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Integrating With Nature

In a perfect world, every fruit would grow free of threat of disease and insect problems, with just enough sunshine and the right measure of rain to the liking of each variety. From one season to the next, conditions in the orchards would always be predictable. It’s what every farmer dreams about. In reality—and in Ohio— it’s not what they usually get.

Damaging pests, funguses and disease are constant threats to fruit production, so for farmers and brothers Dan and Barry Bergman, Farm Bureau members who operate Bergman Orchards in Erie County, choosing appropriate and effective treatment is a priority and not entered into lightly.

“No farmer wants to spray chemicals,” said Dan, yet it’s a necessary component of orchard management. “It’s done but not without careful consideration for the crop, the land, the environment and our customers.”

Bergman Orchards is a 500-acre family-owned and operated farm and orchard with 150 acres of cherry, nectarine, plum, peach, pear and apple trees set on Ohio’s fruit belt, an elevated ridge that parallels 70 miles along the Lake Erie shoreline.

The brothers are fifth generation farmers, who learned about farming from family but learned how to maintain the delicate balance of a healthy and productive orchard with guidance from Ted Gastier and Ohio’s Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM), a voluntary program that combines preventative surveillance and corrective measures to reduce the threat of pests. The goal of IPM is to maintain a high level of food safety and the integrity of the soil, as well as the health of the plant or tree in an environmentally responsible manner. It does this without compromising the population of beneficial insects, without high pesticide use and sometimes without chemical intervention at all.

“Ted is our eyes in the orchard,” said Barry, “and a helping hand. This is something orchardists could do on their own but it takes a lot of time and diligence.”

As an agricultural program assistant at Ohio State University, Gastier was influential in launching Ohio’s IPM program for fruit growers in 1989.

Set the traps
In the dead of winter, the Bergmans begin preparing for the next growing season by pruning apple trees to remove dead and diseased branches and applying dormant oils to control mites, scales and other insects that overwintered in the bark. Once the buds begin to break, leaf litter is ground up to facilitate decomposition and fungicide is applied to control scab, a fungus that can misshape and blemish fruit. Once the petioles, or leafstalks, begin to form, pollinators (bees and wasps) are at work and spraying stops. Gastier makes his first visit to the orchard in early spring setting sticky traps marked with a grid pattern or canisters traps. During subsequent visits, he’ll check the traps, recording what pests he finds and compares the sections on the grids from one visit to the next.

“Traps provide a relative measure of insect pressure,” said Gastier. “They are an efficient and important monitoring tool, alerting growers to pests early, before damage is observed in crops.”

“If we can skip a spray based on the information Ted gets through the sticky traps, we’re happy to do so,” said Dan.

Orchard fruits least threatened by pests and disease are cherries and apricots. They are early ripening and less susceptible to what dry or wet weather can do to developing fruits.

“With apples and peaches in the orchard, there is pest pressure every year,” he adds. “They come in with the southern air current and we don’t know when they will arrive so it’s all about timing.”

Pests cause concerns
While last year was a banner year for fruit growers in Ohio, Gastier pointed out three worries: Coddling moth, which penetrates to the core of apples and pears, apple maggots and oriental fruit moths, a concern for stone fruits such as peaches.

“Peaches and oriental fruit moth can be controlled by pheromones,” said Gastier. Pheromones are natural chemical signals to the male insect. To control or reduce infestation, Gastier instructs the Bergmans to secure inconspicuous red ties among the peach trees. The ties give off a pheromone scent to attract the males. “Because there are no females, confusion reigns and they die of frustration,” explains Gastier. “Males are easily confused.”

Red ball traps are another scented trap that attracts apple maggots that appear throughout the summer attacking apples and pears. “The trap tricks the bugs into thinking it’s an apple and traps them before they can deposit their eggs on the fruit.”

Working with nature
While Gastier and the Bergmans’ primary focus is on harmful pests to the fruits, they are also on the lookout for beneficial insects like the brown lacewing which feeds on eggs like those of the European red mites that favor and decimate the leaves of select apple varieties. Spiders are welcome in the orchard too for their ravenous appetites.

Gastier is quick to point out that the measures in IPM programs used to control pests are always an attempt to work with, not against, nature. “Nature has a balance,” said Gastier, “and when we try to tweak it, it can create problems.”

For example, the introduction of the multi-colored Asian lady beetle has been both a blessing and a curse. “It’s good at controlling aphids in the orchards,” he said, “but they tend to overwinter in homes and buildings and to the owners who struggle to curtail them, it can be a curse.”

While some blemishes on the apples and peaches are not harmful to the consumer, they do render fruit crops that are unmarketable. “People expect beautiful looking fruit,” said Barry. “We work toward that end responsibly through the IPM program.”

While most of their customers don’t ask how pests or diseases are controlled in the orchards, the Bergmans are open to sharing their methods and explaining how the IPM program has made a difference.

“It has helped cut down on the amount of chemicals farmers need to use,” said Dan. “That’s good in many respects—from the impact to the environment and the cost to the farmer. It’s a concern to all of us because, you know, we eat what we grow, too.”

Marilou Suszko is a freelance writer from Vermilion.

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Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermillion, Ohio.