The Blossoming of Organic Apples, Blueberries and Wine Grapes

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

Driven by an eco and health conscious population, British Columbia continues to exhibit the largest increase in organic production in all of Canada.  With its diverse landscapes, unique climates and a historically progressive organic farming community the province seems especially well suited to meet consumer demands, particularly in the area of organically grown fruit.  

Gerry Neilsen, a researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre (PARC) and co-author of “Organic fruit production in British Columbia” agrees.  In terms of farming practices and research “we’ve been, up to this point, pretty progressive with organic fruit production”.  Tom Lowery, co-author and fellow researcher, shares Gerry’s sentiments and contends that “BC is one of the leaders in the area of organically produced small fruit.”

In their paper, published in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science, written in response to the accelerated demand for organic produce, Gerry, Tom and fellow PARC researchers review and assess the efficacy of current crop resource, insect and disease management practices in BC’s three most valuable organic fruit crops: apples, blueberries and wine grapes.  While promoting the innovative work of farmers and scientists alike, the article also emphasizes the challenges producers and researchers must address in order to maintain BC’s reputation for organic excellence.

Both Gerry and Tom maintain that a holistic approach to nutrition, pest and disease management is the key to successful organic small fruit production.  Organic farming “is not a matter of simply replacing a conventional input with an OMRI approved material”, says Tom.  “It’s about developing a thorough understanding of the ecology of the agricultural system.”

He then describes an organic vineyard in the semi-arid Okanagan Valley where an ideal alley cover crop might consist of native flowering plants, mustards and drought tolerant leguminous species.  The native flowers attract parasitic wasps and predatory mitesthat have been associated with decreased populations of leafhopper.  Native mustards like shepherd’s purse provide an alternate food source for the climbing cutworm.

Additionally, the entire cover crop can be mowed, mulched and “blown” onto the in-row area to add nitrogen, increase soil organic matter and, consequently, improve the overall health of the soil biological community.

Of course, what applies to wine grapes (a fruit, Tom admits, that receives a lot of financial attention) will not work for blueberries grown in the moist, humid conditions of the Fraser Valley.  The authors stress the need for “a greater research effort” into the agroecosystems of blueberry and other small fruit crops and the role of mulches, alley and in-row covercrops in integrated nutrition, pest and disease management strategies.

The authors also emphasize the importance of biological and cultural controls in organic fruit farming.  The Sterile Insect Release (SIR) Program, for instance, has encouraged the expansion of organic apple production by successfully controlling the population of coddling moth in the major apple growing regions of BC.  Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), too, has also proved invaluable for both organic apple and blueberry growers in their battle against the potentially problematic leaf roll caterpillar.

The registration process of organically approved pesticides by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA), however, remains an obstacle to increased organic fruit production in BC.  Neem oil, for example, is widely used in both the United States and Europe for organic pest control but still has not received approval for agricultural use in Canada.

“You can use this product in toothpaste”, Tom points out, “but you can’t use it in a spray”.

He and his fellow researchers are hoping that the Minor Use Program, launched by the AAFC and the PMRA to increase grower competitiveness, will fast track some of these products into the Canadian organic arena.

Gerry concludes that one of the greatest unknowns in the future of BC’s organic fruit growing industry is climate change.  “Environmental instability” will invite a multitude of unknown pests into the fruit growing regions and the challenge to both scientists and farmers will be to identify and determine organically approved solutions to keep their populations in check.

The other, he adds, is “getting farmers and researchers together in a profitable way”.  Adapting to research to meet farmer needs has traditionally been a challenge.  Gerry is confident, however, that the new generation of media savvy BC organic growers, committed to BC’s reputation for quality organic fruit and motivated by the rising numbers of locavores, foodies and environmentally minded consumers, are likely to overcome this obstacle with relative ease.

This article was written by Tanya Brouwers on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners
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Posted November 2010