The Bio-Rational Orchardist: Gary Mount of Terhune Orchards
Gary Mount grew up in an era when America dominated the international apple market. His father's apple orchard was one of the specialized, modern farms that enabled our growers to outproduce and outcompete all other nations on earth. It was a farm where science was put to work battling the Old World pests and New World diseases that plague apple orchards, especially in the eastern states.
Mount has owned his own orchard, Terhune Orchards in Lawrence Township, for 37 years now, and he has seen the science of pest and disease management evolve from all-out war to strategic intervention. All along, he has experimented with different ways to lower his inputs (that is, the use of external products such as pesticides and fertilizers), while maintaining a level of quality that attracts over half a million visitors to Terhune each year.
On the 350-acre New Jersey farm where his grandfather once raised a diverse range of crops, Mount's father and uncle specialized in growing apples for the wholesale market. They initially sold a wide selection of varieties to local stores. By the time Gary Mount entered high school in the late 1950s, McIntosh, Stayman Winesap, Rome Beauty and Delicious apples from Mount Farms were being shipped to buyers in New York, Philadelphia, Europe, South America and the Caribbean.
"Specialization for my father meant he grew just one crop, which I can't imagine today," says Mount, who grows about 35 acres of apples as well as 35 other crops on his 185-acre farm. "But he did, and boy, we suffered when there was a weather event that adversely affected apples." Depending on one crop also meant increased risk of crop loss from disease and insects, which his father battled using a parade of pesticides that were first labeled as safe only to later be banned and replaced.
Ironically, the very qualities that were first sought in pesticides – toxicity and longevity – were their ultimate undoing. "The best thing used to be if you could put a pesticide on that would last out there a long time, because you wouldn't have to put it on again," Mount says. "Now the exact opposite is true. You put it out there, it kills the insect, but you want it to deteriorate and degrade very rapidly."
The Pesticide Treadmill
While some early settlers brought cuttings from beloved apple trees with them to the New World, most colonial American orchards were started from seed. Seedling orchards produced tart, astringent apples that were used to make hard cider and to feed livestock. Occasionally, seedling orchards produced a tree with apples that tasted good enough to name and propagate – resulting over time in the development of hundreds of new, American apple varieties.
Because apple seeds produce trees that are unlike their parents, cuttings are taken from desirable trees and grafted onto rootstock to make new trees that produce the same apples. Using grafting to maintain the characteristics of a variety over generations diminishes the apple's ability to evolve and adapt. As America shifted from home orchards to commercial orchards, increasing pest and disease pressure made pesticides essential to mass-producing salable eating apples.
In the late 1800s, the United States began investing in the application of science to the management of agricultural pests. Arsenic-based pesticides became commonly used on farms and, beginning in the early 1900s, the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station recommended the routine use of lead arsenate on apple orchards. Although initially quite effective, widespread use of lead arsenate led to decreasing efficacy due to pesticide resistance – leading to a downward spiral of increased spraying with diminishing results. Lead and arsenic residue on apples and in the soil also raised serious health and safety concerns. Alternative pesticides were tried, though most proved to be less effective than lead arsenate. No adequate replacement was found until the introduction of DDT as an agricultural insecticide in 1947.
One of a wave of new, postwar pesticides, DDT was increasingly incorporated into the arsenal of chemicals used in orchards. As with lead arsenate, DDT proved to have secondary risks and problems. "In the old days it was searching for the silver bullet," Mount says. "There wasn't a good understanding of the balance of insects that you have to have." In one example, Mount recalls his father and uncle battling European red mite – a small insect that sucks on the leaves of apple trees. In spite of frequent spraying with toxic chemicals, the mites always quickly returned. "The problem was that all the pesticides that they were using were killing the predators for that insect. Now it's pretty easy to almost not spray for that pest at all."
DDT, once sold to farmers as a safe alternative to lead arsenate, was banned from use in the United States in 1972. Farmers then turned to organophosphates, a widely used family of pesticides that break down more quickly in the environment, but concerns over toxicity to humans and wildlife have now put many of them under scrutiny or ban as well.
Compared to Western apple growers – who farm in irrigated deserts – New Jersey orchardists have many more insects to contend with as well as a range of diseases brought on by our plentiful rainfall. When Mount and his wife, Pam, purchased Terhune Orchards in 1975 they initially relied on pest management advice from their county agricultural agent, Charlie Holmes – a fruit specialist who had also been the county agent for Mount's father. Mount also hired a consultant to help him apply the newly emerging idea of using a system called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to reduce pesticide use. IPM involves monitoring pest populations and disease in order to, when necessary, make well-timed applications of the least-toxic effective pesticide.
In a rented orchard in 1978, Mount made his first attempt at farming apples organically – spraying organically approved sulfur rather than a conventional pesticide. "I had a three-acre farm that I was renting. I had to drive a sprayer down there and cross the Shipetaukin Creek on Carter Road. That bothered me a lot. I thought, what if I had an accident and all of that went into the water?" He was successful in producing an organic apple crop but was discouraged from continuing by the greater quantity of materials he had to apply. "How can you say that 100 pounds of sulfur is better for you than half a pound of a conventional? That didn't make sense to me."
Mount defines his approach to pest control as "bio-rational," which to him means reducing inputs by applying sound science through multiple avenues, including IPM and organic. His second attempt at organic apple production in 1982, using newly planted, disease-resistant trees, was also unsuccessful. But he maintained his commitment to IPM, which has grown in sophistication and efficacy over the years. In an article he wrote for his farm newsletter, Mount noted some of the many ways that IPM helps him reduce pesticide use. These include the frequent scouting of his orchards to assess insect populations and spot evidence of emerging disease, the use of a mini weather station to correlate rainfall and temperature with disease risk, and the use of mating disruption to break the reproductive cycle of insect pests, which he says works better than spraying. He is also grateful that when new pests appear, such as the brown marmorated stink bug, IPM researchers now get right to work to figure out how best to deal with them.
The development of trees with greater, more genetically stable disease resistance is also crucial to input reduction. Better breeding makes IPM more effective, and breeding programs are essential to combating new and evolving pests. Apple breeding is a lengthy process, but the tools of biotechnology are making traditional breeding more efficient and effective by enabling breeders to make earlier assessments as to which seedlings carry promising traits. Mount is eager to stay current with new resistant varieties. At Terhune Orchards, he is currently trialing 19 new apple varieties from Rutgers, which has been part of a cooperative apple-breeding program with Purdue and University of Illinois since 1945.
Third Try at Organic
Known in the apple industry for his "let's try it" attitude (see sidebar), Mount is again attempting organic apple production. Armed with more highly resistant trees and better management information, he planted a new organic orchard of 1,800 trees in 2010. Last year's crop was tasty, but half of the apples had to be discarded because of insect damage – leaving Mount discouraged, but willing to try again this year.
Planting dwarf trees gives Mount greater flexibility with his organic management program. In his father's day, it took 15 years to get the first full crop off an apple tree. In contrast, Mount already had 200 bushels per acre from his dwarf organic trees in 2012 and this year he expects to harvest five to six hundred bushels to the acre. This quick bearing helps to balance out his crop loss as he fine-tunes his organic management strategies. It also allows for an early assessment of how well varieties fare under organic management, and the replacement of trees or varieties that are problematic. Still, while he is optimistic, Mount is also practical. He planted the organically managed orchard on the edge of his organic fields. That way, if it doesn't work out, he can create a buffer zone and make it a conventionally managed orchard without compromising the certification on his other organic crops, including tomatoes, potatoes and peppers.
Motivated to Innovate
Mount's continuing attempt to produce organic apples is driven in part by his customers, whom he describes as "thoughtful organic devotees." Another factor driving him is the interest of his daughters, Tannwen and Reuwai, who both live on or near the farm. "If I've learned anything," Mount says. "it's when my kids say something I'd better listen if I want them to stick around. We feel so fortunate to have them interested in our farm. Tannwen is here full-time and the grandchildren are totally involved. That's as good as it gets for us."
Whether they are motivated by economics or ecology, Mount believes that most apple growers are eager to lower their pesticide use. His interest in applying sound science to farming is part of what drives his continued research into reducing inputs on his farm. His childhood experience in his father's orchard provides another motivation. "When I was growing up there were pesticides that were tested and labeled by the U.S. government and we were assured that they wouldn't harm people. Since that time we've found out that they're not so good," Mount says. "Well, the same could be true of some of the current [pesticides]. Even though there's a lot more research, a lot more knowledge, a lot more testing and evaluation, still there are things that you can't know. Even the best effort, the most straightforward, honest effort, can't know everything."
PURSUIT OF COSMETIC PERFECTION
Demand for pristine, perfect apples has come at a price to the environment and to the farmer's bottom line. Mount puts part of the blame on the apple industry: "We're our own worst enemy. How do we market an apple? We market it with a picture of a perfect apple. To get from an apple crop that is 90 or 95% perfect to 100% perfect, you don't have to just do 5% more input. You have to do a lot more input. If you are willing to accept 90% perfection or 95% perfection instead of 100%, your inputs can be a lot lower."
Less than 100% means accepting blemishes caused by small insect bites inflicted when the apple is tiny. Or overlooking some roughness on the skin or disfigurement of the shape – none of which affect the flavor, but all of which can be grounds for rejection by wholesale buyers.
Chemical use for cosmetic purposes became a national conversation in February 1989, when a 60 Minutes segment raised public fears about the carcinogenic properties of a chemical called Alar. Once used in orchards to produce more deeply colored apples that stayed crisp longer in storage, Alar was banned from use on food crops in late 1989.
On Stayman Winesaps, Alar also helped to keep apples from cracking and from falling off the tree prematurely. In a 1989 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mount noted that one post-Alar solution is to pick Staymans a few weeks earlier, which cuts losses but means apples with less flavor and color. The other solution, which Mount chose at that time for half of his Staymans, is to pull out the trees and replace them with heartier apple varieties.
HALL OF FAME
Although Gary Mount's focus is on local markets, his work with apples is global in scale. In January 2012, Mount's contribution to fruit growing was acknowledged by his peers, who inducted him into the International Fruit Tree Association (IFTA)'s Hall of Fame. An article about the award in Fruit Notes, a publication of the University of Massachusetts' Stockbridge School of Agriculture, states that "Mount is known for his 'let's try it' attitude, which has been key in an ever-changing industry where innovation has been crucial."
With almost 1,000 members in 26 countries, the association (ifruittree.org) encourages the free exchange of information worldwide amongst growers and researchers. Mount has been an active member of the association for more than 35 years, including serving on its board and research committee. He also helped found the IFTA Research Foundation to provide funding for fruit tree research.
Mount is the sixth IFTA member to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was also named Apple Grower of the Year by American Fruit Grower magazine.
On Sept. 14 and 15, visitors to Terhune Orchards can partake in the farm's annual apple celebration. In addition to pick-your-own apples, the festivities include live music, wagon rides, pony rides, face painting, pumpkin painting and more. And of course, there will be apple pie, apple cider and apple cider doughnuts. Admission to the festival area is $5, ages 3 and up. No admission fee to farm store, winery or pick-your-own apples.
At Terhune, the first apples of 2013 are usually ready in mid-August, with two early varieties named Jonamac and Ginger Gold. Other popular varieties, including Stayman Winesap and Granny Smith, are generally not ready for picking until late September.