Crops Insights

Farm Babe: What are you really getting from organic apples?


Pesticides. So your apples don’t look like this:

Image by Michelle Miller

A lot of people buy organic foods because they believe organic means free from chemicals and pesticides. But the truth is much different! There are 5,500 branded chemical substances and pesticide products for use in organic farming.

Why, might you ask? Pests don’t discriminate. There are some things farmers and growers can do to mitigate pest pressure, but at the end of the day, there are 30,000 species of weeds and 10,000 species of insects that they have to compete with. Bugs don’t just fly into a field and say, “Woah, guys, this field is organic! We can’t go in here!” They’ll do whatever they please to invade your flavorful honeycrisp apple. We think they’re delicious, and those little critters think so, too!

And these bugs are nasty. Last week I was in the entomology department of Michigan State University and spoke to Dr. Larry Gut, John Pote, and Matt Grieshop who explained different research currently being explored on how to mitigate pest pressure, and, wow, is it interesting!

Here in this region of Michigan, pest pressure can be higher than in other parts of the country. Their climate has more rainfall, breezes and moisture from all the lakes, and a different soil type. This can be a serious breeding ground for diseases like apple scab and blight and insects like the brown marmorated stink bug and spotted wing drosophila. They even have problems with deer or other rodents and mammals in orchards.

Do we want to eliminate or reduce pest pressure and chemical use in orchards? Of course we do! And the growers do especially. Every time they spray, it’s money out of their pocket. It is exposure, it is stress. But currently, the pest pressure makes it to where the average organic apple orchard must spray their fields 32 times in a growing season, according to the experts in Michigan. Thirty-two! This is primarily due to the fact that organic pesticides are naturally derived, so they’re often not as effective. Copper sulfate is a popular product used in organic agriculture, which is more toxic than many products used in non-organic farming, but it is “natural” so it’s allowed in organic.

This means that yes, organic farms sometimes use more chemical pesticides than their non organic counterparts, but one spray can make or break their entire crop. But experts here at Michigan State (as one example) are continually trying to improve the way to mitigate these annoying insects, by disrupting their mating behaviors, creating “fake female” insects, and releasing pheromones into the air, which makes the insects fly into a certain area where they are trapped. They were actually able to trap over 100,000 of these nasty stink bugs that way!

Brown marmorated stink bug (image courtesy of Michigan State University)

The thing is, when improved methods of pest pressure are used in a more mainstream way, both organic and non-organic growers can adopt these practices. The tools in the toolbox for organic are limited, but not the other way around; conventional apple growers have access to all the products they do and then some. Some of the fungicides used in organic and conventional apple orchards are the same, but scientists change an inert ingredient so one can carry the organic stamp of approval. Overall, organic is a marketing label that must adhere to a certain set of practices and growing, so it requires much more paperwork.

The use of pesticides may sound scary at times, but it’s important to remember the dose makes the poison, and pesticides are tested for safety — about 18 years on average, the folks in Michigan said. The pesticides are extremely regulated and may only be applied at a rate of a few ounces per acre, and then the fruit is always washed. Furthermore, there are withdrawal times before harvest so your food is extremely safe and well tested. But without these products, trees could look like the image below and up to 80 percent of apple production could be lost, creating billions of dollars in crop losses and global starvation. I’m sure many consumers would be upset if apples were missing off the grocery store shelf or they were ugly, diseased, and full of bugs.

Apple tree disease (Image courtesy of Michelle Miller)

An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and everyone should eat more produce regardless of how it’s grown. To learn more about apple production, check out the Michigan Apple Committee on Facebook or Twitter. And just remember to appreciate the difficult journey it takes for your delicious and healthy food to make it to you from the field.


Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers

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