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Solution for fire blight a top priority for organic pear, apple industries

The clock is ticking as producers seek alternative methods to prevent fire blight from decimating organic pear and apple orchards. Use of oxytetracycline, one of the major agents to control the disease, will not be permitted as of October 2014.

A number of organic producers from the Pacific Northwest are supporting research being conducted through the auspices of The Organic Center in Washington, DC. “Fire blight doesn’t just destroy the fruit; it has the potential to kill the entire tree,” the center said in an earlier statement. “To make matters worse, it is highly contagious among trees and orchards, so the potential for damage is enormous. Fire blight could have huge ramifications on the future organic apple and pear market, which is now estimated to be over $300 million at retail. Washington, which leads in production, currently has over 15,000 acres dedicated to organic apple and pear orchards.”

FireBlightIn October 2014, organic producers of pears and apples will no longer be able to use oxytetracycline to control fire blight, a bacterial disease which has the potential to kill entire trees. The organic industry is seeking antibiotic-free control agents to keep production viable. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)According to a poll conducted by David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at Washington State University, it is possible that 70 to 90 percent of all organic pear and apple producers may have no alternative except to switch to nonorganic management if a viable alternative is not found.

A number of companies in the Pacific Northwest are supporting The Organic Center’s research project, which is being undertaken in collaboration with Granatstein and Harold Ostenson, to research antibiotic-free management strategies. Among them is Zirkle Fruit Co. in Selah, WA, Stemilt Growers LLC and Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers, both headquartered in Wenatchee, WA.

Harold Austin, Zirkle Fruit’s director of orchard administration, spoke with The Produce News to provide his assessment of the situation. Austin sits on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board as one of the handler representatives.

Austin was asked why the company supports this research. “The decision was an easy one for us to make,” he replied. “We made a commitment to this project because of the importance to not just our family and its impact on our business, but for the organic industry as a whole. Pears and several varieties of apples that we, and several of our growers, raise will be directly impacted by the success or failure of this research project. The decision rendered by the National Organic Standards Board this past April in Portland to not approve an extension for the allowed use of oxytetracyline beyond the fall of 2014 has placed a higher priority on this research to be completed in an expedited time frame.”

Austin said Zirkle Fruit’s orchard team is aggressively looking at alternative ways to control fire blight. “We have invested in this project. We are working with several university researchers and their projects as they test new possible replacement materials for fire blight control,” he commented. “Our orchard team is looking at various ways to adjust our Organic Farm Systems Plan, specific to each of our grower regions, and the various components within it, to aid in finding ways to help reduce the incidence of blight within each of those organic farms.”

The time frame to come up with a viable solution and replacement is short, especially with an anticipated gap in next year’s fruit season. “It will have a definite impact on pear growers, as well as certain varieties of apples currently being grown,” Austin stated. “This impact will vary by geographic area around the country and the crops that they are trying to raise in each of these site specific locations since there are so many variables that will come into play. There are a couple of new materials, one released for use this past season and another still in the testing phase, that when used with currently available materials and some horticultural adjustments, could be viable alternatives for blight control.”

Austin said one of the industry’s biggest concerns is the amount of time to fully understand and use alternatives properly. “The other concern is that the two new materials both have the potential, when used under certain conditions [and] which we as an industry are still trying to figure out, to cause fruit russetting. The russetting on certain varieties of fruit would render it as a non-marketable piece of fruit. So there are real risks to the grower when looking at using the alternative replacement products once they are labeled properly for use on apples and pears.”

The challenge, he went on to say, will be for companies to provide their customers with the organic commodities they have come to expect. “We pride ourselves in our ability to rise to the occasion, no matter how big the challenge, to find a solution to any problem. This is no different,” Austin stated. “Our Zirkle Fruit Organic Ranch Team is working diligently to find solutions to this problem and bring it to a successful conclusion not just for our benefit, but for that of our customers. Our concern is that, across our industry and within our own farms, there will probably be some orchards that will not be able to continue to be raised under the organic farming practices and principles and thus will need to be farmed once again as conventional production.”