For over a decade now, we have had an ongoing experiment to raise more nutrient-dense apples and to do so in a way that poses less risk to human and orchard health.
THE REDUCED-PESTICIDE EXPERIMENT
Our experimental program to reduce pesticide use in apples was originally certified as USDA Organic. We discontinued that certification due to significant economic losses, overwhelming pest pressure, and our lack of knowledge and resources for growing table-grade organic apples in this climate. However, we haven’t really given up on the driving factors for the original experiment, and so are continuing to manage a trial block with alternative practices.
Experimenting on a small scale allows us to try various methods to manage various pests and diseases. Each year we do something differently and learn how we might tweak it for the following year. If this trial block continues to go well, we will borrow from its successes and scale the methods to the rest of the farm. This year, we managed this block with an over 85% reduction of pesticides that are prohibited in organic apple production. In other words, the majority of our management program was organic, and was nearly 100% organic since May 1. In the future, we expect to take these reductions even further, with a special interest not only in pesticide reduction but also in fruit nutrient density.
We believe optimal plant health is the foundation for resistance to pests and diseases. Having a trial block also allows us to experiment with products and methods that enhance soil and plant health. For example, this year we applied cobalt (the mineral) to help the trees naturally resist apple scab. The good news is that it was a huge success!
RAISING THE BAR ON NUTRIENT DENSITY
Numerous studies have confirmed a 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 synthetic 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” now may well mean consuming a dozen apples to achieve the same nutrient intake. Surprisingly, little public or private effort has been made toward reversing this trend. Even organic certification has no standard for nutrient density – only what materials may be applied to the crop in question.
So what are we doing to reverse these nutrient losses? For the past number of years, we have put particular focus on maintaining vibrant and healthy soil and to enhance nutrient intake during the growing season. In brief, we are applying an array of natural mineral amendments, molasses, compost, and numerous species of living microbes. These interact with and balance the mineral and living components of the soil to enhance nutrient uptake, enhance the trees immune systems, digest unwanted hydrocarbons, and suppress pathogens. We are excited about the results we’ve seen, including less tree mortality, better fruit flavor, higher nutrient levels in the fruit, increased resistance to certain diseases, and quicker breakdown of environmental toxins. Not only are we using these products in the apple trial block, but also on our other blocks to varying degrees.
BRINGING BACK THE APPLE-A-DAY
Just maybe, the apples from our trial block are part of the story that is making it possible for an apple a day to, once again, keep the doctor away.