Because of the state’s high humidity levels and organic-averse growing conditions, Michigan does not produce a large crop of organic apples, said Denise Donohue, executive director of the DeWitt-based Michigan Apple Committee.
“What we have in apple territory is high humidity,” she said, and that can lead to apple scab.
“Several hours of leaf wetness allows the fungus to penetrate the epidermis of the leaf or the fruit,” she said.
It’s not uncommon to see rain every couple of days in Michigan, she said, dew doesn’t dry off for hours, and there’s condensation at night.
Growing organically “is a whole different game” in Michigan than growing conventionally, she said.
Apple scab causes a brown discoloration, which makes the fruit unmarketable as fresh product. That, however, is a non-issue for processors, who peel the apple, therefore, some growers, often those close to a processing plant or who have a personal mindset to do so, grow organic fruit in the state.
“The risk is huge,” Donohue said.
Growers can spray a clay-like material on apples as a barrier to disease, she said, but the clay washes off fairly easily.
One company that does grow a limited amount of organic apples is Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc., Sparta, Mich.
The firm grows some mcintosh, ida red and northern spy, a regional variety.
“It’s a huge struggle,” said president Don Armock.
The biggest challenge is fungal problems, he said.
A desert climate would be more compatible for organic growing, he said.
The rain and high humidity in Michigan make it difficult, but the company has adapted some of its growing practices to produce organic apples.
For example, trellis systems usually use treated posts, which would disqualify the company from labeling its apples as certified organic fruit. But Riveridge has installed some cedar posts in organic trials, he said.
“It’s not economically viable,” Armock said, but still the company needs to explore the possibilities, and there is a market for organic apples in the state.
The apple committee looked at the practicality of growing organic fruit in the state about three years ago when it received grant money from the state, Donohue said.
Organic apples commanded a premium at that time, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was in the market for them.
Organic apples require twice as much labor and more frequent applications of approved sprays than conventional fruit to keep diseases at bay, she said.
On a positive note, the state’s growers have made inroads, even with national retailers, by playing up the locally grown angle, she said.
“Sometimes local is more important than organic to consumers,” Donohue said.