Caring For The Land
Limestone around new apple trees helps deter voles
Caring for the land is important to us. After all, it provides us with livelihood, feeds our families and customers, and contains valuable life-sustaining natural resources.
Our family has been stewards of this land now for over 100 years. The following list is a small picture of what we are doing to care for the land and to make prudent use of its resources:
- Conserve. We conserve a significant amount of water, soil, and nutrients by planting perennial food crops (tree fruit) and tilling the land for planting only every decade or two. No overhead irrigation is used. Additionally, we are working with Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to protect and utilize native pollinators and to implement a whole-farm, ongoing conservation plan.
- Utilize. We strategically utilize IPM practices to control pests. (See Integrated Pest Management below)
- Experiment. We are continually experimenting with new farming practices to reduce the use of pesticides, enhance ecosystem function, and improve the nutritional quality of the fruit we raise. (See Beyond IPM below)
- Collaborate. Our primary partners are Lancaster Ag Products and Penn State University's Fruit Research and Extension Center, working to implement best orchard management practices.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
Insect trap used to help determine insect pressure
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the backbone of our approach to dealing with a wide array of pests in the orchard. While most field-crop farmers deal with a handful of pests for a given crop, there are well over fifty pests we pay attention to in the orchard.
IPM is an approach to pest management that employs a wide array of tools to minimize the impact of pests on food crops. This allows for a significant reduction in the use of pesticides. Since 1970, Pennsylvania fruit growers using IPM have accomplished the following:
- Reduced miticide use by 90%
- Reduced insecticide use by 50%
- Reduced fungicide use by 30%
Pruning fruit trees helps remove diseased branches
Cornerstones of IPM that help us maintain crop quality and reduce pesticide use
- Monitoring pests on a regular basis and using weather data to forecast pest pressure helps us to carefully target critical spray applications, avoiding unnecessary use or overuse of a particular pesticide.
- Establishing pest population tolerances helps us to determine when a spray application is warranted.
- Employing a variety of tools to control pests including biological control, horticultural practices, behavior modification, pesticides or a combination of these strategies.
a. We utilize biological control by encouraging and/or introducing beneficial microorganisms, predators, parasites and competitors. These "beneficials" require special care and can quickly go into decline if we are not careful to protect them. Beneficials include certain species of birds, mammals, plants, insects, arachnids, and countless micro-organisms. Unlike most orchardists, we introduce new microbial populations into our orchard via compost and nutritional sprays containing live microbes.
b. Horticultural practices like choosing more disease resistant varieties and rootstocks, orchard sanitation and fall cleanup, employing careful pruning, and promoting soil fertility and tree health (See "Beyond IPM" below) are important strategies for disease prevention. Physical barriers like tree guards and gravel deter chewing rodents.
c. For some pests, we can modify their behavior with mating disruption pheromones and other methods.
d. While spraying pesticides remains critical to our disease and pest control, we continue to incorporate new strategies and technologies that reduce our spray volume, number of applications, and chemical toxicity while maintaining efficacy.
Applying a nutritional/biological drench to the cherry orchard floor
While IPM provides a solid framework for us to manage the orchard, it does little to guide us in enriching tree fruit nutrition and soil fertility as the first line of defense against disease and other pests. Just like the human body, a tree with balanced nutrition and beneficial micro-organisms is more likely to resist disease (think nutrition and probiotics). The goal here is to give the trees the foundation to resist disease rather than merely killing their pests. While the average orchard spends approximately $100/acre/year on fertility amendments, we spend over $200/acre/year. The following list shows things we do that go beyond IPM:
- Our blends of fall and spring soil fertilizers include no petroleum-based fertilizers. They are a combination of mined minerals, compost, and living beneficial organisms.
- In the spring, we spray the orchard floor of our stone fruits (peaches, plums, and cherries) and our experimental block of apples with a mix of living microbes, compost tea, seaweed, kelp, molasses, fish, minerals, and vitamins.
- We spray the tree canopy of our stone fruits (peaches, cherries, plums) and our experimental block of apples with a mix of minerals, vitamins, fish, kelp, compost extracts, and a variety of living microbes. This addition to our spray program has made a significant impact on preventing a number of diseases in our stone fruits.
- In addition to managing disease, we feel the above practices have contributed to consistent flavor and high brix (soluble sugars and minerals) in the fruit, which correlates with the fruit being more nutritious and delicious. Also, the live microbes in these mixes help to break down residual pesticides.
- We have not used chemical soil fumigation to kill soil diseases since 2002; Fumigation remains a standard practice for some orchardists. As an alternative, we plant canola as a bio-fumigant prior to planting trees and then inoculate the soil with beneficial microorganisms to compete with the disease organisms. Broadleaf weeds in the orchard aisles can host harmful soil organisms, yet we have not found it necessary to herbicide these weeds because of good populations of beneficial soil microbes that out-compete the disease organisms.
Bringing back "An Apple-A-Day"
Bringing back "An Apple-A-Day" is a slogan that depicts our efforts to cut through the confusion and limitations of food labels and simply grow food that is packed with the nutrition your body needs and thrives on. Several recent studies have shown significant decline in the nutrients present in the national food supply in the last 50+ years. Various factors are contributing to this nutrient decline including the use of chemical fertilizers, the loss of soil fertility, genetic losses due to plant breeding, and the indiscriminate use of nutrient-inhibiting herbicides. What was once "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" may now well mean consuming 3-5 times as much fruit as your great-grandpa to achieve the same nutrient intake. Surprisingly, very little public or private effort has been made toward reversing this trend. Even organic certification has no standard for nutrient density; it only mandates what materials may be applied to the crop in question.
We are going "beyond IPM" in an effort to reverse these nutrient losses. In addition, our experimental block of herbicide-free apples is a research-work-in-progress. In 2015, we were able to achieve an 80% reduction in the amount of conventional pesticides typically used in an IPM apple orchard!
Apples are said to be the last frontier of organic farming. This is certainly true in southeastern Pennsylvania where apples are not native to the region or climate. We found this to be painfully true when we managed our experimental block of apples for certified organic production.
It seems to us that farmers and consumers might need a new benchmark. Raising the bar on nutrient density in our food will mean that the farmer must do a daring dance with innovation and tradition and that the consumer will hobnob with the farmer, ask the important questions, and believe that beauty is only skin deep - even for apples.
To learn more
To learn more, schedule a phone interview or in-person meeting with our orchard manager. Head on over to our Contact Us page and select the Orchard subject to send our orchard manager an email.