OUR GROWING PRACTICES
How do we consistently grow such high quality apples?
The same way you acheive excellence in anything else.
Lots of hard work!
We are very fortunate to have our orchards situated in the Central Okanagan. It is the best apple-growing region in the entire country. Having the ideal climate for tree fruits is key to the longstanding success of our orchards. But when it comes to growing consistently prize-quality fruit, favorable environmental conditions are only part of the equation.
The key to producing the highest quality apples is good farm management, and in an orchard that means lots of hard work and attention to detail. Premium fruit comes from healthy trees, and healthy trees require precise irrigation, meticulous pruning, proper fruit thinning and timely harvesting.
With over 60,000 apple trees to care for, we work all year round to make sure each one gets the care and attention it needs. Here is a look at some of our growing practices.
Pruning is the single most important step in growing good apples. Through good pruning practices, you can keep the tree in optimum health and production year after year.
Pruning stimulates new growth, controls the tree size, and improves the size and quality of the fruit by keeping the tree canopy from becoming too dense, thereby allowing good light penetration and air circulation.
Light penetration is essential for flower bud development and optimal fruit set, flavor, and quality. Even with the endless hours of warm sunshine during our Okanagan summers, a poorly pruned tree may not allow enough light to reach 12 to 18 inches inside the canopy. By pruning aggressively we make sure each limb gets adequate sunshine and every piece of fruit is as healthy and tasty as it can be.
Opening the tree canopy and keeping branches exposed to light and air also speeds drying of leaves and fruits, which minimizes the likelihood of fungal and bacterial disease infection. Reduced disease pressure means healthier trees and significantly less need for fungicidal sprays.
While some orchardists wait until late winter or early spring to do their pruning and then end up doing a hurried and incomplete job, we begin pruning our trees just a few days after harvest is finished in the fall, and spend the next six months making sure the job is done just right.
Thorough and attentive pruning keeps the trees compact, improves fruit quality and makes harvest quicker and safer.
When you bite into an apple and enjoy the natural sugars within, that sweetness you taste represents energy. Sugars are a form of stored chemical energy – energy that originally came from the sun. Plants use the process of photosynthesis to convert solar energy to chemical energy. So, like all farming, growing apples is essentially harvesting sunlight.
Maximizing the surface area that is exposed to direct sunlight then becomes key to improving both fruit quality and crop yield. To this end we grow all of our apple trees on a high-density trellis system. By growing our trees in what could be described as long fruiting hedges, we ensure that nearly every leaf and apple on each tree is exposed to direct sunlight. Once again, better light penetration and air circulation mean better quality fruit, healthier trees and lower disease and pest pressure. Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.
Plus, apples with more direct sun exposure produce greater quantities of polyphenol compounds in the skin in order to protect their cells from UV damage. These polyphenols are responsible for the wonderful health benefits of apples. So more sun means you get more healthful compounds in each bite.
All of our trees are watered by computer controlled drip irrigation. This allows water to be delivered directly to the root zones at precise intervals and duration, to reduce any stress on the trees caused by insufficient or excessive watering.
One of our meticulously trained rows of Ambrosia apples.
Each branch is tied onto a wire for precision spacing.
An apple tree’s primary goal each season is to produce seeds…as many seeds as possible. It starts this process by producing flowers, lots and lots of flowers. Once these flowers are pollinated and set fruit, the tree will naturally put much of its energy into developing that fruit.
However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Excessive fruit compete with each other for carbohydrates (stored energy) and remain small. This carbohydrate drain can also weaken the tree and make it more susceptible to pests and sun damage. Thinning the fruit helps prevent these problems from developing.
Thinning immature fruit at the appropriate time allows each remaining fruit to develop to its maximum size, with little reduction of tree vigor. Less-crowded fruit receive more sunlight, so fruit color and flavour are also improved.
Fruit thinning can also reduce the spread of diseases and pests. Air movement around tightly clustered fruit is minimal, so the surface of unthinned fruit doesn’t dry quickly, allowing disease organisms to multiply and spread. The tight spaces inside clusters of fruit are also favourite hangouts of insect pests because they are hidden from predators and surrounded by food.
Hand thinning apples is a fiddly and repetitive task, and on a commercial orchard requires a lot of labour. Each fruit bud on an apple tree produces a cluster of 5-7 blossoms. To achieve proper spacing we thin these clusters down to just a single fruitlet.
We begin in late May and thin right into August. It may seem ruthless to thin off over 80% of the crop, but less is more in this case, and the trees reward us for the effort with larger, crisper, tastier and healthier fruit each fall.
A well thinned Ambrosia tree with appropriate spacing between each piece of fruit.
The sunny Okanagan Valley is naturally an area of low pest prevalence. The semi-arid desert climate means naturally low disease pressures, and region-wide Integrated Pest Management and Sterile Insect Release programs have significantly reduced the populations of important apple insect pests.
Further to this, our horticultural practices (ie good pruning and thinning) drastically reduce pest and disease pressure even more within our orchards.
But pest control will always be an issue for any farming operation. We use a variety of strategies to deal with pests on our farm.
We have built and installed our own bat houses and owl boxes on each property to help naturally control rodents and flying insects.
The owl boxes are designed for nesting barn owls. A pair of adult barn owl parents with five young owlets will kill and eat up to two dozen rodents each night. The preferred foods of barn owls are pocket gophers, voles and mice – all common orchard pests.
Our multi-chambered bat houses are designed for roosting colonies of several hundred bats. Each bat will eat hundreds of insects in a single night.
While we view chemical control of pests as the last option, when we do need to spray pesticides we use the least toxic option available, choosing only products that are safe for honeybees and humans alike.
One of our homemade bat houses now supports a maternity colony of over 800 little brown bats, making it the second-largest known bat colony in the Okanagan region and handling much of our insect control.
A WORD ABOUT PESTICIDES
When we first took over management of the orchard in 2007, I looked into the option of becoming a certified organic operation. But in the end I came to the conclusion that achieving this certification would not make our fruit any better or safer compared to our current practices.
Despite common perception, organic does not mean pesticide-free. Organic growers ARE allowed to use toxic pesticides on their crops. The only difference is that those pesticides are from naturally derived sources. The label 'natural' is presumed to speak for itself. But since 'natural' does not equal 'harmless', some skepticism is called for.
Plant toxins are common. We learn at an early age not to eat unidentified berries, mushrooms or plants because so many of them are poisonous. Plants have developed toxins like this, because it reduces their risk of being eaten. Especially by insects.
Rotenone, nicotine sulfate, pyrethrum and neem are examples of insecticides that are isolated from plants and registered for use by organic growers. Just because the materials are natural, however, doesn't mean they are always less toxic than their synthetic counterparts.
Nicotine sulfate is extracted from tobacco by steam distillation or solvent extraction. It is highly toxic to humans and other warm-blooded animals. In fact, it is six times more toxic than diazinon, a once widely-available synthetic insecticide sold for control of many of the same pests. (I have never used and will never use diazinon because of its toxicity.)
This is not to suggest that all organic growers use these highly toxic products, in fact I’m pretty certain that most of them don’t. But my point is that if you’re concerned about what is being sprayed on your produce, the best measure you can take is to know the producer and find out for yourself how their fruit is treated.
Just as many people assume that “natural” pesticides are safe, many also feel that any synthetic product must be highly toxic and destructive to all life. This is just not the case. Yes, the early broad-spectrum insecticides that would wipe out every bug in the zoo, mostly developed in the 1950’s, were undeniably very toxic to most animal life. But just think of how far telephone technology has come since the 1950’s. Is it reasonable to assume there haven’t been equally significant advances made in chemistry?
While a small handful of those organophosphates are still available today, there are also whole new classes of synthetic pesticides that are much more sophisticated and highly specific to a single target pest. With the advent of genome sequencing, scientists are able to identify individual genes that are unique to a given species or class of insects.
Each gene encodes a specific protein. From this they can produce compounds that bind to or interfere with the function of only that protein, making the pesticide totally benign to any creature that does not produce that protein within its cells. With products like this we can control target pests while retaining populations of beneficial insects in the orchard.
On our orchards we use pesticides very infrequently because the climate and our horticultural techniques and natural control methods mean we have very low pest populations. But when we do have to apply something I choose only products that are shown to be safe for honeybees and humans alike. Sometimes we use organic-certified sprays and sometimes we use synthetic ones. The determining factor is always safety.
I believe that if a synthetic pesticide is shown to be less harmful than a 'natural-organic' pesticide, then it should be used in preference.
On our farm, food safety trumps all other considerations. You could even say it is our “core” value.
After all, we spend all day, every day working in that orchard. I have a pretty good incentive to make sure it’s safe. And at the end of each season nobody eats more of our apples than our family...