ELTOPIA, Wash. – About eight years ago, Gary Middleton noticed some trees in his orchards didn’t look quite right. Leaves began to shrivel, turn black and die. He’d heard of fire blight, but at first he didn’t realize the severity of the problem. Then signs quickly spread from tree to tree.
Now, he’s lost about 6,000 trees, about one-tenth of his central Washington orchard. Middleton said fire blight has been nothing less than devastating.
“See, here’s two trees missing over here,” Middleton points to a gap in the gala apple block.
“You know, we’ve been replanting them over time. But if you were to fly over top of this, it looks like a quilt out here,” he said.
Middleton said the disease has cost him about $900,000 dollars. Although he’s had to thin branches and remove trees, Middleton said he probably would have lost whole blocks of his orchard if he didn’t spray antibiotics.
Researchers said streptomycin is the “gold standard” in fire blight treatment, but some Pacific Northwest strains have developed a resistance to it. (This is a major concern for food safety advocates, who worry drug-resistant bugs from agriculture could harm people.) Oxytetracycline is now widely used in the region. Right now, they’re legal for use in organic apple and pear orchards.
Other organic products – like beef – cannot be treated with antibiotics. Urvashi Rangan is the director of consumer safety and sustainability at Consumer Reports.
“Organic is marketed as not being produced with antibiotics, so kind of having this exception, it really did create an inconsistency in what consumers were seeing on the market,” Rangan said.
The National Organic Standards Board recently met in Portland. It decided to ban antibiotic use in pear and apple orchards after Oct. 21, 2014.
But Middleton worries new alternatives won’t be fully tested by then. And, he said, that leaves few options.
“If it comes down to a decision to either lose the orchard or go conventional, there is no choice. The choice has already been made for me,” he said.
Researchers at Washington State University and Oregon State University are studying alternative treatments to fire blight.
David Granatstein, a specialist at WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, said new alternatives are promising, but they need more testing, in different environments and production systems across the U.S.
“My contention would be, if you push the timing, such that growers end up experiencing a series of failures, you set things back terribly,” Granatstein said.
“Because people remember that. ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that yeast product. My friend down the road tried it, and he lost 30 acres of pears.’ You know? Done. ‘I’m not gonna use it,’” he said.
Source: WSU, USDA
Granatstein said some new alternatives, known as biological controls, are three times more expensive than antibiotics. He said biological controls take longer to work than antibiotics, and therefore, must be applied earlier and more often to orchards.
“In many years, people are not treating their orchards at all with an antibiotic. But with these bio-controls they may have to treat every year because they cannot predict the weather far enough in advance to know whether they should spray or not,” Granatstein said.
Ken Johnson, a plant pathologist at OSU, said the most promising alternatives are a yeast product called Blossom Protect and a copper product called Previsto. He said 2013 is the first year that Blossom Protect is widely available. Previsto is not yet registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Johnson said researchers are on track to have a reasonable replacement for antibiotics, but the alternatives not risk-free yet.
“One risk is fruit will not finish as well (look as good), making it less competitive in markets,” Johnson said in an e-mail. “A second risk is those who grow organic apples today will not be the same people that grow organic fruit a few years from now.”
If organic growers chose to leave the market, like Gary Middleton is considering, they must wait three years before they can be recertified as organic.
Fewer organic growers and more expensive preventive measure could tickle down to consumers. Researchers predict the cost of organic apples and pears could go up in the near future.
Grower Gary Middleton said he wishes he had more time to test alternative methods. Middleton said every time he loses a tree, it takes years for a new one to grow to full production.
“It’s always been our goal to get out of antibiotics,” Middleton said. “But you’ve taken away the opportunity to provide us with more research for valid tools we’re familiar with.”
Middleton looks at the holes in his orchard, where full-grown trees once stood. He sighs and says the organic apple and pear industry is going to change soon.
“There will be a shift,” he said. “Whether it costs consumers more money, or the availability of organics is not there, it’s yet to be determined. It will not stay the same as it has been. There’s no way it can.”
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