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.”
The treatment involves applying a beneficial probiotic spray and rebuilding the soil food web that has been damaged. “We’re trying to restore an environment that the trees can thrive in. Glyphosate kills a lot of the beneficial fungi in the root zone, so we’re going to try running the orchard prunings through a chopper to make compost that will serve as a fungal inoculant around the trees,” said Hill. He is also considering growing red clover under the trees to attract beneficial insects.
Hill is establishing an Integrated Pest Management program to address diseases and pests using lures containing pheromones that confuse pests like coddling moths and allow for timely application of organically approved treatments such as Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt.
Participants also learned what is needed to obtain organic certification along with strategies for marketing organic apples and capitalizing on niche markets.
O’Neill sees the transition as a gift to the future. “The trees are here,” she said. “I didn’t want to neglect them, but I can’t do it by myself. I want to be able to pass this on to the next several generations.”
Since 1992, PASA has brought farmers together to learn from each other, and to build relationships between farmers and consumers looking for fresh, wholesome, locally and sustainably produced food. PASA works to improve the economic viability, environmental soundness and social responsibility of food and farming systems. The organization grew out of the need for an educational and support system for farmers-both experienced and beginning-interested in non-traditional agricultural practices, such as organic, biodynamic and grass-based farming, as well as the desire to create local markets for such sustainably produced food. PASA holds farm-based education programs throughout the state, offering insight into real-life agricultural operations and giving farmers a chance to learn from other farmers who themselves have learned through experience. Learn more at www.pasafarming.org . Contact firstname.lastname@example.org  for information on the local PASA chapter.