Although it could feel just like a relaxing day with the sun shining and the birds chirping, farmer Mark Boyer is intensely concentrated while examining his apples for dark spots while he walks through his rows of apple trees. Here at his farm in Fishertown, Pennsylvania, Boyer is a third-generation apple grower; together with his brother, he’s about to take over the orchard – Ridgetop Orchards – from their parents. “I always thought that my father could grow the perfect apple,” says Boyer. “But the demands of the global apple market are always rising. Consumers want apples to be sweeter, crunchier and storable for weeks. In addition to fighting pests and diseases, there is a lot of work behind high-quality yields.”
I don’t think growing the perfect apple is possible, but we do everything to produce healthy apples – which is most important.
Growing Great Apples
One of these challenges along the humid US East Coast is severe weather changes. Spring freezes and frost may be followed by summer hails during the growing season. These extremes can test apple harvests. “Two summers ago, we went through an extreme drought, and we had hurricane rains blowing in from the East Coast. That put a delay on our harvesting.” Although these conditions may be threatening, Ridgetop Orchards manages to produce consistent quantities of fruit. “Weather volatility is something we can’t influence,” says Boyer. “But what we can affect are pests and diseases. We use the standard range of crop protection products, or we can’t grow premium fruit.” On 200 hectares of land, Boyer grows peaches, cherries and – of course – apples. When asked what he loves about apples, Boyer’s answer is clear: “It’s healthy and satisfying. We have a great product out there for everyone.”
A Fruitful Ally for Human Health
Thanks to farmers like Mark Boyer, people all over the world can enjoy this fruit daily. It’s not only valued for its taste: It also provides health benefits. “Apples are low in calories and free of fat, sodium and cholesterol,” says Jennifer Maloney, Food Chain and Sustainability Manager at Bayer in California. “Their antioxidants and phytochemicals have been linked to prevent certain diseases. Apples also contain many vitamins for overall well-being.”
To encourage younger generations to enjoy apples’ nutritional advantages, Bayer supports the United Fresh Start Program, which is hosted by the United Fresh Association. The program provides children access to fresh fruit. “Schools in the US usually have hot food for the children, but not all of them have fresh fruit and vegetables,” says Maloney. The program has already resulted in beneficial changes. “Many of the children tried new apple varieties that day and liked them so much that they wanted more,” remembers Maloney with a smile.
Whether young or old, apples are a beloved fruit around the world. Depending on the region, people prefer them in different sizes, colors and tastes. “We do a lot of exporting to Central America, such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama,” says farmer Mark Boyer. “These countries always liked small fruit. That’s what we see in the US now as well. People are starting to prefer apples around the size of a baseball. And some countries like apples with a faint red or pink blush, but others don’t want a blush at all.”
People all over the world can enjoy this fruit daily. Apples are low in calories and free of fat, sodium and cholesterol.
As diverse as consumers’ tastes in different countries may be, they all want healthy and attractive fruit. A direct fight against pests and diseases is not the only way to keep apple crops healthy. Growers also need to promote useful plants and beneficial insects like butterflies, bees and spiders as part of an integrated cultivation strategy. This approach also protects apples from enemies such as apple scab, mildew and aphids, a few of the things that can lessen the fruit’s quality. “Quality is more than appearance and flavor,” says Birte Tschentke, Global Key Relations Manager for the Bayer Food Chain Partnership (FCP). “An integrated cultivation strategy is made of three approaches. First of all, cultivation methods need to be sustainable. For a farmer, sustainability starts by choosing the most suitable and healthy (disease resistant) varieties as well as protecting and saving beneficial insects. Based on that, the fruits have to be protected against pests and diseases based on diagnosis and prognosis tools.” Tschentke continues, “As much as necessary, as less as possible is the indicator. Growers and advisors have to meet and fulfill legal requirements regarding residues as well as secondary private standards of specific retailers.”
Growing Healthy Apples – Together
The Food Chain Partnership (FCP) of Bayer focuses on the collaboration between all partners of the food value chain: producers, traders, processors, retailers, certifiers and also some NGOs. The project’s members unite to meet the challenges of growing apples together. The aim is to implement best agricultural practices to meet customer requirements regarding food quality, food safety and traceability and to improve yields and harvest quality, helping to drive a productivity and efficiency increase based on sustainable agricultural principles. The FCP also organizes local and global initiatives, as well as information exchanges. Depending on the needs of participating groups, different projects are conducted. “For example, some of our initiatives support farmers getting certified and help them fulfill quality standards,” says Tschentke. “Small scale farmers who become certified can sell their fruit to additional markets, at higher, market-level prices. When working with bigger companies, our focus often lies on reducing the chemical load or achieving greater biodiversity and sustainability.” Currently, there are apple partnership projects running in Western Europe and Turkey, as well as in Brazil and Chile, China and South Africa.
To demonstrate premium apple quality to retailers, farmers also have to fulfill retail requirements to sell their produce. “The so-called ‘Secondary Standards’ specify what a certain fruit has to look like, especially in terms of residues. The responsible and correct use of crop protection products helps us to keep these standards, determined by retailers. Additionally, for example, we have many color standards to abide by,” says Mark Boyer. “For example, the surface of Honey Crisp apple varieties needs to be 50 percent red. Gala apples need a 90 percent colored surface.” Further, apples should not be scabbed or stained. Then, even in storage, pests and diseases can harm the fruit. For a farmer, crop protection is an essential resource to achieve these standards.
Responsible use of crop protection products ensures healthy fruit. “Especially in Europe, the use of crop protection is viewed critically,” says Tschentke. “Risk assessment is more often conducted with emotion rather than professional knowledge. Although there is a lot of data available, information is often misinterpreted. Therefore, we at Bayer communicate our integrated crop solutions approach to the broad public.” Besides FCP initiatives, this is also done through Bayer ForwardFarming. “Bayer ForwardFarming is a knowledge platform that demonstrates sustainable agriculture in practice,” explains Tschentke. “In partnership with independent farmers, the initiative creates opportunities for demonstrations, dialogue and collaboration at farms around the world.”
Knowing All About Apples
Educating consumers about how growers grow their apples is one of the tasks of the US Apple Association, an organization that unites the US apple industry. “Crop protection products are necessary for growing. And I believe that the products we use are safe for our fruit and customers,” says farmer Mark Boyer. He speaks from broad industry knowledge; not only is Boyer an apple farmer, but he is the chairman of the US Apple Association, the voice of the US apple industry – with an annual farmgate value of 4.5 billion US dollars and a downstream economic value of about 15 billion US dollars. The association consists of 7,500 members including growers, processors retailers and other apple-related companies across the US. “The most recent government data show that crop protection product residues on US apples are far below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tolerances, so the fruit is very safe to eat. The information is public. It’s very transparent.”
Consumers’ and retailers’ demands are putting a lot of pressure on farmers to produce perfect apples. “But just like my father, I don’t know how to grow the perfect apple yet,” explains Boyer. “And I’m not sure if that’s even possible. The demands around the world are diverse. I don’t think there’s one apple that will satisfy everybody’s tastes. The only thing I’m sure about is that apples have to be healthy. With today’s apple cultivation methods and crop protection strategies, we can achieve this.”
Hand-in-hand for sustainable apple cultivation
Dr. Olaf Krieghoff is a cultivation consultant at Veos Vertriebsgesellschaft für Obst GmbH (Veos Distribution Society for Fruit) in Dresden, Germany. Along with the fruit-growing company Obstbau Ebenheit, the fruit producing organization Dresdener Obst and the Food Chain Partnership initiative of Bayer, Krieghoff is committed to sustainable apple production. He explains what measures are necessary to harvest healthy apples under sustainable conditions.
What were the main objectives of your project?
Our project aimed in particular at increasing the biodiversity of Dresden's farm Obstbau Ebenheit. We first planted annual flowering strips there in order to eliminate the weeds, and then in the following years we spread a mixture of these strips. In addition, hedgerows around the area were improved with shrubs, and "beneficial hotels" – nesting boxes for bees, birds, green lacewings and bats – were set up. All of these measures were successful. The farm treats its trees about 16 times a year with crop protection products – always in consultation with the regional beekeepers.
What has changed since then?
Despite using crop protection products on a flowering strip that runs through middle of the farm, the diversity of beneficial organisms has not diminished. Overall, we have higher biodiversity than 30 years ago. We have also transferred our experience from the cooperation with the Food Chain Partnership initiative to other apple farms. Now farmers don’t only think about growing the fruit. They also think in terms of overall biodiversity.
How do you feel about the use of crop protection products in apple cultivation?
Nature can’t cope with many diseases and pests – so the use of crop protection products makes sense. Solely promoting the use of beneficial organisms does not replace the use of crop protection. We have prediction models for different pathogens and diseases. We then advise our farms on whether a pest control measure is necessary and when it’s most effective. What happens if we don't do this is well-illustrated by a project we had where no plant protection measures were used on specific plots. The consequences: weeds overgrow the trees, and mice damage the wood. And if a scab pathogen is added, 80 percent of the harvest is quickly destroyed.
How can apple growers succeed in complying with apple quality standards?
In the last 20 years, quality standards have risen relatively sharply, especially in the food retail sector. This is particularly noticeable in our sorting results: In our region, about 30 percent of the harvest goes into cider or apple puree because it’s not suitable for selling to retailers and consumers as whole fruit. Further harvest and quality losses are caused by regional weather conditions. Just like humans, apples can get sunburned. And rain, hail and frost damage apples just as much as excessive heat. Many farmers set up hail nets or foil roofs to protect their plants. All of these cost-intensive measures mean that farmers can bring some stability to their yields.