For more than a decade, organic apple and pear growers could spray antibiotics on their orchards to treat a virulent disease known as fire blight. But that practice will soon be banned. Some Northwest growers worry without antibiotics in their arsenal, they may have to leave the organic business.
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 how serious the problem was. Then signs quickly spread from tree to tree.
Now, he’s lost about 6,000 trees. That’s about one-tenth of his central Washington orchard. Middleton surveys the damage. He says fire blight has been nothing less than devastating.
“See, here’s two trees missing over here," he says. "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.”
Middleton says the disease has cost him about $900,000. And although he’s had to thin branches and remove trees, Middleton says he probably would have lost whole blocks of his orchard if he didn’t spray antibiotics.
Streptomycin and oxytetracycline are commonly used to treat tuberculosis and acne in people. 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 says.
The National Organic Standards Board recently met in Portland. It decided to ban antibiotic use in pear and apple orchards after October 2014.
But Middleton worries new alternatives won’t be fully tested by then. And, he says, that leaves few options.
“If it comes down to a decision to either lose the orchard or go conventional, there is no choice," Middleton says. "The choice has already been made for me.”
Researchers at Washington State University and Oregon State University are studying alternative treatments to fire blight.
David Granatstein is a sustainable agricultural specialist at WSU. He says these new alternatives are promising, but they need more testing. That’s because if growers have problems with the alternatives:
“You set things back terribly because people remember that," Granatstein says. "‘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.’”
Granatstein says some alternatives are three times more expensive than antibiotics. He says growers will also have to spray them more often than antibiotics.
And that could tickle down to consumers. Researchers predict the cost of organic apples and pears could go up in the near future.
Grower Gary Middleton says the goal was always to stop using antibiotics. He says every time he loses a tree, it takes years for a new one to grow to full production. That’s why it’s important to know that the new alternatives will work. Middleton points to two trees in his orchard.
Middleton: “This is about a five-year-old tree, maybe. Now, I want to give you a concept of how that compares to… There’s a 15-year-old tree.”
Reporter: “Yeah, the trunk is much thicker, and it’s much taller.”
Middleton: “And it just has more flowers.”
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. He’s just not sure how.
Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio