Organic Apple Production

Spring 1997

1996 Farmer to Farmer Conference

Steve Page and Cynthia Anthony’s presentation at the Farmer to Farmer conference sparked a wide-ranging discussion about how to produce apples organically.

This is Steve’s third orchard, and as he said, “The first one was experimental, and so are all the others since.” In many ways, Bear Well Orchard in Searsmont represents a work in progress, and a place to learn how to do the job better the next time.

Since apples are a long-lived crop (even dwarf trees have a 20-year productive life), the soil must be prepared before planting. Steve and Cynthia planted three cover crops a year, for three years, of rye, buckwheat and millet, to try to get the ground in shape for apples. They also fenced the entire 2.5 acres that contain the trees, although with rows and turnaround space they’ve planted just over an acre to the apple trees.

This is an orchard devoted to dwarf (primarily Liberty) trees. On a standard sized tree, up to 80% of the interior area may be shaded, making it hard to produce quality fruit. On dwarf trees, most of the surface area is exposed to the sun. The trees stay dwarf because the rootstock (Malling-111) is relatively weak; this requires that the feeder roots be protected from competition. Bear Well Orchard has experimented with a variety of mulches. Creeping fescue sod crept into the trees. Hay mulch introduced weeds. Shredded newspaper blew too much. So far, a combination of cardboard covered with hay mulch has proven most successful.

Varieties that seem to be doing well include Prima, a September apple that is crisp and juicy, and Liberty. Northeast Cooperatives loves the Fancy grades of Liberty because of their intense red color, but there’s no name recognition for the utility apples. Any new varieties need heavy name promotion. Goldrush looks good, if it will ripen. It’s a late October crop in Morrill. Redfree is harvested in late August and stores until July in the refrigerator.

Cynthia notes that the primary challenges so far have come from insects. They’ve cleaned up as many wild trees in the neighborhood as possible, but plenty are still around. Plum curculio is present, as is European apple sawfly. In small numbers they help to do the thinning that’s needed on the Liberties.

The biggest danger comes from the roundheaded apple borer, which comes from wild trees, including mountain ash and hawthorn. No organic controls exist, other than installing physical barriers and removing the borers once they’re found. One year Cynthia and Steve killed 365 borers, and a single tree in the corner of the orchard nearest the woods had twelve. Bob Sewall observed that mechanical barriers (screening stapled to the tree trunk) have been effective for him. You have to be diligent, because even a 20- to 25-foot-tall tree will suffer severe damage.

The wide-ranging discussion that followed covered varieties, mowing, insect control, and fertility. Steve Page and Cynthia Anthony are the first to say they haven’t got all the answers yet, but they’re pleased with the progress they’ve made at Bear Well Orchard over the past nine years.

– Russ Libby

Scroll to Top