Just Plant a Tree and Wait for Fruit?

If you’ve ever grown fruit in this part of the world, you already know it’s not as easy as putting trees in the ground and waiting a few years to harvest perfect, supermarket-quality fruit. But still this myth of easy orcharding persists. The comedian Jim Gaffigan does a skit about u-pick orchards, saying what a rip-off they are and that the farmer should be paying customers to pick the fruit. (I hope he was just saying this to be funny and that he doesn’t believe it – other than this comment, I like Jim Gaffigan’s material!)

The truth is that growing organic tree fruit in NY is like trying to walk through a Spring rain without letting any drops hit you. You have to be on high alert, move quickly, and there’s a high probability of failure no matter how much effort you exert. Why? There’s a comprehensive litany of pests and diseases waiting to take up residence in that fruit. The weather, while never very accurately predictable, throws more wild cards every year, often to the detriment of a tree’s yield. And each tree requires hours of pruning, training, thinning in order to have even a chance of producing nice-looking fruit.

There’s a good reason why Eastern Washington and New Zealand are major apple-producing regions. They have milder climates than NY, are a lot less humid, and have fewer pests and diseases than we do. Some years a single late frost wipes out the majority of our local fruit crop. Our hot, moist Summers are well-loved by apple scab, and the plum curculio weevil wants to burrow into developing fruitlets. We have the full complement of fungi (scab, sooty blotch, fireblight, flyspeck being the biggest threats) and insect pests (Oriental fruit moth, apple maggot, codling moth, plum curculio, and all manner of mites and tree borers) with more pests arriving all the time – the Spotted Lanternfly is the newest threat. Not yet found in Tompkins County, it has arrived in NY and will no doubt be here by next year.

There are two primary approaches a producer can take with these pests: spray to kill them, or spray prophylactically, with the intention of boosting the tree’s own immune defense systems, colonizing the tree with good microbes, and hiding the fruitlets or otherwise confusing the enemy. Notice both options involve spraying something. Even organic orchard management in the humid Northeast requires spraying; organic is not simply the absence of synthetic chemicals, as seems to be the popular misconception.

We’ve opted for an organic approach, though even some of the organically-allowed chemicals are too harsh for us, as we’d rather prioritize a healthy, microbiologically diverse ecosystem in the orchard. Starting in late April, we spray every 5-7 days with a combination of homemade aerobic compost tea, neem oil, fish emulsion, and kelp. We follow the guidance of more sophisticated and experienced orchardists who watch the phenological signs of weather and “degree-days,” and help us determine when codling moth or apple scab, for example, are likely to spike. Then we are not averse to spraying organic bacterial Bt (Baccillus thuringensis) to kill codling moths, or sulfur, to knock back scab spores. For 6 harrowing weeks from early May to mid-June, we try to keep the trees completely covered in clay, to hide the developing fruitlets from plum curculio. If you drive by our orchard during this time, the trees will all have a silvery-white cast to them.

Ever wonder why most wild apple trees only seem to bear every other year? They produce so much one year that the tree decides not to make any fruit buds for the following year, to avoid overtaxing itself. What’s incredible about this is that the tree makes this decision in early June, when the fruitlets are still tiny, and researchers have figured out that the window of time to influence a tree’s decision about next year’s production is only a few weeks long! So, if you manage any fruit tree, and it’s got thousands of blooms on it in May, you’ve actually got to remove 80-90% of those blooms in order to help the tree produce quality fruit and not swing into biennial bearing. And you have to remove them before late June in order to influence the following year’s fruit abundance! Conventional producers can chemically thin trees, and organic producers have an option to do this too, but the chemical is so harsh that most organic producers around here choose to thin the fruits by hand instead! Combined with the annual tasks of pruning and harvesting, thinning hundreds of trees in a short time frame causes major labor headaches for a lot of organic producers.

We’ve just finished pruning our trees for the year, and are watching the degree-days accumulate, waiting to see the first signs of growth, called “silver tip” in apples. If the weather gods are with us, we hope to have our first big yield of apples, Asian pears, and peaches in the farm store this Summer. There’s a good chance they won’t look as perfect as what you find in the grocery store, but I can guarantee you that they’ll taste better!



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