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Organic Production


Washington State University has been involved with organic agriculture for decades. Organic agricultural research started at WSU in the 1970’s and an organic major was introduced for undergraduate students in 2006. In 2007, WSU purchased a new research farm with over 100 acres of certified organic production already in place.

Orchardists worldwide are increasing their use of organic and sustainable production systems due to consumer preferences and land and environmental stewardship priorities. Organic tree fruit production has provided a valuable commodity for growers in the state of Washington for over a decade. Numerous resources on organic production can be found on this page including: current research; certification; orchard establishment; insect pest management; disease management; tree fruit nutrition; weed control; tree training systems; packing and storage; vertebrate pest management; and food safety.

Ray Fuller's organic apple orchard (source: WSU file image)
Ray Fuller’s organic apple orchard (source: WSU file image)

The state of Washington passed the Organic Food Products Act in 1985 and created a certification program managed by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA)  in 1987. In 1990, the federal Organic Foods Production Act was passed to develop a national system to standardize organic certification among states and private groups. The ‘National Organic Standards’ was released in 2000. The National Organic Program (NOP), based in the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA develops standards that maintain the integrity of the organic process (from seed to table) to ensure that consumers are purchasing a bona fide organic product. Certified organic products can be labeled with the federal USDA organic seal, or that of the certifier such as the state agency, WSDA. WSDA must comply with the national standards and receive accreditation from the USDA to act as a certifying body. WSDA Organic Food Program staff can help you evaluate organic certification and what it might take for your farm to comply. You can find a program handbook, list of certifying agents, and how to get your farm certified here.

Certified organic fruit are produced, packed, and stored using approved practices that promote sustainable balance in the ecosystem by protecting resources and the environment while producing healthy trees and quality fruit. Organic tree fruit production and sales continue to grow locally and nationally with Washington state being the lead producer of organic apples, pears, and cherries. (See Recent Trends in Certified Organic Tree Fruit, (pdf presentation), and more recent updates here, (Organic statistics, WSU-CSANR webpage).

Tree Fruit growers are choosing organic methods for many reasons today: Profitability, traceability, accountability, resource conservation, and worker and food safety. There is better knowledge about agricultural ecosystems, and the benefits of protecting natural enemies, and farmland today. Managing for better soil conditions and for increased biodiversity are two cornerstone principles of organic production. Some orchard management practices that are effective for organic orchards are used in conventional growing operations as well. Integrated pest management (IPM) practices, pheromone mating disruption, and the emphasis on biological control are successful orchard management strategies that are similar for organic and conventional growers. The availability of new, natural products such as spinosins, codling moth granulosis virus, yeast formulations for fire blight control, and approved, effective materials for thinning apples are other management tools useful to both organic and conventional growers.

Several challenges face organic tree fruit growers. One challenge is weed management since the weed management tools available are not as effective as those available to conventional growers (e.g., synthetic herbicides), and they are usually more labor intensive. Soil fertility management is also challenging and is dependent on organic amendments only. Ensuring accurate nutrient application timing and amount delivered is often harder to predict and control and ultimately match with tree needs. Rodent control is based mostly on trapping and encouraging natural predators in orchards. Certain tree fruit pests like pear psylla, and spotted wing drosophila in sweet cherries, and diseases like powdery mildew and scab on apple, and fire blight in apple and pear can also be challenging to manage and control in organic programs.

When available, organic seed for cover crops must be used. Appropriate-sized buffer areas must surround organic fields to protect them from outside contamination by neighboring spray drift from conventionally managed blocks. WSU scientists are conducting research and finding solutions to some of these tree fruit pest and disease problems, as well as breeding new disease and pest resistant cultivars conducive to growing in the central Washington climate. Organic production can be more labor intensive, and have increased production costs 5-10% over conventional production so a market premium price is really necessary to sustain grower profitability. (See A cost comparison of organic and conventional apple production in the state of Washington, M. Taylor and D. Granatstein, 12(1), 2013.)

Organic growers are required to create an organic system plan that describes the methods and timing of treatments that will be used in their farm management. Accurate records and documentation of all practices and materials used are needed, as well as annual inspections of farms and facilities. The packing warehouses, processing plants, or wholesale buyers need to be certified to handle organic products. Methods used in organic production are generally determined by the organic certification standards. Most ‘natural’ methods and products are allowed, although the USDA keeps a list of natural materials that are not permitted. Synthetic materials are not permitted, unless specifically approved by the National Organic Standards Board. These materials are reviewed every five years, and growers need to provide their input during the national review process if they want these products to be allowed for use in the future.

Before considering transitioning into organic farming from conventional farming, you should consider the varieties you might choose, your warehouse’s ability to pack, store, and market organic fruit and the resources available to you to help with new challenges, and economics. (See Top five things to consider before going organic, G. Warner, Good Fruit Grower, 2013.)

We’ve put together additional information on specific topics related to organic orchard production. Click on the title headings below to view the related information.

Orchard Establishment Insect Pest Management Disease Control Weed Management Nutrition (Fertilizers, Amendments and Mulches) Thinning Packing and Storage of Fruit Vertebrate Pest Management Other Organic Issues

Additional Resources:

General Organic Production References

Organic Websites

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