Growers’ Insights: Apples' Bruised Reputation

Published in FSD Update

How some bad apple politics may spoil the whole bunch.

Red Jacket Orchard Farmer Mike Biltonen checks
on a Gala apple.

The U.S. apple industry is being active in labor reform—a touchy topic, and one that decides whether many farmers can continue to grow apples. The U.S. Apple Association is lobbying for legislation regarding undocumented agricultural labor—labor that is vital to orchards’ survival. The association hopes for legislation that would “prevent onerous new regulation and enforcement mechanisms on apple employers,” according to its website.
“We wouldn’t be in business without migrant workers,” says Mark Nicholson, who serves as executive vice president of Red Jacket Orchards, in Geneva, N.Y., and holds a degree in pomology (the science and practice of growing fruit) from Cornell University.
“We have 300 acres dedicated to apples. In the winter, experienced laborers help prune and train the trees. During harvest, our workforce doubles, from 30 to about 60 or 70 migrant workers, that help us bring in the crops.”
Nicholson says that they have modernized as much as possible, such as using mechanized platforms that lift the workers to various heights. “We’ve done what we can to make it an easier job, but harvesting apples is done by hand,” he adds.
In addition to labor issues, apple growers also say their produce has gotten a bad rap. Like other tree fruits, non-organic apples consistently top the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen list,” an advisory of foods to avoid based on exposure to pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
“There’s a lot of science involved. We’ve adopted practices that use less chemicals and constantly seek ways to improve,” Nicholson says. He insists that the majority of growers are committed to producing safe fruit of excellent quality, whether they’re certified as organic or not. “Each year, we take steps toward an improved integrated pest management system. For example, we’re growing shorter trees, allowing for better light penetration and enhanced air circulation, so fewer pesticides are needed.”
Bill Stone of Brightonwoods Orchard in Burlington, Wis., says, “Most people don’t realize that organic orchards spray, too. Since their chemicals are less effective, it’s possible they spray more often. Testing ensures that
residual chemicals on apples are below acceptable levels, but I encourage people to always wash produce because of all of the hands that handle it.”

Changing marketplace 

Despite the issues, the apple industry is going strong. “The apple market has really evolved in the last five years,” Nicholson says. “McDonald’s offered apple slices, and now they’re everywhere, even on grocery shelves. It’s interesting that we may have fewer eating apples for foodservice, because we’re trying to keep up with the demand for sliced apples. There’s great potential for expansion. Our juices are doing well, and people like having relatively new, good varieties. Apples are an inexpensive, highly nutritious superfood, but one that doesn’t need help to taste good, like açái berries.”
One of those newer varieties is Honeycrisp, which most people in the industry agree has excellent flavor,
texture and juiciness. “The Honeycrisp variety was such a game changer that in 2006 the Google online Better World Project named it one of the ‘25 Innovations That Changed the World,’” says Mark Boyer, a third-generation fruit grower at Ridgetop Orchards in Fishertown, Pa.
Boyer explains that apple harvests are staggered. Honeycrisp and Gala apples ripen in August; the mid season harvest, in September, includes Red and Golden Delicious; and varieties including Pink Lady and Fuji are harvested in late September and early October.