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Going organic: Roger Hill helps O’Neill’s Orchard make the transition

Kelly O’Neill, left, and her mother, Dolores, stand among the blossoms in the orchard that grows on property that has been in their family since 1842. The orchard was planted by Dolores’s late husband, Jim, as a hobby and contains 320 trees featuring nine varieties of apples.

By Sandy Long
June 2, 2011

HONESDALE, PA — Weaning an apple orchard away from the synthetic products used to manage pests and disease is neither a fast nor an easy process. It’s more like a labor of love and a work in progress. But orchardist Roger Hill is up to the task; orchard owner Dolores O’Neill has taken the necessary leap of faith, and they’ve spent the past four years working to prove it can be done.

Recently, participants in a program organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) toured O’Neill’s Orchard in Honesdale to learn more about the process of replacing conventional orcharding practices with organic methods. O’Neill’s orchard is part of a farm settled by her late husband Jim’s great grandfather in 1842. Jim started the orchard as a hobby.

The tour was led by Hill, who has restored trees and orchards in the Upper Delaware Valley for more than a decade and brings the experience he gained while managing the certified Biodynamic orchard, vegetable gardens and medicinal herbs at the Himalayan Institute in Bethany, where he also taught soil remineralization and composting workshops for the organization’s projects in India and Uganda.

Hill has been managing the O’Neill Orchard transition since 2008. The strategies for doing so are varied and require patience, fortitude and adaptability. The results require a willingness to accept imperfection as a sign of progress. “Getting off chemicals is tough when you’re used to things looking nice,” quipped Hill.

The process has included adopting a new pruning style that slows tree growth and builds structure while allowing enough air circulation to minimize diseases.

Pruning is an art, and much can be learned about the pruner by observing the trees. O’Neill said she has handed over the pruning to Hill, whose “calm and laid back” style is very different from her more “aggressive” pruning practices. “Neither is right or wrong,” said O’Neill. “I see things I would have taken out. Sometimes I have to keep my hands in my pockets. But I’m very optimistic that it will work.”

Weaning the orchard off chemical pesticides such as Glyphosate is another challenge. Hill suspects the cracked bark along the trees’ upper surfaces is a reaction to the use of that popular chemical, which makes it easier for harmful organisms to attack the tree. “There are certain species of fungi being found now that are only associated with high Glyphosate use,” Hill said. “The tree is compromised, much like humans are following a course of antibiotics.”