Apple Growers Trim Pesticides From The Farm
by Lester Graham [radio transcript]

Bill Erwin and a number of other Michigan apple growers are involved in a huge project to reduce pesticide use in orchards. Erwin says he's among those who will continue the practice.

No one likes the idea of pesticides in baby food. But nobody likes the idea of a worm in an apple either. Apple growers have been involved in a three year project to reduce pesticides, but still turn out a crop that's not plagued by insects. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium's Lester Graham reports:

Gerber makes baby food. A lot of those little jars of fruit use apples in the mix. A few years ago the Consumers Union, an arm of the magazine Consumer Reports, called for the end of the use of many of the pesticides that end up in children's food. And the Environmental Working Group issued a scathing report on pesticides in kid's food. Like other baby food makers, Gerber knew it had to do something. It started with improving methods to wash off or peel off pesticide residue on apples. But, there was only so much that could be done in the plant.

Todd DeKryger is with Gerber Baby Foods. He says Gerber's plants did what they could to get rid of pesticide residue, but it wasn't enough.

"Our customers were telling us, 'We don't want residues in the products we buy from Gerber's. We turn around and tell our growers 'We need a product without pesticide residues.' And it's really been amazing how they have really bought into that whole idea of providing a product. You know, and they say 'Hey, look. We fed our kids Gerber and, uh, yeah, okay, this makes sense. Now, how can I help?'"
Gerber got some help from a firm based in North Carolina. The Center for Agricultural Partnerships contacted Gerber at its main plant in Michigan as well as Michigan State University's Extension Service and apple growers. They had money to pay for publications and free consultants for three years for growers who wanted to try a way to control bugs in the orchards called 'Integrated Pest Management' or IPM.

Larry Elworth is with the Center. He says IPM has worked for other types of fruit growers, but expertise was needed for the particular climates and growing conditions in Michigan's apple orchards to make IPM effective.

"It's become a way of managing pests that gives growers way more information to use so they can actually outsmart the insects rather than always relying on a chemical as the way to control them."
(apple picking sound)

That all sounded good, but no one had tried it in the apple orchards on a large scale.
"Well, our main concern was whether it was going to work or not."

Bill Erwin operates Erwin Orchards and Cider Mill.
(sound of rolling apples)

Apple pickers are plucking fruit and gently rolling the apples into a big wooden crate for shipping to retailers. Erwin says it seemed risky to change farming methods in the orchards.
"We've been used to the chemistries. We've been used to the program and, uh, we weren't sure that using lighter chemistries was going to work and we weren't sure that we were going to be able to control the bugs."

Erwin says pesticides are reliable. They kill bugs. The fruit looks good. And the orchard is nice looking in that there's no wildlife, bugs, birds or otherwise in the area for very long. But Erwin says all the beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and spiders that eat bugs that ruin fruit were also gone. Erwin says he noticed something else that bothered him - hummingbird nests - but no baby hummingbirds.

So, Erwin and a lot of other Michigan apple growers gave Integrated Pest Management a shot. Erwin says they found using tactics such as mating disruption of pests works. The worm in the apple is actually the coddling moth's larvae which burrow into the fruit. Apple growers used the female coddling moth's pheromones against the insect. By saturating the orchard with pheromones, males didn't know which way to turn to find a mate. No mate, no eggs. No eggs, no worm in the apple. And Erwin says he noticed something else.

"Now we find humming birds. We find little baby hummingbird nests everywhere in this orchard. We see bluebirds out here. You never used to see those. And, so, we know we're doing something good with the environment and that makes us feel good about this program. They've taught us something and it's gonna be something we're going to keep going with."

And it appears the results are good.

The Center for Agricultural Partnership's Larry Elworth says the three year project was a success.

"Growers had at least as good if not better quality apple crops than they had before. Fewer bites from insects chewing on the surface. A lot fewer worms that had burrowed inside the apples which gave them a higher quality crop and they actually got more revenue for their crop than they'd been getting before. And they were also able to reduce their overall costs for controlling insects."

Gerber Baby Foods is relieved. By getting orchards closer to its plant to reduce pesticide use, it's ensured a local supply of apples. Otherwise, it meant trucking in fruit from farther away and paying more for fruit that met consumers' demands for pesticide free baby food.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

© 2003 Great Lakes Radio Consortium