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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Apple Season in the Northeast

Air Date: Week of

Tatiana Schreiber reports on new approaches among Vermont's apple growers. They're using fewer chemicals, and rediscovering hearty, old varieties. But northeast growers are up against tough competition from nature and from the market.


CURWOOD: If New Englanders are going to have plenty of local cider, they need a strong apple industry. But the region's small orchards are facing stiff competition from big growers elsewhere. One way to stay competitive, of course, is to keep costs down. Many orchard operators are doing that by cutting the use of expensive farm chemicals. From Vermont, Tatiana Schreiber reports that no spray and low spray apple production is gaining in the orchards of New England and paying both financial and environmental dividends.

(Man: "These are more empires, golden delicious. These are liberties. These are Cortlandts...")

SCHREIBER: Matt Darrow and his brother Evan grew up on this 250-acre hillside orchard, first planted to apples by their grandfather in 1914. It's a large farm by Vermont standards. Even though they can sell most of their apples, intensive competition from large growers in Washington State and abroad means they're just squeaking by. They recently made the painful decision to sell off part of the farm to pay the bills. To improve the bottom line, they're intensifying efforts to cut back on chemical pesticides.

DARROW: Chemicals are astronomically expensive, and after 3 years of a downward-spiraling apple economy, we need to save every penny we absolutely can. Spraying is also very time consuming, and we have more things to do in life than spray.

(Truck motor)

SCHREIBER: The Darrows have switched from conventional, heavy chemical use to integrated pest management or IPM, using biological controls and horticultural techniques that minimize harmful chemicals. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that New England farmers who've converted to IPM are saving up to $150 an acre, thousands of dollars a year. Another benefit for the Darrows is that less spraying means less health risk for their neighbors and themselves.

DARROW: If you're worried about chemicals in your diet, or in the environment, who spends more time in the orchard and eats more apples than anyone else? Ourselves and our families.

SCHREIBER: Vermont extension agents say nearly 90% of the state's commercial apple growers have switched to some form of IPM. Most of these farmers are saving money at it. Some find they're also saving wildlife habitat and increasing species and landscape diversity.

BOSTON: The diversity of agricultural landscape is what makes Vermont, Vermont. To lose apple orchards as part of the agrarian landscape would be to lose a major segment of what makes Vermont special.

SCHREIBER: Clarence Boston uses an advanced IPM program in what is sometimes called an antique orchard: 12 acres of standard fruit trees, some 70 or 80 years old. On clear days he can look across the orchard, its tall trees still laden with last of the season northern spies, to Mount Monadnock 40 miles away in New Hampshire. Just below the house are 2 ponds and the farm itself includes acres of wetlands and woods. Boston is an IPM consultant working with some 60 farmers in 5 states.

BOSTON: To biologically control pests, the orchard has to be alive. Sterility was the goal of pest management for many years. The object was to get as close to 100% kill, was literally the word used.

SCHREIBER: Now Boston claims to have counted 500 species of insects in his orchard.

BOSTON: And of those, 12 are major pests, 30 are minor pests. And the rest, really, are just hanging out...

SCHREIBER: A vast array of birds from Eastern blue birds to kestrels feed on these insects and provide some control. Otters and herons visit Boston's ponds and coyotes feed on the meadow voles. All these creatures are part of the predator-prey balance that's the cornerstone of Boston's IPM horticultural program. But Boston has found that insect and disease problems caused by New England's humidity make it nearly impossible to use completely organic methods.


BOSTON: That is apple scab disease. Those cracked, gray lesions in the deformed fruit. That's why I spray; I can't sell fruit that looks like this...

SCHREIBER: Still, Boston says he uses only half the manufacturer's lowest recommendation for sprays, and sprays only 5 or 6 times a year instead of 10 or 12. He also uses mulch instead of herbicides, and natural fertilizers. The switch to IPM techniques like these has helped some orchardists get by. But Boston says there's another key to maintaining long-term sustainability.

BOSTON: Now this cultivar is Mutsu. It's a great apple, it's a golden delicious by indo-Japanese apple.

SCHREIBER: Boston grows 30 different varieties. But in the state overall, 70% of the acreage is planted to a single variety, the Macintosh, and the state of Vermont is trying to sell the Mac as the New England apple. Clarence Boston says that's short-sighted.

BOSTON: We should not be sticking our heads in the sand and saying we can live or die by Macintosh, because we can't. Macintosh is a great apple. But in Vermont, what we have to do is to diversify.

SCHREIBER: Boston says sustainable apple farming in Vermont should include older varieties that have some natural disease resistance and new cultivars that need less spray or have great flavor when grown at Vermont's high altitudes. Diversity, he says, is the key to a healthy ecosystem, and also provides an economic buffer should the Mac crop be damaged or its market share falter.

BOSTON: This is elsar, this variety, which is a Dutch apple, golden delicious by Ingrid Marie. Nice name, huh?


SCHREIBER: Researchers are studying new disease-resistant varieties through the Northeast Sustainable Apple Project. The project's also looking at computer assisted insect control and other high-tech approaches. But unlike more limited applications of IPM, the more advanced methods may not be cost effective at first. For instance, it takes 8 to 10 years for apple trees to mature, so growers are reluctant to plant new varieties until they're sure consumers want them. So far it's been a tough sell.

WEBSTER: I bought Macs for applesauce and pies.

SCHREIBER: Patti Webster is buying apples at Clarence Boston's farm stand. She says she'd need a push to try a different apple grown to need less spray.

WEBSTER: Yeah, I sort of go the same route all the time, because I know I like my pies with Macs. But I would have to be educated, I guess. Someone would have to take me by the arm and make me taste them. I'd pay more for an apple that wasn't sprayed.

SCHREIBER: Providing that kind of education is beyond the means of most farmers on their own. But talks are underway to start a region-wide project promoting the benefits of a wide variety of low-spray, locally-grown apples. That could help farmers like the Darrow brothers and Clarence Boston see their investment in ecological growing methods pay off. And, they hope, keep their orchards alive. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Brattleboro, Vermont.



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