Ask a Specialist Answer
How can I transition my existing orchard to organic?
For people considering organic certification, it’s commonly understood that you’ll have to change some of your management practices. When the crops you grow are annuals, it seems fairly straightforward that once you begin your three-year transition, you will grow those crops under organic management. But if you are thinking about certifying crops from perennials—tree fruit, small fruits or berries, or nuts—it can be more complicated.
People focus a lot on inputs when talking about organic. While that’s only one of many factors, you will need to look closely at what you use for managing pests and disease as well as fertility. If you’ve been using Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, you may find that some control methods you’re currently using will still be allowed while others will not. Having an early conversation with a certification agency call help bring clarity to the changes you’ll need to make. It’s also a good idea to ask some questions from the places you buy your inputs. Good vendors have a very thorough knowledge of OMRI-listed products and will have some suggestions for replacements.
If you’re thinking about making changes to a perennial planting, inputs are only a small piece of the puzzle. Other questions come into play, and many seem more difficult to understand.
The National Organic Program (NOP) requires growers to use organic seeds and planting stock. This confuses a lot of people when it comes to perennials. Perennial planting stock can be certified after a minimum of one year in organic management. Newly planted trees would be subject to the organic requirement. Growers who have purchased perennial plants are likely aware that there are very few certified organic nurseries. Many organic orchardists are unable to find the selection, quantity, and quality that meets their needs from certified nurseries. Just as with planting annuals from non-organic stock, you will need to provide evidence during your organic inspection that you searched for organic stock and couldn’t find it.
Your existing orchard will need to be managed organically through a three-year transition when you can’t use any prohibited materials. After that, crops from those trees/bushes can be certified organic. You will be asked to provide information about the origin of the trees, including the source nursery and dates planted in addition to yearly treatment.
As you certify an existing orchard, another area of concern is groundcover. For conventional growers, herbicides are often the easiest way to deal with weed and grass competition. The quest for effective and inexpensive organic herbicides is unending, but at this point, there are not very good options for this.
Many organic growers use some kind of mulch under trees. Organic mulch sources are more common than organic herbicides, with woodchips being preferred by many growers. There is often confusion about woodchips, and some growers have spent a lot of time and money attempting to source certified organic woodchips. This is not necessary. Woodchips must be free of treated or painted lumber, and you’ll need to have a verification form from the source. This means that woodchips from, for example, your local dump won’t be allowed. But tree trimmers, utility companies, or wood processors are generally able to provide that verification.
You can use landscape fabric in perennial plantings, but you will need to source higher quality—more expensive—fabric than you would for annual plantings. It should be rated to 20 years or more. You’ll be asked to look for signs of deterioration and replace it before it starts to fall apart (likely way before those 20 years).
If you commonly seed groundcover or cover crops in your orchard, you will need to make sure that your seed is allowed. If you have a standing groundcover that’s managed organically through your transition, obviously you don’t need to worry about the source of that seed. But as you replace trees or find areas of groundcover that need rehabilitating, make sure that you are purchasing seed that’s allowed, whether it’s grass, clover, or another understory species. Generally, that means certified organic seed, but if organic seed is unavailable, you will need to get verification that the seed is untreated.
To learn more about organic fruit production, Marbleseed has several relevant fact sheets on our website. The Organic Fruit Growers Association also maintains a website (organicfruitgrowers.org) with great resources as well as a free network listserv that is helpful for answering specific questions.
Posted: May 2020
Answer By: Rachel Henderson