Ask a Specialist  |  Resources & Research  |  From the Organic Broadcaster


Orchard Fact Sheets:

1. Considering Risk Before Starting an Organic Orchard
2. Organic Tree Fruit Certification
3. Planning the Organic Orchard
4. Resources for Organic Orchardists
5. Managing Pests & Diseases in an Organic Apple Orchard



Ask an Organic Specialist: Orchard Answers

What apple varieties do you recommend for a new organic orchard?

Answer by Organic Specialist Rachel Henderson:

Most people can name a few apple varieties: those available at grocery stores, those we remember from childhood, maybe a few more for people who regularly visit a local orchard in the fall. But there are tens of thousands of named varieties of apples, with dozens of different characteristics—colors and flavors, sweetness, texture, winter hardiness, time of ripening, horticultural needs. Deciding which ones to grow in a new orchard can be overwhelming. If you’ve decided that you will grow organically, whether you want to be certified or not, selecting varieties that have some disease-resistance will help you have high-quality fruit while limiting the inputs you’ll need.

Apple Scab Resistance
One of the most economically devastating diseases that affects apples in the Midwest is Apple Scab, a fungal disease that goes through two generations a year. The first cycle colonizes the leaves, and the second gets to the apples. Fallen leaves and fruit on the orchard floor carry spores over to the next year to start the cycle all over again. Once scab inoculum is established in your orchard, it can be very difficult and costly to fight.
In 1926, a collaborative breeding program of Purdue University, Rutgers University, and the University of Illinois (known as PRI) identified a gene for scab resistance and has since released a number of varieties that are highly resistant or immune to apple scab. Some of these varieties, which are commonly referred to as disease-resistant, are susceptible to other common diseases. Liberty, Priscilla, Pixie Crunch, Jonafree, William’s Pride, and Gold Rush are popular varieties that are bred for scab resistance or immunity but are also naturally resistant to other diseases.
Pristine, Crimson Crisp, Redfree, and Crimson Topaz are PRI apples that are scab resistant but tend to be susceptible to fire blight and/or cedar-apple rust. Fire blight can be devastating to an orchard but is less ubiquitous than apple scab. Depending on your orchard conditions, cultural controls can be effective at limiting the risk of fire blight, and you may have success with those varieties.

Natural Tolerance to Common Diseases
Unlike apple scab, there is no identified gene for resistance to most other diseases. However, there are identified varieties that show a natural resistance to fire blight, cedar apple rust, sooty blotch, and flyspeck (known as “summer diseases”), as well as apple scab. These varieties are sometimes referred to as “tolerant” of various diseases. The ever-popular Honeycrisp is one of them, though many growers eventually get frustrated by Honeycrisp’s more intensive horticultural needs. Akane, an older apple developed in Japan, is an early variety that’s often grown in organic orchards, as is Florina, a French apple that’s a favorite of this farmer. Other varieties in this category include some names that were common on older farmsteads—Wolf River, Enterprise, Spartan, and Jonagold, for example. More anecdotally, a lot of growers find some older varieties from the University of Minnesota to be fairly easy to manage—Haralson, Chestnut Crabapple, and Sweet 16, for example—even though they are not commonly categorized as resistant.
Heirloom apples are an interesting source of disease resistance. Since there are a lot of named cultivars that were developed long before modern inputs and farm technology were available, many are well suited to minimal management. Duchess of Oldenburg, St. Edmund’s Russet, Worcester Pearmain, Egremont Russet, Golden Russet, Tydeman’s Red, and Belle de Boskoop are a few good examples. It doesn’t hurt that they have some great names! But it’s important to be careful with heirlooms. Others, such as Ashmead’s Kernel, Northern Spy, and Roxbury Russet are quite susceptible to one or more of the common diseases.

After perusing the lists of apples in each category, it’s a good idea to talk to people in your region about their experiences with the varieties you’re considering. Certain characteristics of apples might not pop up in research literature or catalog descriptions that can nonetheless have an impact on your growing experience. Some apples may be listed as hardy, for example, but you’ll learn from your neighbors that they’ve lost them in cold winters. A variety might not consistently ripen in a normal fall, or might be especially sensitive to spring frosts. As with most things, the experience of other farmers is one of the most valuable resources.

How can I transition my existing orchard to organic?

Answer by Organic Specialist Rachel Henderson:

For people considering organic certification, it’s commonly understood that you’ll have to change some of your management practices. When the crops you grow are annuals, it seems fairly straightforward that once you begin your three-year transition, you will grow those crops under organic management. But if you are thinking about certifying crops from perennials—tree fruit, small fruits or berries, or nuts—it can be more complicated.

People focus a lot on inputs when talking about organic. While that’s only one of many factors, you will need to look closely at what you use for managing pests and disease as well as fertility. If you’ve been using Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, you may find that some control methods you’re currently using will still be allowed while others will not. Having an early conversation with a certification agency call help bring clarity to the changes you’ll need to make. It’s also a good idea to ask some questions from the places you buy your inputs. Good vendors have a very thorough knowledge of OMRI-listed products and will have some suggestions for replacements.

If you’re thinking about making changes to a perennial planting, inputs are only a small piece of the puzzle. Other questions come into play, and many seem more difficult to understand.

The National Organic Program (NOP) requires growers to use organic seeds and planting stock. This confuses a lot of people when it comes to perennials. Perennial planting stock can be certified after a minimum of one year in organic management. Newly planted trees would be subject to the organic requirement. Growers who have purchased perennial plants are likely aware that there are very few certified organic nurseries. Many organic orchardists are unable to find the selection, quantity, and quality that meets their needs from certified nurseries. Just as with planting annuals from non-organic stock, you will need to provide evidence during your organic inspection that you searched for organic stock and couldn’t find it.

Your existing orchard will need to be managed organically through a three-year transition when you can’t use any prohibited materials. After that, crops from those trees/bushes can be certified organic. You will be asked to provide information about the origin of the trees, including the source nursery and dates planted in addition to yearly treatment.

As you certify an existing orchard, another area of concern is groundcover. For conventional growers, herbicides are often the easiest way to deal with weed and grass competition. The quest for effective and inexpensive organic herbicides is unending, but at this point, there are not very good options for this.

Many organic growers use some kind of mulch under trees. Organic mulch sources are more common than organic herbicides, with woodchips being preferred by many growers. There is often confusion about woodchips, and some growers have spent a lot of time and money attempting to source certified organic woodchips. This is not necessary. Woodchips must be free of treated or painted lumber, and you’ll need to have a verification form from the source. This means that woodchips from, for example, your local dump won’t be allowed. But tree trimmers, utility companies, or wood processors are generally able to provide that verification.

You can use landscape fabric in perennial plantings, but you will need to source higher quality—more expensive—fabric than you would for annual plantings. It should be rated to 20 years or more. You’ll be asked to look for signs of deterioration and replace it before it starts to fall apart (likely way before those 20 years).

If you commonly seed groundcover or cover crops in your orchard, you will need to make sure that your seed is allowed. If you have a standing groundcover that’s managed organically through your transition, obviously you don’t need to worry about the source of that seed. But as you replace trees or find areas of groundcover that need rehabilitating, make sure that you are purchasing seed that’s allowed, whether it’s grass, clover, or another understory species. Generally, that means certified organic seed, but if organic seed is unavailable, you will need to get verification that the seed is untreated.

To learn more about organic fruit production, MOSES has several relevant fact sheets on our website. The Organic Fruit Growers Association also maintains a website (organicfruitgrowers.org) with great resources as well as a free network listserv that is helpful for answering specific questions.

Can I sell organic fruits and vegetables from plants and planting stock I buy at my local garden center?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

You probably will not be able to buy plants at your local garden store. When using annual transplants (tomatoes, peppers, onion plants etc.), the plants must be certified organic in order to sell organic produce from them in any given crop year.

The land you raise them on must be free of prohibited materials for 36 months prior to your first organic harvest. If you have planted nonorganic annual transplants in the same fields in the past, your certification agency may consider the land to be nonorganic, and require you to wait three years after that planting to have your first organic harvest. This decision may depend on whether the plants were bare root or were transplanted with their nonorganic potting mix. There is some difference between certifiers.Some allow one year to pass and others require three years. The interpretation of this regulation is something you want to discuss with your certification agency if you are requesting organic certification for the first time.

Your transplants cannot be purchased from an “exempt from certification” (under the $5,000 limit) operation. They must be certified organic, grown by you or someone else who has a valid organic certificate. Some natural food stores may be able to provide you with an organic certificate for the plants they sell, but most garden centers do not sell certified organic transplants.

You can grow the transplants yourself, using approved planting media which does not contain any synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, wetting agents or other prohibited materials. These items are not mandated to be listed on the label of commercially available potting media, so you must get information in writing from the manufacturer detailing the ingredients, stating that the media has not been treated with prohibited fungicides, insecticides, etc. There are many organically approved potting mix and input suppliers. For resources, see the MOSES Resource Directory or the OMRI Products List (www.omri.org)

Be very careful when purchasing any fertility input or potting mix, since the word “organic” on these items does not always mean the same thing as “approved for organic production.” Long before the USDA organic regulation, the word “organic” on a label meant it contained the element carbon. To find products you can use, you must look for the OMRI seal and the words “approved for organic production.” Always verify with your organic certification agency that whatever you want to use is acceptable before you buy it.

For fruit trees, raspberry bushes, or other perennials, you are mandated to search for organic planting stock. However, if you cannot find the variety, quality or quantity you want as organic, you can use non-organic planting stock. You must document this search.

In a recent National Organic Program guidance it was clarified that an organic harvest from non-organic planting stock can be done immediately after beginning organic management and planting into organic soil. However, you cannot create and sell organic planting stock from parent nonorganic stock until it has been managed organically for 12 months. For example, you can plant non-organic strawberry plants and harvest an organic crop that same year after planting (after failing to find commercially available organic plants) whether you manage the strawberries as an annual or a perennial. If you buy a non-organic tarragon plant, you can sell the tarragon as organic immediately after planting in organic soil, but could not make cuttings and sell those as organic tarragon plants for 12 months.

Items such as potatoes, garlic, and sweet potatoes (in other words, roots, tubers, rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings) are subject to the organic search, and can be planted as non-organic if none were found. However, each year there is more and more availability of these items as organic, and your search must truly cover not just your local store, but also the many mail order and internet operations that sell these items.

I can’t find enough certified organic blueberry plants to upscale my certified organic berry farm. What do you suggest?

Answer by Organic Specialist Jennifer Nelson:

The National Organic Program defines planting stock as “any plant or plant tissue other than annual seedlings, but including rhizomes, shoots, leaf or stem cuttings, roots, or tubers, used in plant production or propagation.” The NOP regulation applies to the details of the growing methods of the plants. Certified farms must use organic planting stock, bulbs, roots and cuttings except when these are not commercially available. If you cannot find your preferred blueberry variety, or can’t get sufficient quality or quantities for the scale of your operation, you can use non-organic planting stock.

As with all seed and planting stock searches, you have to provide your certifier with good documentation of your search. And of course, price cannot be a consideration for determination of commercial availability.

Each year, the availability of certified organic planting stock grows. More varieties, better quality and bigger quantities become available. It’s the age-old high school economics supply-and-demand lesson in action.

To find planting stock, you can Google “certified organic planting stock” for your area, or “certified organic blueberry plants,” using the specific variety you‘re looking for. This will help you find local plant nurseries that carry certified organic plant stock. Another great resource may be the organic growers in your area. Networking with the other certified organic growers in your area can be a great benefit in many ways to everyone involved.

If you’ve exhausted all your options for finding the variety, quality and quantity that you need, and you’ve kept really good records of your search, you can begin to explore other options. NOP regulation states that you can purchase a non-organic plant and sell its fruit the next day as certified organic fruit with some exceptions—the regulation is in the details. If the purchased non-organic plant has been grown in planting media containing any synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, wetting agents or other prohibited materials or has been treated with prohibited fungicides or insecticides, these are prohibited substances, and so the fruit cannot be certified organic. Not only that, if you introduce these prohibited substances to your certified organic soil, you may risk needing to re-transition your soil for another 36 months.

Buying non-organic bare-root plants rather than potted plants is the best way to avoid these unwanted materials. If you can verify and document that your bare-root planting stock hasn’t been treated with any prohibited materials, you can plant the new planting stock in your organic soil and sell the fruit as certified organic.

Only the fruit can be sold as organic. The planting stock, crowns or bulbs off the newly purchased non-organic plant must be in your certified organic ground, grown according to NOP regulation for 12 months before the plants can be sold as organic. Since most perennial fruit-stock will not produce a commercial crop the first year of planting, this probably would not be an issue.

For example, after failing to find commercially available organic plants, you can plant non-organic blueberry plants and harvest an organic crop that same year after planting. However, you cannot sell any excess planting stock as organic blueberry plants for 12 months.

Ultimately, the search for certified organic planting stock is similar to the search for seeds. You have to keep good records of your steps. And while it’s best to find and support certified organic suppliers, you have other options if you’re unable to find what you need. As with all certification questions, call your certifying agency to be sure of what you’re bringing into your certified organic farm operation. 

Can I plant non-organic strawberry plants, and then sell the strawberries as organic?

Answer by Organic Specialist Harriet Behar:

Yes, you can plant non-organic strawberry plants and sell the fruit as organic with no waiting period, provided you have documented a search and could not find commercially avail­able organic strawberry plants.

The requirement for planting stock is similar to that for commercially available organic seeds. You must use an organic version unless you cannot find it in the variety, quality or quantity that you need. You must document your search for organic strawberry plants or other types of planting stock. If you cannot find them in the type, quality or quantity you need, then you can plant non-organic plants and sell the fruit as organic.

In February 2013, the National Organic Pro­gram (NOP) updated guidance on whether or not “planting stock” such as strawberries, rasp­berries, tree fruits, and herb plants needed to be under organic management for one full year before selling the production from these plants as organic. Many certification agencies had required a year of organic management. With the update, the NOP clarifies that the one year of organic management is only required when a grower is selling the planting stock itself as organic.

You can sell strawberry fruit as organic at any time from a non-organic strawberry plant. However, the runners from that plant must be under full organic management for a year before you can sell them as “organic planting stock.” Also, you can sell rosemary or lavender leaves as organic from non-organic plants recently planted on your organic farm, but you must manage the plant organically for one full year before you can make cuttings and root them to sell as organic plants.


Resources & Research:

  • Organic Fire Blight Management
    eOrganic recently posted an article on managing fire blight organically. It includes details on how to identify the disease, susceptibility in apple and pear cultivars, and how to manage the disease through an integrated program.
  • Spotted Wing Drosophila
    Producers battling Spotted Wing Drosophila can find information online about the organic management of this invasive pest. Topics covered include using high tunnels and exclusion netting to reduce pressure in raspberries, the effects of non-nutrative sugars, border spray and between-row tillage, and more.
  • Guides to Disease Management in Small Fruits
    Small-fruit growers can learn about disease management through free publications proved by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension. The guides focus on the most effective cultural practices, including sanitation, that can help prevent disease in small fruits. The series covers low-spray, no-spray, and organic production options for apples, peaches, grapes, brambles, strawberries, and blueberries.
  • Organic Fruit Growers Association
    A non-profit organization dedicated to serving the interests of organic fruit growers and advancing the organic fruit industry through education, research and advocacy.
  • Fire Blight Control Program in Organic Fruit (4 MB PDF)
    This 28-page report from The Organic Center provides the latest information on controlling fire blight in organic fruit production without the use of antibiotics. It includes highlights of emerging research plus lessons from growers who have implement­ed non-antibiotic fire blight control over the past decade. Successful non-antibiotic fire blight control centers on combining orchard management practices into an inte­grated systems approach which is multi-faceted, and marries effective fire blight prevention with fungal control, insect control, bloom thinning, spray coverage, tree training, soil and foliar nutrients, and cultivar and root stock selection.
  • Online Organic Grower Guides
    Online organic resources for growing apples, beans, carrots, grapes, and more from Cornell University. (Although these guides were written primarily for New York growers, the recommendations are applicable to growers in other humid regions.)


From the Organic Broadcaster:


Farmer explores organic strategies to control Canada thistle in orchard
March | April 2021

Canada thistle has deep roots and, once established, it is very difficult to eliminate from an organic orchard. Digging out the thistle roots would be extremely time-consuming and destructive to the nearby apple trees. In 2019-2020, we received funding from a USDA-SARE Farmer Rancher Grant to evaluate organic methods for killing Canada thistle shoots. Read more.


Organic farmers try innovative practices to beat spotted wing drosophila
May | June 2020

Spotted wing drosophila (SWD) is an invasive fruit fly that is testing the patience of berry growers all over the globe. Organic farmers and researchers in the Midwest are playing a major role in finding ways to manage this pest successfully. Read more.


New, free toolkit helps farmers launch value-added baking business from home
March | April 2020

Thanks to expanding cottage food laws nationwide, we farmers have an easy on-ramp for income diversification: selling baked goods made in our home kitchens. Read more.


Seasoned growers discuss springtime orchard chores
March | April 2015

Even though the orchard looks dormant in March, the trees need a lot of attention before they blossom in late spring. Read more.


Integrated systems approach needed to control fire blight without antibiotics
November | December 2014

There is no cure for fire blight (FB), and there is no single “silver bullet” (including antibiotics) that will prevent FB infection. Successful non-antibiotic FB control combines….  Read more.


Study examines how sharing equipment can help farmers scale up
September | October 2014

Fruit and vegetable growers throughout the Midwest are familiar with the labor vs. machin­ery trade-off.  Read more.


Thoughtful planning yields perennial crop of blue fruits
May | June 2014

Blue fruits (blueberries, black currants, elder­berries, aronia, and honeyberries) are quite popular in Europe, and are gaining popularity in the U.S. Read more.


Autumn Britten starts producing around the middle of August in east-central Minnesota, and tends to be somewhat more productive than other cultivars, with slightly larger and more elongated berries and taller canes.Choose hardy cultivars for best bramble berries
March | April 2014

Bramble berries—raspberries and blackberries—can be great additions to the diversified market farm or orchard. Read more.


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