No antibiotics for organic apples and pears

Sound Consumer | September 2014

by Trudy Bialic, Director of Public Affairs

It may not seem like a big deal to say all the organic apples and pears from PCC’s "signature" Washington growers this fall were grown without oxytetracycline, the antibiotic.

But it is a big deal. Especially considering the impassioned debate over ending the allowance for tetracycline in organic farming.

It’s also a testament to our produce buyer, Joe Hardiman, and the farmers he has established long-term relationships with: Scott Leach of Leach Orchards, George and Apple Otte of River Valley Organics and Ralph and Cheryl Broetje of Broetje Orchards First Fruit.

At least 90 percent of PCC’s organic apples and pears come from these three Washington growers. Effectively, it means all PCC organic apples and pears, at least through the end of December or beginning of January, are produced without tetracycline — even though it was allowed by organic standards.

Allowed for decades

For those catching up, you should know tetracycline and streptomycin have been used for decades by conventional and organic apple and pear growers. They’re sprayed during bloom time when warm, humid conditions encourage a devastating disease called fire blight. Airborne bacteria can kill trees to the ground in days.

Between 1993 and 2009, about 7 percent of the U.S. apple crop (conventional and organic), on average, was treated each year with tetracycline. The root and grafting stock of Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady, Braeburn and Granny Smith apples are particularly vulnerable. Red and Golden Delicious apple stock are resistant and not likely to be sprayed.

Pears are more vulnerable than apples because they have a longer bloom time, giving more time for blight to get into the trees. So it’s all the more remarkable that Bartlett, D’Anjou and Comice pear grower, Scott Leach, has refused to rely on tetracycline.

"The Comice pear trees took the worst hit. I never had blight in that block but this year I lost 25 percent. I don’t like it, but it comes with the territory. If you’re a pear grower, there are times you get spanked. This year, I got spanked. We had really nasty temperatures in July, and the trees that were hurt really caved in. Maybe it’s good they’re caving. It separated the men from the boys."

Leach is thinking about replanting a different pear than the Comice. Even so, it’ll take seven years for new saplings to bear.

There are a few biopesticides, including a natural yeast, to prevent fire blight. Some farmers claim they don’t work and threatened to drop organic certification if antibiotics weren’t allowed. Leach insists the biological controls do work but require more labor, more product, more applications and cost more.

Apple and pear grower Apple Otte says, "If it’s all financial … if we couldn’t grow organic, we’d stop growing. It has to do with why you’re an organic grower in the first place … Our way of dealing with [blight] is to cut it out. Cut, then burn the blade with a torch. But you really have to be on top of it. This is where small farms have an advantage. If you have 100 acres, it’s harder to keep an eye on than 2 acres."

But even the largest, contiguous tree fruit ranch in North America, Broetje Orchards, has not used antibiotics for many years to grow organic Gala, Fuji, Pink Lady, Braeburn, Cameo and Honeycrisp apples.

Matt Miles, First Fruit’s organic program director, says "Ralph and Cheryl Broetje are committed to sustainable farming. We grow apples to support the underserved, and to be good stewards of the planet. The more apples we grow, the more we can serve, the more we can help."

We’ll tell you more about the Broetje Non-GMO Verified Opal apple in November.

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