Organic Stone Fruits a Growing Possibility in Northeast

2/2/2013 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Raising stone fruit such as cherries, peaches and plums is not only feasible, but Northeast growers may employ organic practices, too.

A variety of factors from hardier new varieties and attitudinal changes to integrated pest management advances, organic pesticides and more sophisticated planting information have all contributed to such possibilities.

That’s what Mike Biltonen, of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva, N.Y., told an attentive class at the recent Northeast Organic Farmers Association-New York Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“Site selection is critical,” Biltonen said. “It’s really going to determine the success or failure of stone fruit production.”

Red Jacket Orchards, on the northern tip of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes Region, is one of the East Coast’s largest producers of stone fruit — so named because of its single, large pit.

“If it’s a stone fruit, we grow it,” said Biltonen, vice president of farm operations.

Having a large body of water nearby is extremely beneficial to fruit growing. That’s why some of New York’s biggest orchards are near Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain and along the Hudson River.

“The water itself acts as a large heat capacitor,” Biltonen said. “Instead of it being minus-1 out, it might be 10 degrees. That can mean the difference between a crop and no crop in a given year.”

A five-degree temperature variation can also result in crop losses of 10 percent versus 90 percent.

“This is why site selection is so important,” he said.

Most stone fruit originated in Eurasia — countries such as Turkey, Armenia and China.

“That’s important to know,” he said. “If you can envision where it comes from, you have a better idea how to grow it.”

In detailed fashion, Biltonen pointed out specific concerns and best practices for a variety of fruit, including Japanese plums, European plums, sweet and sour cherries, apricots, peaches and nectarines.

Many apple growers and vegetable farmers have begun diversifying with stone fruit during the past decade.

“It’s really expanded,” he said. “It’s attracted a lot of attention on the East Coast and West Coast. Root stocks have really started to come along. There are a lot of different cherry varieties, a plethora of things to choose from.”

Until recently, stone fruit has been 10 years behind apples when it comes to pest management and developing disease-resistant varieties. However, that gap has begun to close because of the bigger impact these fruits have on the New York state economy.

Many farmers still use conventional growing techniques including chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

“Now we can begin to make these leaps to sustainable and organic production practices,” Biltonen said.

Red Jacket Orchards raises some trees in high tunnels, which advances the bloom so that fruit can be taken to green markets earlier, giving the farm a competitive marketing edge.

“By tweaking the environment a little bit we’re able to grow stone fruits organically,” Biltonen said.

To be sure, growing organically involves more work. Instead of spraying tree trunks to kill insects, they might have to be dug out by hand, using a wire or small knife.

To prevent disease, he said it’s best to start fresh by planting new trees in new locations. New trees planted in an old orchard can pick up diseases left behind in the soil.

Once again, however, he stressed the importance of planting in the right location. Stone fruit trees aren’t as resilient as apple trees, so it’s important to give them a helping hand. For example, it’s better to plant them on a south-facing elevated slope than a depression, where cold air settles.

Cold weather alone doesn’t kill buds and trees. The speed at which temperatures drop and the length of time they stay low play a role, too. A south-facing slope will warm up quicker than a north-facing one.

“If you just plant it in a spot where there’s good air drainage you shouldn’t have an issue with (moisture-related fungus),” Biltonen said. “If you don’t select the right site, all the problems I’m talking about (disease, insects) will magnify themselves. Pay attention to the natural world around you.

“We already have trees in a situation where we can do it organically,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but it can no longer be dismissed outright. Eight years ago we wouldn’t have even had this conversation.”

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