The Power of Nature: Wisconsin’s Eco-Fruit Program Supports Growers

"Wisconsin" "apple orchard" "Tom Griffith" "Door Creek"

Apple grower Tom Griffith, a participant in Wisconsin’s Eco-Apple program

“My kids used to have a joke about me standing and looking out the window, wondering what was going to hit next,” laughs fruit grower Tom Griffith, who along with his wife Gretchen operates Door Creek Orchard in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin.

It’s an incredibly picturesque farm with fruit trees planted next to rolling fields and acres of woodlands, wetland and restored prairie. A small farm store sells yarn and mutton chops from the Griffith’s sheep in addition to pickyour- own berries that attract customers from the nearby cities of Madison and Milwaukee.

Kidding aside, Griffith—a former high school biology teacher—speaks to the myriad difficulties of fruit growing, where a new pest infestation, fruit disease or disastrous weather event is often just around the corner.

But a program called Eco-Fruit, a partnership between University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Apple Growers Association, is helping growers stave off potential problems to their crops while protecting human health and the environment.

Known as Eco-Apple when it started in 2003, the program matches growers with IPM coaches, connects growers to each other and offers weekly conference calls during the growing season where orchardists and IPM experts share information about pest activity, disease prevalence and possible solutions.

“There are so many facets of the program that I benefit from,” says Griffith. “It just gives me another set of eyes. Gretchen and I are the chief cooks and bottle washers here. We can’t always scout for pests when we need to. It’s very hard for a small grower who’s doing everything already to get all of the IPM work done. And a lot of people are also working off the farm too.”

Farmers who participate in Eco-Fruit agree to use IPM practices instead of spraying pesticides based on a traditional calendar schedule. Instead, they spray on a more limited basis depending on the weather, data about pest and disease levels and other factors. Although trained coaches advise growers on IPM strategies, growers are an integral part of the process, advising each other through local networks.

“When I went to IPM, the biggest change was throwing away calendar spraying and learning there are a lot of different ways to do things,” says Griffith, who first learned about IPM 25 years ago while attending fruit school in Michigan.

“I started trapping,” he explains. “I became more aware of what I needed to watch out for. I quit using some of the materials that caused some of the problems. When Eco- Apple came along, I think it’s gotten me re-energized to get back into some of the details. It’s been good to hear what growers around the state are doing.”

In the first five years of the program—started in part with a grant from the EPA’s Strategic Agriculture Initiative—participating growers reduced their pesticide risk by 58 percent and increased their reliance on IPM strategies by 33 percent.

Jim Lindemann, a Dane County apple grower in one of Eco-Fruit networks, is now studying to become an IPM coach. “The real fundamental thing is developing a set of resources,” he says. “If there’s one skill that’s a prerequisite for being a good orchardist, it’s knowing where to look for help. There are answers out there—somebody has dealt with the problem before.”

Story and photographs by KIRSTEN FERGUSON
Published in The Power of Nature [PDF], a joint publication of American Farmland Trust and the Environmental Protection Agency, September 2012

"Door Creek Orchard" "Eco-Apple" "Cottage Grove" "Tom Griffith"

Door Creek Orchard in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin

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