.”
A good site includes a buffer, which is not only important but probably a necessity for certification. “You don’t want trees that are off the property making shade, so you need your own buffer,” said Travis. “You need a buffer to conventional ag so you don’t have drift. The organic certifier will want to know neighbors’ practices and what they’re spraying. If you’re the neighbor, that helps.”
When it comes to variety selection, Travis says the choices are usually limited and recommends choosing resistant varieties. Select varieties you can grow rather than what the market demands. “Base your variety selection on what you can grow best organically,” he said. “The way you figure that out is figure out what that variety is most susceptible to, and can you control it organically with sunlight, air movement and maybe some organic materials.”
Inspect all plant material carefully upon arrival and prior to planting. Check especially carefully for crown gall. “If you try to grow a plant with crown gall, the plant will be suppressed and somewhat stunted and could die from winter injury or if you have drought,” said Travis.
Training systems are important for every kind of fruit. “How you train the plant is critical to how much sunlight it will get,” said Travis, adding that he relies on sunlight and air movement more than organic materials. “I planted trees four feet apart, with 14 feet between the rows to avoid shade. The canopies are very narrow. The idea is to get sunlight on both sides, all the way through. No apple, no leaf, no new shoot is not hit by sunlight. They have to dry off quickly.”
Travis bends the limbs of his Crimson Crisp apples in place, which helps set fruit buds on the bent limbs and also helps suppress fire blight infections. Travis’s research with a Penn State geneticist showed that when the tips of limbs are bent, the genes for fire blight susceptibility and vigor are turned off and genes for less vigor and less fire blight susceptibility are turned on. “The growth tip has the hormones to keep it growing straight and suppressing all the side shoots,” he said. “If you bend it, you suppress the hormone at the tip and release the hormones along the branch. And when the branch comes down, there will be more fruit bud spurs and less new growth the following year. If fire blight gets in, instead of that fire blight running the whole way to the rootstock, it is suppressed in the bent limb.”
Nutrition is an important factor in organic production and Travis says a grower can ruin an orchard with too much nitrogen. “Everyone wants to see a nice big healthy green plant. But it’s much more susceptible to bacteria and diseases and insects love it, and you can’t get sunlight or air into the plant,” he said. “The problem with nitrogen is also that once it’s in, you can’t get it out — you have to wait until it grows out. I split nitrogen into two applications: late winter and early spring to see how things are growing, and do I actually need as much. I put on a moderate amount — I want enough growth to produce fruit buds but not so much growth that I’m shading the tree.”
Scouting is important in organic because there aren’t any quick solutions to pests or disease. Travis emphasized the importance of becoming familiar with pests, diseases and beneficial insects; all ahead of organic materials. He also suggests having a good weather prediction system for the farm. “Beneficial insects are much more effective than organic materials,” he said. “You also need to be aware of weather.”
Travis says the organic grower has to encourage things they want to happen, like natural enemies. “You can very easily not allow the aphid predators to take out the aphids or mites,” he said. “Then you’ll have to come in and do something else, which in turn messes up everything else. So know what’s in the orchard, utilize what’s already there and make sure you don’t do anything that will eliminate that as a possible control.”
Because Travis is working toward 80 percent fresh fruit quality, he wants a lot of really nice apples. “It depends on the market and what you want to do,” he said, commenting on market options. “I’m training mine to maximize quality. If you try to grow thicker, it’s amazing that it doesn’t have to grow that thick before it becomes shaded and you start picking up diseases like sooty blotch and flyspeck.”
One of the main issues in organic production is weed management. “If you have weeds growing up around the base of a tree, it can start sooty blotch or flyspeck then it moves up the tree,” said Travis. “Fungal infections take 30 days to develop, so once infection occurs, you don’t see it for 30 days. You might think everything is going great and even though it’s hot and dry later, all the trees show up with sooty blotch and flyspeck if it wasn’t prevented earlier.”