Breakthrough in varieties make organic apples easier to grow in Ohio

By Debbi Snook, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/16/15

GRANVILLE, Ohio — Having trouble finding an organic apple grown in Northeast Ohio? You’re not alone. Most are from the state of Washington, clear across the country.

Yet apples grown in our soils and shaped by our weather happen to taste better. If we could buy organic versions more easily, we could also support our local farm economy.

Apple scab is the main reason for the lack, a fungal infection that thrives in more humid climates and leaves apples disfigured. Most scab is controlled by chemicals that do not meet standards for organic certification.

But there’s new hope to increase organic apple production in our region, and two of its proponents are orchardists Don Kretschmann and Tim Gebhart from Rochester, PA, about 40 miles southeast of Youngstown. The farming duo appeared at the recent 2015 OEFFA sustainable food conference and said there are a lot of reasons to start growing organic apples, at home and on a commercial farm.

Here are five of them:

More scab-resistant varieties are on the market. Gebhart listed a few of his favorites: Pristine (yellow, tastier than most early apples); Liberty (MacIntosh style flavor); Crimson Crisp (a good keeper, Gebhart’s favorite) and Gold Rush (flavorful, keeps in refrigeration for many months). Each is resistant to scab and many other diseases, and there are more hybrids like them coming out each year. Some of their favorite sources Cummins Nursery near Ithaca, N.Y. and Adams County Nursery near Gettysburg, PA. The duo recommends dwarf rootstocks for easier access, and spreading the roots fully when planting, not curling them into place.

More information on growing organically is available. Cornell University recently released its Organic Apple Production Guide, available online. The two farmers also recommend the web site and books by New Hampshire organic orchardist, Michael Phillips, which can also be found online.

More supplies are readily available. Organic apple growing still requires lots of specific soil conditions, serious pruning, good drainage and foliar spraying to fight off pests and diseases that like fruit as much as we do. A list of certified organic suppliers can be found online. Surround, a mudlike organic pesticide sprayed on trees to fight plum curculio that causes fruit drop, is available at Ohio Earth Foods in Hartville (330-877-9356.)

More is known about the harm caused by conventional pesticides and herbicides. Beyond effects on human health, they can kill the very beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that provide a biologically healthy soil web. Find more information in the sources previously listed. Also, commercial growers might consider the duo’s technique for warding off deer: Setting up a 6,000-volt wire around the orchard, attaching an occasional metal mesh covered in peanut butter. Once the deer get shocked, said Kretschmann, they rarely come back.

More people want organic apples. Krestchmann admits that also means more education. Organic apples can look as pristine as grocery store apples, but that is not always the case. Still, they sometimes get three times the price for whole apples by the bushel compared to the same amount they once used only in cider. The education is worth it, he says. “I can produce quality fruit to an educated customer,” he said. “I always say that using a paring knife (to trim unwanted parts of the fruit) are always better than using chemicals. Chemicals, you can’t pare off.”