Region appropriate growing practices
Growers in the Northeast are longtime leaders in adopting and promoting eco-friendly practices that adapt to growing conditions and climate in their region. The most ecological and effective practices aren’t the same for every locale.
Some regions experience weather and pest issues addressed well by the guidelines for organic certification, like the drier West Coast with significantly fewer pests. Other regions, like the Northeast, experience a climate much less suitable to the organic protocol and struggle to follow it. For some crops, like apples, it can seem next to impossible — resulting in 93% of certified organic apples in the US coming from eastern Washington, even while the Northeast has some of the best apples in the world.
IPM standards allow for the flexibility and creativity needed to develop region-appropriate growing practices without sacrificing the integrity of our environment. The Eco program builds on decades of work to develop a protocol comprising the most advanced of those practices, specific for the Northeast, and supports growers working to take care of our planet.
Growers in the Eco program go above and beyond to make sure that the best apples are both local and ecologically grown.
Most sustainable fruit growers — including organic, biodynamic and Eco — rely on Integrated Pest Management philosophy in their orchards. IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests and their damage. IPM uses a combination of techniques including biological control, habitat manipulation, and resistant varieties. Permitted pesticides, excluding the highest risk treatments allowed by law but without data to assure their safety, are used as a last resort.
In IPM, treatments are made with the goal of protecting fruit quality and strengthening the orchard overall, not just removing a target organism. On the contrast, some conventional and organic orchards use their respective treatments right off the bat, before any pest problems arise. That’s akin to treating the symptoms and not the cause — and before the symptoms have even started. You could take pain medicine every day, just in case you get a headache later, but you probably shouldn’t.
IPM practices vary by location, season, climate and variety, and must be adapted to the region in which they are applied — that’s where the Eco program comes in.
The program addresses specific farming challenges and continually adapts to deliver better, more ecologically-grown fruit – season by season, crop by crop, orchard by orchard.
The Eco Protocol is a living document, revised annually to reflect the best available scientific methods for growing fruit in our region. Growers meet regularly with Red Tomato staff, extension agents, scientists, and international experts. By including the most recent research and grower experience in the protocol, growers in the Eco program are on the cutting edge of advanced IPM strategies.
For example, growers maintain extensive records with annual review and auditing. Select pesticides can be used only after proving they are absolutely necessary — not only have all other viable methods been exhausted, but the risk of the pest to their crop outweighs the risk of the pesticide to the environment.
Advancements continue to be made. Since the program’s outset, the use of organophosphates has been eliminated for all but one pest. Eco growers began to phase out the use of carbaryl, widely used for thinning fruit, in 2015 and continue to experiment with safer solutions.
The Eco Core Protocol is extensive, and covers 7 areas of farm practices:
- Operations and Management
- Ecosystem, Soil and Water Conservation
- Pesticide Risk Reduction
- Pollinator Protection
- Pest Monitoring and Management
- Food Safety and Product Quality
- Energy and Waste Management
In addition, Eco Apple and Eco Peach certification each have unique requirements. Because each crop has specific pest pressures, the Eco program is designed to offer advanced management techniques for specific pests.
Curious to see what’s in the protocol? The IPM Institute of North America maintains the most recent versions on their website!
Initial analysis shows the use of high-risk chemicals among five Eco-certified orchards (those participating in the program the longest), has decreased 59% since 2004, the year before the program began, and has continued to drop 18% since 2010.
Analyzing the impact of the Eco program isn’t as straightforward as we might hope. There are no public databases of ‘conventional’ orchard spray records and program. As a result, the IPM Institute of North America and Red Tomato have been working to understand the impact of the program on participating orchards.
With funding from the Farm Credit Northeast AgEnhancement program, we continually work to add orchards to the analysis and further understand the program impact.
Responsible orchard management means making tough choices. Our growers are focused on protecting their pollinators and other beneficial insects, and work hard to protect ground and surface water, wildlife, soil and orchard health, all while growing a marketable crop. Following an Integrated Pest Management growing strategy means that use of a pesticide is a last resort.
In partnership with the IPM Institute of North America and scientists from across the country, we continually update the Eco protocol to include the most up to date research.
Limiting pollinator risk:
Unlike some crops, fruit trees tend to bloom all at once, so pollinators are foraging for a limited time. To protect pollinators, growers typically do not apply insecticide during bloom, and work to limit bloom on other plants in the orchard. For example, planting grass between tree rows, and mowing blooms plants that might attract pollinators helps to limit risk.
For some pests (e.g., apple maggot) there are few good methods of control. Organophosphates, one of the primary treatments in conventional use, are not allowed for apple maggot treatment under the Eco protocol. The second common option, pyrethroids, are highly toxic to pollinators and beneficial insect. Neonics, a third option, are considered a ‘softer’ preferred approach than either OPs or pyrethroids in such situations.
Some pests, like codling moth, produce several generations each growing season. Conscientious growers try to rotate among ALL the types of control in order to reduce the likelihood of insects developing resistance to certain methods of control, which means even though some treatments such as neonics may be preferred, it is risky to rely on only one option year after year.
Targeted vs. Preventive:
Eco and advanced IPM growers rely on scouting and monitoring to avoid treatment unless specific target pests are actually present in high enough numbers to put the crop at risk. This means they may use limited, targeted application of neonics or other allowed treatments instead of some of the preventive options that are broadly toxic to many different species.
Reputable research, including reports from Xerces Institute and other public research, indicates that neonics are one of several factors harming pollinators. Over 90% of neonic use in the US is on corn and other row crops, primarily in the Midwest. Changing seed treatment and irrigation practices using neonics would have a significant impact on overall levels in the environment. The USGS has detailed maps showing pesticide use over time.