The challenges of growing organic fruit + the "perfect" produce problem
by Kara Elder
August 12, 2020
There's a sort of dance that happens around the issue of growing organic fruit. On the one hand, customers care that what they're eating isn't covered in potentially harmful chemicals; they might even care about the environmental impact and the effects that sprays might have on people doing the labor-intensive, back-numbing work in the fields and orchards. Farmers, on the other hand, know that the humid Mid-Atlantic climate makes it very hard to grow fruit, period, whether or not it's organic. "As the fruit is growing and developing, that's when you get a lot of fungal issues," explains Stacey from the Farm at Sunnyside. "Places that are warmer for longer periods throughout the year have more pest issues as well. As we get warmer moving forward, we’re just going to have more pest issues."
But asking simply, "Is this organic?" isn't quite the right question.
First thing's first: when you buy local fruit, you are getting a better product than something purchased from most grocery stores. "Generally the product is handled very few times," says Danny from Toigo Orchards. "It’s picked, it goes into a box, the box goes into a truck, the truck goes to market, it goes on display." (Or in the case of Number 1 Sons delivery, it goes from farm truck to Pickle Factory to Pickle Van to your home.) This is useful for food safety (fewer hands to pass through, less time in storage, less chance of contamination) as well as flavor: the less time something takes to get from tree to you, the riper, fresher, and better it'll be.
But back to the question at hand. When I hear someone ask if something is organic, I assume the concern lies primarily in consumption — that person is concerned about ingesting a substance that will potentially cause them or their family harm. This is totally reasonable. But in framing it as a matter of health for the consumer, the larger and more complicated issues are tamped down and often ignored. (Jonathan Nunn puts it well in the introduction to an issue of his newsletter, Vittles: "It ties into a wider trend of trying to frame food issues around the negligible impact on the consumer and not the tangible impact on the workers who make them. It’s the same framing that advocates for no pesticide use in case we ingest a trivial amount, and not because of the health impact on those who spray them." The newsletter is on McDonald's, but the sentiment applies here as well.)
Although some people might think that organic farming means no sprays are used at all, that's generally not true. Organic farming allows for the use of some substances, some of which are naturally derived: "In general, synthetic substances are prohibited unless specifically allowed and non-synthetic substances are allowed unless specifically prohibited." (To read more about what's allowed or not, skip to chapter 9 of this Guide for Organic Crop Producers from the USDA; you can access the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances here.) If you're wondering whether there are other things to consider when it comes to pesticides, like systemic racism, read this. (But the answer is yes.) This doesn't mean every farmer under the organic label is out spraying every chance they get; it just means that you should ask questions beyond the label of organic.
For me, the real issue is whether or not to trust the food source, which is why buying from someone you can ask questions of — likely someone in your local food system — is so valuable.
"We have three young kids and if they want to go out to the orchard and pick a peach and eat it right there, we’re completely comfortable with that," says Eli Cook from Spring Valley Farm & Orchard. "We live right by it. We know what our practices are and we feel comfortable with them and safe with them."
One of the toughest things farmers in our region face is the Mid-Atlantic climate that we all know and love. "It’s brutally humid, hot; there’s rain, there’s drought," says Danny Toigo. When it rains for several straight days, it can ruin cherry and strawberry crops, for example. The good news for the customer and the farmer, though, is that being able to sell directly to the customer (at, for example, a farmers market) means that not only is the quality superior to a grocery store, but growers can explain how the fruit is grown. "I can fill them in on the issues we face, what we have to do," he says.
Take peaches and apples; their trees produce blossoms in March and April. Peaches are getting picked now, in July and into August; some varieties of apples (such as lodi and earligold) are ready now, but late summer and early fall is the peak season. "That's a long gap of time for that fruit to be exposed," says Danny. "The blossom is exposed and if it’s damaged, that affects the fruit’s appearance. They attract fungus and mold much more easily."
Some of the difficulties, like intense humidity, are avoidable in places like Washington state and California, because the dryer climate is so much easier to grow in. "But," says Danny, "this is where we live." (You might scratch your head at the Washington thing, since it's called the evergreen state and it rains a lot there, but take it from a former farm kid from eastern Washington: that really only applies to the western side of the state. The Cascade mountains block much of the rain, and the eastern side — where the farms are that produce fruit and other staple crops like wheat — is extremely dry.)
It can be difficult to get around using fungicides (which stop mold). But one way to reduce the use of insect-targeting pesticides is through IPM (Integrated Pest Management), which, as defined by the FAO, means: "the careful consideration of all available pest control techniques and subsequent integration of appropriate measures that discourage the development of pest populations and keep pesticides and other interventions to levels that are economically justified and reduce or minimize risks to human health and the environment. IPM emphasizes the growth of a healthy crop with the least possible disruption to agro-ecosystems and encourages natural pest control mechanisms."
For example, one way to deal with, say, moths or peach tree borers, is to apply pheromone disruptors that disrupt their mating cycle. A farmer might use a threshold trap, too: if the trap doesn't exceed a certain number of moths in a week, then they don't need to spray. If the traps do exceed a number, the farmer might time the egg hatch and go in to spray just once, optimizing the effect of the spray rather than just spraying all the time. Also, not all sprays are code for death; there are pheromone sprays that repel rather than kill an insect, explains Eli. "We own 75 colonies of honey bees and we have them around the orchards, cantaloupes, squash, and watermelons," he says. "So we don’t use anything that will hurt our bees. Our programs are pretty mild in comparison to big corporate growers."
If you want certified organic fruit from our region, look to The Farm at Sunnyside. "Casey and I have the philosophy that we just don’t want to use pesticides," says Stacey, adding that they don't even use organic ones unless they have to. "You will see that in our crops sometimes. The fruit has little pockmarks, or a hole with a bug inside. If you want organic fruit, this is what it is."
Intertwined with all of this is the demand for perfect produce. Maybe a person expects perfection because that's how things look in a grocery store, or they've been inundated with images of perfect-looking fruit and vegetables in advertising and media, or they think that if they're paying for something, it has to be perfect. But this is nature we're dealing with; it is volatile and unable to be controlled. Just because a peach has a spot or an apple has a scar does not render the whole fruit inedible, but it does render the fruit unable to be sold to a packing house. "If I’m growing for a grocery store, it has to be 100% no blemishes, no nothing," says Eli. "At a farmers market you can have more imperfect produce."
"Customers have become accustomed to the perfect looking, beautiful piece of fruit," adds Danny. That’s the benefit of direct marketing: farmers are able to sell fruit with little blemishes, while explaining exactly why it looks that way. "You’ll never get that spiel from a grocery store. That’s why direct marketing is so valuable to farmers." (Perfect produce as it may or may not relate to food waste is another interesting topic to explore.)
Don't take this to mean you're getting taken advantage of and getting less than the ideal. Rather, perhaps we should adjust our expectations while also knowing that the premium price enables farmers and workers to make a living wage and continue their work of building a sustainable, healthy food system. Think back to those questions about cheap produce that Stacey posed at the end of an earlier blog post. And ask questions! Shopping local gives you the ability to build trust and relationships with those who produce your food. You might be spending less time at markets now (and thus not have the opportunity to chat with farmers), but that's one reason we're writing these blog posts. Let us know what you want to know.
This is the time of year for freestone peach varieties. You know how earlier in the season, the peach pit clung to the flesh, all stubborn-like? Those are clingstone peaches; later in the season (aka now!) is when freestone peaches arrive, yielding peaches with pits that separate super easily from the flesh. These are ideal for canning, freezing, and making jam (less clingy = easier to work with). Spring Valley grows several types, including Cresthaven, Red Haven, and Sunhigh. (If you want to read more about specific peach varieties, click over here. There are... a lot.)
Your peaches will likely not be ripe upon receipt (if farmers picked peaches when they were soft they'd be a mush by the time they got to you). They take just a day or so to ripen, though: keep them slightly spaced apart on a table or counter, out of direct sunlight, until they're as ripe as you like. The warmer your home, the quicker the ripening. (You may have heard about putting peaches in paper bags to ripen them more quickly, which does work — the bag traps ethylene gas, which causes ripening — but it's a little unpredictable and in the case of peaches, you might find them ripening too fast. Better to just wait a day or two to guarantee good peaches.)
Once the peaches are ripe, store in the fridge and use within a few days. Wash JUST before eating, which is a general rule you should follow for all fruit, especially the delicate stuff like peaches, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries (water = quicker spoilage).