Center receives $38K organic apple research grant

By Katie Demeria

Local researchers are taking steps to help growers tap into a market demand: organic apples.

The Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester was recently awarded a $38,000, two-year grant by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences as part of the department’s specialty crop block program.

The funds were dispensed to states by the United States Department of Agriculture to disperse accordingly in order to aid in the production of specialty crops.

Assistant professor of horticulture Gregory Peck said this is the first time the extension center has received the grant to do this type of research.

“The market for organic apples continues to increase, yet the production of organic apples is virtually nonexistent in Virginia,” he said. “We’re hoping to fill the information gap and hope to allow those who really want to grow organically to be able to do so more successfully.”

“I have a strong belief that there are a lot of growers who want to try it but don’t feel they have the knowledge or the tools to do so currently,” he added.

The research, Peck explained, will start from the ground up — literally. Peck, Professor Keith Yoder, and graduate student Candace DeLong will use part of the funds to look into what rootstocks are best suited for organic farming.

The rootstock controls the size of the tree and its resistance to disease, as well as how the tree responds to low water or nutrient availability, which can be issues in organic orchards where there may be a lot of competition from weeds.

Right now the team has 10 rootstocks they will be trialing to see how they do in an organic system.

“In Virginia, apple farmers have to contend with up to 20 different diseases of apple trees or apple fruit,” Peck said. “It’s very difficult to manage, whether traditional or organic, and there are a lot fewer materials to choose from.”

Organic farming, he added, does not necessarily mean farmers do not spray their orchards. Rather, those sprays are approved by the USDA and are usually naturally derived, meaning they are made from plants, bacteria, fungi or elemental materials like sulfur or copper.

Those natural sprays tend to have a shorter residual in the orchard, according to Peck, so organic producers may have to spray more often than their conventional counterparts.

“We’re looking at the materials that are available now and how we can be more strategic about when we apply them and if we can control for crop load, as well as for diseases and, at the same time, minimize the number of sprays that are needed in the organic system,” he said.

The research will take two years, and Peck said the center plans to have a workshop in which it will share many of the findings sometime in 2016.

As an extension specialist, Peck will convey the results with growers through bulletins, website posts, workshops and regular meeting with growers. One of the center’s goals, he pointed out, is to ensure that farmers are kept up to date on the most recent research.

Visit the center’s website at

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or