Challenges of Organic Fruit Growing

  1. Selling less than perfect or less visually pleasing fruit Roger Yepsen had a good quote in his excellent book APPLES. He says that North Americans eat with their eyes. Very true. While some heritage fruit is beautiful, some of it is not. We have even been educated to equate red colour with the best quality. Therefore, selling organic, heritage fruit requires some extra effort. When I sell fruit in the markets, I tend to give customers samples and the good taste helps to sell the “less beautiful” apples. They know what they are getting. I enjoy immensely watching people react to the variety of fruit tastes. We are quite fortunate on Salt Spring since the organic movement here is very strong and residents are usually willing to buy apples with some marks provided they are free of chemicals. Most spots are just surface deep anyway. But fall fairs or exhibits also propagate the importance of appearance and size. For those of us raising heritage apples without irrigation, fruit size usually is smaller and heritage varieties do not always look good. In most fruit judging contests, usually size, amount of redness and beauty are the most important criterion. Why can’t taste be a criterion? With a hand refractometer and a few drops of apple juice, it is possible to quickly measure sugar content. This would provide at least one other criterion to help with the difficult job of the subjective decisions of which fruit tastes better.  
  2. Obtaining organic fertilizers Since Salt Spring is an island and since local gardeners are so organically oriented, manure is very difficult to obtain. It is usually spoken for very quickly. Last summer, I advertised in the local paper for manure, willing to pay $20 per load, but received no responses. Seaweed is thus easier to obtain, although it requires more work to collect. Being organic is much more work. One visitor to the local fall fair a few years ago enraged locals by stating in a letter to the editor of the local paper that the large size and high quality of local vegetables on display at the fall fair was probably due to use of chemical. The worst possible insult of all to a Salt Springer.  
  3. Expensive costs of farm land My orchard is almost full now and I would love to get more land to continue collecting some additional varieties. My 5 acres cost me $50,000 (Can) in 1980. To get something similar now would cost likely $150,000 (Can). While our island has a limited amount of land, neighboring Vancouver Island has much more land and it is somewhat cheaper, but still expensive. But the basic idea holds throughout the world that land is worth more to developers than it is to farmers who are struggling to survive. A farmer can be offered millions for a piece of land on which he is struggling to survive. The only tenderfruit area in eastern Canada is the Niagara Peninsula where orchards are being replaced with development.  
  4. The shortage of Canadian supplies One of the difficulties of fruit exploring in Canada is the relatively small market due to the Canada-US border (which requires virus free guarantees for fruit trees to cross) and the climate imposed northern limits of fruit tree survival. Especially in the Prairies, that leaves very limited possibilities. This limitation forces us to be more knowledgeable about sources and varieties existing in Canada. Last year, I ordered about 21 connoisseur apple varieties from Woodwinds Nursery in Ontario, Canada. To my surprise, I was forced by Agriculture Canada to get these trees fumigated in order to ship them to B.C even though the trees stayed totally within Canada.  
  5. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) GATT was created to eliminate tariffs and restriction on good flowing anywhere in the world. A good theory, but it has emerged as a very powerful and potentially damaging agreement being pushed by multinationals, who stand to gain much by leveling the playing field, as GATT intends to do.
    Typical effects will include:
    • a worldwide deregulation of environmental, health and safety provisions,
    • a proliferation of agribusiness using very efficient industrial farming methods (and all the associated negative impacts including pesticides, chemical fertilizers and polluted groundwater)
    • the decimation of smaller farms who could not match the cheap selling prices of huge monocultures
    • a much stronger agribusiness lobby which could now concentrate on only one body
    • overturning of a large number of international environmental laws and treaties
    Specific undesirable consequences include the following
    • A ruling by GATT in 1991 that a US law prohibiting import of tuna (caught in dolphin killing nets) was an unnecessary barrier to trade and should not be enforced. GATT overruled that US law and allowing import of tuna caught using methods banned by US law.
    • US agribusiness giant W. R. Grace has created a real firestorm in India by seeking to produce an organic pesticide from the seeds of the locally grown neem tree. The tree is a national symbol and it’s pest-repelling properties have been used by local farmers for centuries. But US- styles patent laws as envisioned by GATT will allow W. R. Grace to patent the product and ignore the Indian farmers. The same is true of medicinal properties of rainforest species. The pharmaceutical company sends a botanist (who know virtually nothing about local species) and must collect the knowledge of indigenous experts. Once this knowledge is bestowed, then pharmaceutical companies can patent the industrially generated plant extracts with no benefits to the indigenous people.
    • Since representatives of international food companies make up almost a majority of participants in some GATT standards setting committees, it is not surprising that some of the strict standards set by the US are being eased. The United States has one of the worlds strictest limits for pesticide/herbicide residues on foods. GATT will not force the rest of the world down to the US standard, but in fact US standards will be allowed to rise, much to the delight of the agribusiness giants. For example the following chart indicates what will happen to new standards.
    Import ProductPesticideIncrease over current US standard
    a) PeachesDDT50 times higher
    b) ApplesDDT10
    c) StrawberriesLindane3
    d) GrapesDDT20
  6. Decreased government funding The current shrinking of government services means that services such as the Centre for Plant Health in Sydney, B.C (a great source of virus free scion wood) rather that shutting down. is now seeking a private contractor to take over the scion wood orchard at this government facility The scionwood facility at the Agriculture Canada in Summerland, B.C. is already privatized and being run by PICO. The Canadian Colonal Genebank at Trenton, Ontario is being closed, with plants uprooted and relocated to Harrow near Windsor.  
  7. Raccoons These voracious fruit eaters can always sense just the right time to eat fruit. Usually that is one day before you decide to harvest the fruit. While I would not mind if they ate some of the fruit, they also break branches on fruit trees. The only solution seems to be a bigger dog which is always loose and can chase them away. Since many people here also raise chickens, one of the dog training tasks is get the dog to chase raccoons but not plump, juicy chickens.  
  8. Insects such as Tent Caterpillars Tent caterpiller egg masses ready to hatch. In 1996 adb 1997, there was a real infestation of tent caterpillars on Salt Spring Island. These hearty eaters will eat ever leaf from a tree and while the older trees seem to be able to easily grow more leave, this still will slow that year’s growth. With smaller trees that are completely defoliated, it seems to stunt them. So the trick is to pick all the egg masses off when pruning a tree. But even with diligence, it is still likely that 10% of egg masses will be missed. This is much easier in a young orchard such as mine. In large orchards, this would be an impossibility. These caterpillars grow on alders which front 3 sides of my property, so another host is very close. I have cut some of the alders along the fence to give the orchard more light and also to remove some of the host trees.  
  9. The Weather (which seem to be more variable these days). With all the weather records for rain, temperature, drought, winds and storms in the last few years, I am sure that weather statistics will prove that the weather is much more variable and unstable lately. Alberta, Canada has Chinooks which cause rapid increases in temperatures, but in the east temperatures used to change slowly. Rapid changes and weather extremes seem to be common now. During Christmas 1996, a huge snowfall occurred in the Victoria, BC area. I had 31 inches of snow sitting on my picnic table. Victoria had 1.2 metres (about 42 inches) of snow. That is 8.5 times the normal monthly average and about 4 times the total annual snowfall. Greenhouses and boathouses were devastated. Rapid changes in temperatures are very hard on vegetation also. One picture in the book WASHINGTON APPLE COUNTRY shows a ripened apple, a fruitlet and a blossom all on one tree branch, causes by an extreme fluctuation in weather patterns. But the weather gives Canadians something to talk about!