Organic apple growers overcome challenges to offer healthier fruit

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Growing up on his family’s farm, Steve Gougeon developed a passion for working the land. In 2005, he revamped his parents’ apple orchard, adding to the region’s short list of organic growers of the fall fruit favorite.

Before he knew it, friends asked to pick apples at his family’s Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery. Friends of those friends soon followed.

“It took off, I guess you can say, very organically from there,” Gougeon said in an interview.
Now, customers travel from all over New England and the Northeast, from Boston to Long Island, to pick Gougeon’s organic apples in the town of Ashfield, Massachusetts.

“They made a choice to feed their families in the most healthy way possible and I’m glad we can offer that,” Gougeon said of his customers.

Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery (Photo courtesy of Steve Gougeon)

Photo courtesy of Steve Gougeon of Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Apples, which rank No. 1 on the Environmental Working Group’s 2015 “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-tainted produce, often raise concerns among health- conscious consumers. Buying organically grown fruit offers one way to avoid the chemicals used to control pests. Shunning the use of pesticides sets organic orchards apart from their conventional cousins.

But Massachusetts has few organic orchards, since growing the fruit that way can be challenging. The apples often look imperfect and when the growing season is wet, the fruit becomes especially vulnerable to insects and fungus.

Still, Gougeon says, “the environment is going to be better off if you are not spraying chemicals and fungicides into our system.” Yet he acknowledges the challenges of farming without the help of modern chemistry’s agricultural wonders, such as sprays to ward off funguses and bugs.

Organic farming has to do with disturbing the environment as little as possible and working with nature rather than against it, in the view of Julie Rawson, the executive director of Northeast Organic Farming’s Massachusetts chapter. She helps run the Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, Massachusetts, northwest of Worcester.

Rawson also believes that an organic farm should grow a variety of produce, unlike the monoculture, or focus on one crop or product, practiced by many conventional farms. When a mix of crops are grown, Rawson says, the predators and prey of the ecosystem will naturally reduce losses to diseases and pests.

Organic farming does not lend itself to shortcuts.

“I think with everything in life there are challenges that might be different, with more time commitment here or waiting there, but in the long run it’s all a lot of work. There’s no question about that,” Rawson said in an interview.

Gougeon tackles the orchard’s pests through a hands-on approach. He picks up fallen apples to prevent the spread of possible pests to new crops. Early in the growing season, he thins his apples, picking smaller fruit to make room for others to grow bigger.

“The nutrition in a conventional apple might be the same as an organic apple. The one big difference is that you are not eating pesticides when you eat an organic apple,” said Dee Blake, the leader of the Bionutrient Food Association’s Boston chapter. However, Blake added that pesticides and insecticides used by conventional farms may rob the soil of valuable vitamins and minerals by killing or driving away bugs and other creatures. This, in turn, can affect the nutritional value of the produce.

“The natural connection between the plant and the soil life breaks down and it leads to more issues with insect infestation and unhealthy crops,” Blake said. Soil that teems with life is more likely to contain key ingredients such as calcium and iron needed by plants to remain healthy and produce nutritional fruit.

Organic farming requires more people to effectively control weeds and to pick crops, which drives up costs.

Rawson believes that consumers get what they pay for. She hopes that organic produce will catch on more widely and that organic apple farming will become more common as shoppers demand – and willingly pay for – what she says is healthier food.

“We have a real power as consumers,” she said.