The misshapen specimens are huddled together on a table under the Waterpenny Farm tent at the Takoma Park Farmers Market. A handwritten sign next to the produce calls them “No-spray Apples,” and they’re a homely lot: The Stayman and Golden Delicious varieties are covered with pinpoint blemishes, large bruises and tiny craters, and like the Grinch’s heart, they’re all two sizes too small for people shopping for more conventional apples.
This is fruit only a mother could love — an 18th-century mother never introduced to the miracles and controversies of 20th-century pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.
Waterpenny’s apples, as it turns out, are essentially wild. Co-owner Eric Plaksin explains that he and his wife, Rachel Bynum, lease their farm in Sperryville, Va., and that their acreage includes about 40 apple trees, remnants of an orchard that used to occupy the land. Because Plaksin and Bynum are primarily vegetable growers, they pay little attention to the trees. They don’t irrigate them, fertilize them, prune them or spray them, which explains the dwarfish fruit with the bad skin.
“Mostly, we just go and show up and see what apples are there,” Plaksin says. “We like showing people what apples look like when apples are not sprayed all the time.”
Waterpenny’s freakish fruit underscores the difficulties of growing organic apples in wet, humid regions like the East Coast, which offer ideal breeding conditions for pests and diseases that can attack the fruit.
“At this stage, it’s just really, really difficult to do a good job” with organic apples on the East Coast, says Eddie Rankin, co-founder of Twin Springs Fruit Farm in Orrtanna, Pa., where he oversees all fruit production. “We just don’t have enough disease-resistant varieties that are good quality.”
As I describe the condition of the Waterpenny “no-spray” Stayman and Golden Delicious varieties, Rankin figures they are likely infected with flyspeck (the pinpoint blemishes) and sooty blotches (the large bruises), which often appear on apples in the late summer and early fall. “They’re not bad for you,” Rankin says. “They’re just, quite literally, a surface blemish.”
Once you cut the skin off, the fruit is fine to eat, as we learned in the Food section. The skin was as tough as leather, but the unusually dense flesh underneath remained juicy and sweet (although once cut, it turned brown faster than mac ’n’ cheese under a broiler).
The main problem for organic apples on the East Coast is something called apple scab. It’s a fungal disease common in areas with high rainfall and humidity. Commercial orchards typically control the disease with fungicide sprays, but local growers, both conventional and organic, are starting to turn to varieties that are resistant to apple scab, such as Crimson Crisp, Enterprise and Gold Rush.
“In organic production, you’re not relying on sprays so much,” says Jim Travis, a retired professor of plant pathology at Penn State University who now grows USDA-certified organic apples and peaches at Apple Tree Vineyard & Farm in Fairfield, Pa., just outside Gettysburg. “You’re relying on the varieties you pick and how you train them.”
The so-called “training” of fruit trees is still relatively new, but Travis is a convert to the practice of directing the shape and growth of trees. He not only plants his trees closer together than growers did in previous eras — this reduces the amount of space he must control for weeds and pests — but he also directs their growth virtually straight up with a trellis system, reaching heights up to 13 feet. This creates almost a “solid hedge of trunk and leaves,” which are exposed to maximum sunlight and greater air circulation, both of which help reduce fungus.
Other diseases, of course, may arise during the growing season, and Travis may be forced to use a National Organic Program-approved spray to eliminate them. (Organic sprays are a whole other story, because people such as Waterpenny Farm’s Plaksin say the sprays can contain chemicals such as sulfur or copper that can be bad for the environment.) Weeds are also a major issue for orchards because growers can’t use herbicides such as Roundup. Instead, they’ll rely on hoeing machines or natural products, such as the one derived from lemon grass that Travis uses, to burn the tops of weeds.
The most innovative practices, however, may concern pest management. Travis likes to rely on nature — or a manipulation of nature — to keep harmful insects away from his trees. He employs “integrated pest management” techniques in which he provides habitat for “beneficial” insects that prey on the destructive ones. He also fills his orchard with sex pheromones from, say, a female oriental fruit moth, which confuses the males and prevent them from mating and increasing their populations.
These are just a few of the reasons why you might pay $1 more per pound for Travis’s apples than for conventional ones. (You can find his Crimson Crisps locally at some Yes Organic Markets.) “People will ask, ‘Why should I pay the difference for your apples?’ ” Travis says. The answer to this pioneering East Coast grower is obvious: “Because it’s so much more work to grow organic apples.”