Perspectives Online

Seller's Market - There' s good news from (organic) apple country.

Richard Staton (left) and Marvin Owings pick a JonaGold at Staton's orchards near Hendersonville.
Photo by Art Latham

Due to cooperation from the weather and other factors, apples hung heavy on the branches in western North Carolina's mountain orchards this year.

And prices for the crop, especially organics, were good, says Marvin Owings, North Carolina Cooperative Extension agriculture agent for Henderson County. Owings' research and other ongoing work with county farmers in organic fruit production is one reason the prices are up.

"The demand for organic fruit is amazing," he says. "From what we're seeing, sales have been growing about 20 percent a year for the past four to five years and that's not just fruit, but juice and processed apples for applesauce. The supply cannot keep up with the demand."

Shortly after Gerber closed its long-running Arden processing plant in 1999, dropping the bottom out of the demand for locally grown apples, Owings, inspired by a College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Horticultural Science graduate course, initiated an on-farm research project in organic crops in Henderson County.

Since 2000, Owings has worked with five growers, promoting organic crops and continuing research by comparing quality, quantity, size, color, price and "pack-out" (how many harvested apples actually are sold through the chain stores) of organic versus conventionally grown apples.

Anthony Owens became an organic apple grower in 2001, with Marvin Owings’ help.

Photo courtesty Anthony Owens
After working with Owings, grower Anthony Owens of Windy Ridge Farms of Edneyville, casting about for some way out of the worsening market dilemma, became an organic apple producer in 2001. Owings' on-farm research program turned out to be a perfect fit for Owens' business.

"Because Anthony kept good records and due to his ability to scout for problems, we were able to fine-tune the spray program from one year to the next," Owings said. "And he made numerous contacts with up-and-coming organic crop protectant companies so we used these products. Some were very effective, and some were not."

The original tree-spraying schedule was based on a dated study conducted before the introduction of many of today's more effective sprays. That earlier study, incidentally, declared that high-quality organic apples couldn't be grown in western North Carolina.

"But the proof that the research was paying off," says Owings, "was in the quality of fruit Anthony was growing and that every year that quality improved. We substantiated this by comparing the organic versus conventional fruit samples we pulled off the packing line."

And the bottom line proof is in Owens' sales.

The OFR project "has helped Anthony and his company to become the largest organic apple growers on the East Coast," says Owings. "Presently, his niche market products can't keep up with demand from customers all over the East Coast. And it looks like to me that he's going to have excellent demand for the foreseeable future."

Such national companies as Whole Foods and North-Carolina-based Earth Fare and Ingles Markets carry Owens' apples.

In fact, in early October, 40 buyers from Whole Foods stores in the Southeast visited Owens' orchards.

"This is the first time I've seen a situation for growers where the shoe is on the other foot and buyers are coming to them," says Owings, who previously helped set up annual pre-harvest tours and dinners to help growers, consumers and buyers learn about the variables affecting organic crops: weather, material costs and insect and disease problems.

"When we first started the project," he says, "we assumed that because it was organic, consumers would not be as discriminating, but we found out later that they are and that organic fruit has to meet the same standards in size, color and lack of defects that conventional fruit does. That's what the consumer demands; it has to be a perfect fruit regardless of whether it's organic or conventional.

"The majority of consumers think 'organic' means we don't spray with anything," Owings says. "But in fact, we actually spray twice as often, but we spray with USDA-approved materials: non-toxic bacterial and plant-based pesticides that wash off in rain. That's one of the reasons it's three to four times more expensive to grow organic apples than it is conventional apples. An acre of conventionally grown apples would cost $700 a season for pesticides and fungicides; an identical organic crop's price tag for organic crop protectants is about $3,400."

Organic fruits and vegetables, however, are produced without most conventional synthetic pesticides, petroleum- or sewage sludge-based fertilizers, bioengineering or ionizing radiation.

"Growing anything organic is much more difficult. It's extremely labor-intensive, especially weed control," Owings says.

During the three-year transition to certified organic status, farmers must sell their fruit as conventional, despite rising production costs. And a government-approved certifier must inspect a farm to ensure USDA and state organic standards.

"Organic is very unforgiving," he says. "If you drop the ball along the way, you have no backup materials to get you out of trouble like you would if you were growing conventionally."

Richard Staton, the first organic cooperator with whom Owings worked, dedicated about three acres of Rome apples to organic in 2000. Staton and his wife, Mindy, were skeptical at first.

"But my bottom line was up the first year, and we were all very surprised," says Staton, a producer-packer who conventionally grows 193 acres of apples.

While Staton isn't growing any organic apples now, he's seriously considering adding organics again.

"Gerber Baby Foods is looking for growers who will grow organically for them," he says. They'd take up to 500 acres a year, if we'd grow it."

Gerber, says Owings, pays a premium for conventional fruit processing, and would have to pay an extra premium for organic.

"All three outlets - fresh fruit, processed and juice - are telling Anthony Owens they want all the fruit he can send them." he says.

Although growers participating in Owings's study get cost breaks or sponsorships from organic spray manufacturers, sustainable organic growing apparently is feasible in western North Carolina, even with no subsidies.

"This is not an easy business," Owings says. "But if you're willing to be in the orchard every day, scouting for pests and doing the spraying, it can work for you."

And Owens' Windy Ridge Farms is proof of that.