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Organic Growing Is Best

Agriculture: The method would help the state's struggling farmers
produce sweeter and more profitable fruit, researchers say.

Washington Apple Study Finds Organic Growing Is Best
By EMILY GREEN, Times Staff Writer
Source: Los Angeles Times

A six-year study comparing different types of apple production
found that organic growing techniques are more profitable and produce
better-tasting fruit than conventional farming methods.
The study by researchers at Washington State University,
published today in the journal Nature, comes at a time when apple
growers are desperate for an advantage. Washington state tree fruit
specialists say they expect as many as 20% of the state's apple farms
to fail in the next 18 months.
Headed by soil scientist John Reganold, the research project
planted Golden Delicious apples on four acres loaned by a 50-acre
commercial farm in the state's Yakima Valley apple district. Each
growing system was tested in four different plots, laid out in a
random fashion.
In the organic system, a style of farming practiced by 3% of
Washington growers, no synthetic chemicals were allowed. In the
organic research plots, trees were fertilized with composted manure
and organic matter. Weeds were controlled with mulch. Buds were
thinned by hand, not defoliants.
The conventional system, employed by at least 60% of the state's
apple farmers, used synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides,
pesticides and chemical defoliants.
The "integrated" system, used by about 35% of Washington apple
farmers, involved compost and synthetic fertilizers. Weed control was
done with herbicides and bark mulch. Toxic chemicals were used to
eradicate pests.
The researchers used a scoring system to gauge soil quality,
yield, costs and apple sweetness and texture, as well as size and
appearance. Prices posted by commercial growers were used to calculate
market values of the crops.
"Our results," said Reganold, "show that organic and integrated
apple production systems in Washington State are not only better for
soil and the environment than their conventional counterpart, but have
comparable yields and, for the organic system, higher profits and
greater energy efficiency."
Moreover, a panel of tasters found the organic apples to be
sweeter.
The study notwithstanding, Tim Smith, a tree fruit extension
officer based in the university's Wenatchee office, doubts the organic
movement's claims of better fruit. He also worries that farmers will
overreact to the study. Smith, who has counseled tree fruit growers in
the state for 26 years, pointed out that the largest organic pear
supplier in the state just went bust. "It's just an illustration that
being organic doesn't mean you're rolling in the dough."
Washington State horticulture professor Kathleen Willemsen said
she found the study highly credible but, like Smith, worries that a
switch to organic methods would not necessarily revive the apple
industry. Washington apple farmers are particularly vulnerable now,
she said. What used to be a billion-dollar industry is now generating
about $750 million. The state's more than 6,000 farms have dwindled to
4,500, with 900 more failures anticipated.
The problems faced by farmers, according to Willemsen and Smith,
include an influx of fruit from the southern hemisphere, the fall of
the Asian economy in 1996, and a domestic market controlled by a small
group of supermarkets.
"People don't know that the apples that they buy for $1 a pound
were purchased for 15 cents a pound and that the grower got 6 cents a
pound," Smith said.
But Reganold's study projects a brighter financial future for
organic farmers. In two models involving different weather conditions
and blemished and unblemished apples, organic orchards reached
break-even points two to six years faster than those with integrated
harvests, and three to eight years faster than conventional ones.
Both sets of calculations were done on the assumption that
organic apples will retain their current 50% price premium.
The projections sound reasonable to at least one Yakima Valley
organic apple farmer. Archie den Hoed, who did not participate in the
study, began conversion of his 71-acre farm to organic three years
ago. Even as the market has fallen, den Hoed said, he expects to make
50% more than he did with his conventional apples.
Reganold stressed that if society factored in the environmental
costs of conventional farming, the benefits of organic would be even
more dramatic. Washington apple farmers spray their crops one to four
times a season with organo-phosphate pesticides, which also kill
beneficial insects and are difficult for crop workers to handle
safely.
But extension officer Smith doesn't want to see his clients even
think about giving up what might be a crop-saver. "You can't get rid
of your last effective tool for control of your key pest without
replacing it," he said.
For Reganold, the key to a better apple is improved soil. He
estimated that of 170,000 acres devoted to apple orchards, almost all
of the soil is malnourished. It is fed with chemical nitrogen
fertilizers rather than with what Reganold regards as wholesome
organic amendments of green matter and composted manure.
"In the last 15 years, I have been on 150-200 organic farms," he
said, "and on about the same number of conventional farms. At every
organic farm, the farmer has always shown me the soil. They always
say, 'Look at the earthworms and look at the structure.' They are
thinking the soil is part of the system. I have never been shown soil
by a conventional farmer."
His report describes organic farming as having "a profound impact
on soil quality, enhancing soil structure and fertility and increasing
water infiltration and storage."
This, said Andy Dolph, the farmer who managed the test plots for
Reganold, is what accounted for the better-tasting, sweeter and firmer
apple reported in the Nature study.
"Because the trees are in a more nutrient-rich soil, an evenly
balanced soil, they impart that to the apples," he said. The cell
structure and sweetness of organic fruit is better than fast growth
resulting from fertilizer, he said, adding that organic fruit stores
better, too.


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