Apples – organic or conventional?
The debate over organic versus conventional agriculture is an ongoing one in the world of food production.
For one Ontario apple grower, though, that debate ended a decade ago after some firsthand research into the issue.
But first, a little bit of background.
If you’ve eaten apples from any of Ontario’s major supermarkets, chances are you’ve eaten a Martin’s apple.
No, that’s not a new variety but rather apples grown by Martin’s Family Fruit Farm, founded almost 50 years before Confederation (close to 200 years ago) and now run by the 7th generation of that same Martin family.
Located on Lobsinger Line just outside of the city of Waterloo, the first apple trees on the farm were planted in 1971, says Steve Martin, when the family hosted an agricultural exchange student from what was then Yugoslavia.
“Branko was familiar with vineyards and orchards from his country and told us there was no reason why we shouldn’t be able to make a living growing apples here,” recalls Steve. “So, we planted 100 trees, and then a few more and few more and a few more after that.”
Today, the family’s orchard is spread over 700 acres and the day I met Steve earlier this month as part of a food writer farm tour hosted by AGCare and the Ontario Farm Animal Council, workers on the farm were planting new trees in the very fields were the original Martin trees had been first planted 40 years before.
The Martins grow, store, pack and market apples for retail and are now in the processing of adding a pick your own orchard as well. They’ve also had a presence at the popular St. Jacob’s farmers for 30 years.
“Our business has grown over the years. We’re not small but we’re doing all the things you’re supposed to do to be competitive in the apple business in Ontario,” says Steve.
That included taking a serious look at converting production from conventional to organic about ten years ago, as part of their ongoing desire to consistently find the best ways to grow apples.
“We were interested in organics and even though we didn’t know of anyone in Ontario at the time who was successful with organic apples, we were trying to have open minds,” Steve explains. “So eight of us from our family went to Europe to learn about organic apple production and what growers over there were doing.”
The Martins visited orchards in France, southern Germany and the south Tyrol region of Italy, as well as an organic research station in northern Switzerland and were disappointed with what they found.
“The growers weren’t very optimistic or encouraging,” Steve says. “And the researchers we met with in Switzerland told us they were still 20 years away from organic apple production being a viable option to provide a sustainable living for farmers.”
Farmers on the U.S. west coast are the only ones growing organic tree fruit on a large scale, he discovered, but also found that they have some of the least strict organic standards of producers anywhere in the world.
The other big disadvantage for Ontario farmers is our much damper climate, which can make trees more susceptible to diseases than in the drier west coast climate.
Organic food should cost two to three times more than conventionally grown, Steve says, cautioning consumers that if it doesn’t, it’s either not organic or not sustainable.
“If someone can make a living with honest organics, more power to them,” he says. “I don’t think we can feed the growing world population under our current organic standards, and we must pay more for our food to keep farming sustainable.”
He’s pleased by the growth of the local food movement, though, which he says is one way consumers can help farming be sustainable.
“As a farmer, I’m extremely encouraged by consumer attitudes towards buying local. It’s even forcing our big supermarkets to go local.”