Michigan Organic Apple Grower Finds Success In Working With Mother Nature
What was originally a trial on a diverse block of apples and rootstocks, turned into a partnership between Jim Koan and Mother Nature. Koan was one of the first apple growers in Michigan to convert his orchard, Almar Orchards in Flushing, MI, to organic production 20 years ago. He did so without the resources and guides available to growers now.
He readily admits that his conversion to organic production was in itself a grand experiment. Some friends of his had asked him to grow organic apples about 35 years ago, but he dismissed it at the time. Koan revisited the idea and took the plunge when interest and demand for organic produce grew and he began getting requests at his farm market about growing organically.
“I didn’t think I could really do it because nobody else was really doing it at a larger scale. You had organic growers that were doing one or two acres. But to do 100, 150 acres, there wasn’t anybody out there,” he says.
To make the conversion to organic, he selected a 20-acre orchard with 8 to 10 different rootstocks and approximately 10 varieties planted as a sampling of his farm. He originally transitioned to a split-operation, keeping some blocks as a conventional IPM orchard, and the first years were easier than he expected.
“After that, you start running into more problems because of the system trying to balance itself correctly. And you think you know it all, but you don’t,” he says. “It was probably a 10- to 12-year learning curve for me to figure this out and a lot of mistakes made — and mistakes are costly.”
Sustainability In The Orchard
Koan says organic apple growing is in part trying to “outsmart” the bad bugs. And this is actually less difficult than with a traditional spray program on a conventional orchard. Allowing Mother Nature to have a hand in the organic orchard is more sustainable, he says.
“We’re losing soil quality and our major insects are now becoming resistant to all these chemistries because we don’t have minor predator insects. We eliminate their food soucres so the predators aren’t as diverse and they don’t hang around, which means we’ve got to spray more often and use the same chemicals and create more resistance and so on and so forth,” Koan says.
Organic production is pioneering this push for more sustainable apple growing, this is not a new trend, but in fact revisiting past practices. Koan advocates using manure, focusing on soil nutrition, and increasing the diversity of minerals in the soil. He likens an apple orchard as planting 20 years of one crop without diversification.
“The problem with apples is we can’t do crop rotation like we do in vegetables and in other annual crops. We really have to pay attention to our soils to make sure that we keep them up. We just can’t mix something back in the soil again as it gets depleted and continue growing and get abundant crops out of it,” he says.
Koan works with Michigan State University researchers to test practices in a commercial organic orchard. He sees this as a vital partnership.
“They’re limited on what they can do to three or four different projects each year because they’ve got to have enough acreage in order to verify that their research is valid. There’s not that many apple orchards that have the acreage that they can actually perform research in which means that they utilize everything they can out of mine,” he says.
Koan has worked with Matthew Grieshop, an associate professor in Michigan State University (MSU)’s Organic Pest Management lab. Mating disruption, scab management, and strip cultivation have all been researched on Koan’s orchard.
This year, researchers are looking at bare ground under some of the trees and tilling to eliminate weed competition for nutrients. Buckwheat is also being studied as a soil insulator.
“It’s going to collect more energy from the sun and hopefully the soil will hold that and we’re looking to see if we can gain frost protection,” Koan says.
The research team will also compare the soil nutrition in using buckwheat with the nutrition of the bare soil, and how this impacts both beneficial and predatory insects in the orchard.
Koan also raises organic hogs, which help to control plum curculio. The hogs eat dropped apples before the larvae burrows in the soil. This originated as a research project with Michigan State University.
Hard Cider And The Orchard
As Koan was converting to organic apple production, he quickly realized that there would be a high percentage of culls. Although those imperfect apples could go into traditional sweet cider, Koan sought out other value-added options. Koan added J.K. Scrumpy, a farmhouse organic hard cider. Aside from some commercial wineries that were making an apple wine, the industry was wide open in Michigan.
“Organic growing is sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture is using everything you can on the farm, every resource that you have. That means multi-valued crops,” he says. “It would be nice to have something that was shelf-stable and it made sense at the time to do the hard cider.”
J.K. Scrumpy, found at OrganicScrumpy.com, is now sold by 60 distributors in 40 states. More than 30 varieties of apples grown on the orchard are used to make four types of organic hard cider without artificial flavors or additives. The hard cider was recently certified kosher.
Hard cider has become a popular option for Michigan apple growers, and Koan points to new legislation passed in the state that will allow small operations to make a fermented product, like hard cider, and sell it directly to consumers at farmers’ markets as opening even more opportunities.
“This is exciting to me because it opens up options for people to use their culls for something other than fresh cider.”