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Steve Ela of Ela Family Farms in Hotchkiss, CO shares how he manages his organic perennial fruit orchard with a holistic eye. Grateful for the long view that a multi-year crop like trees gives the grower, Steve and family implement highly sophisticated low-impact practices that “benefit the commons” rather than polluting. Steve shares his secrets to naturally controlling the infamous apple codling moth and green peach aphids – pests that result in the massive use of harmful pesticides in conventional fruit production. In the 1950s, Steve’s grandfather was one of the first to plant cover crops for fertility in a fruit orchard. Read the full transcript below.

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Steve Ela, Ela Family Farms, Colorado

The organic ecosystem fascinates me. How we work from soils, to tree, to pruning, to thinning, to a peach that drips down your chin when you eat it – that whole system is what I love about Organics. It’s so unknown.

I mean, we know so little about soils and perennial fruit systems.

I’m Steve Ela, of Ela Family Farms here in Hotchkiss, Colorado. My family has actually grown fruit in Western Colorado since 1907. We started organic farming in 1994 and the farm became 100% certified in 2004.

Before that, we were conventional farmers, but at this point, I would never go back. If something happened and I couldn’t be an organic grower I’d probably just put up a for sale sign and move on and do something else.

We grow organic sweet cherries, peaches, pears, apples. We have plums, and rhubarb, and heirloom tomatoes, as well.

“I Love Being an Organic Grower Because I Love Ecosystems.”

We grow perennial trees that are here for 20 to 40 years. We grow cover crops between the trees. The whole thing is a system. We have to think multi-year no matter what because they’re trees.

Every year is different because the weather is different, the trees respond differently; we have different rainfall, the cover crops behave differently, and the insects behave differently.

Some years our predators are ladybugs and other years they’re lacewings. What makes that shift in any given year? There is no doubt that I could farm for 100 years and still be learning from this system.

“My goal as a grower is no externalized costs.” – Steve Ela

My goal is to not have nitrate leaching in my groundwater, not have soil erosion that floods rivers, not lose phosphorus, and not have some of these things that we as a society subsidize otherwise. Rather we want to keep costs on the farm, and account for them, and take care of them.

Orchard Cover Crops Grow Fertility on the Farm

My granddad actually was one of the first people to plant cover crops in orchards. They were all clean cultivated up until that. He bought a rotor beater, a mower that can mow the cover crops – that was really innovative. We have a newspaper article from the 50’s showing this innovation.

We’ve always had cover crops near trees. We’ve managed them differently than we do now, but my goal, and we’re not there yet, is to grow all our own fertility on the farm.

We’re planting our cover crops, we’re planting legumes, we use a lot of alfalfa, Dutch white clover, and hairy vetch.

We’re certainly looking into some of the other cover crops that we need to play with more. We have very shallow top soils and very deep, clay subsoils and alfalfa is one of the few roots that goes down into that subsoil.

Most other plant roots hit that subsoil and go sideways, and so alfalfa is really critical in our system to build that topsoil layer deeper, to bring minerals up from below, to build water channels through that subsoil.

We’re running 3.5% organic matter, so in these soils, that’s 1.5-2 percent above normal.

Organic Growers Sequester Carbon in the face of Climate Change

One of my hopes for organic farming is in mitigating the climate change that we’re facing.  Organics can lead in the way in terms of carbon sequestration – how much carbon and organic matter we’re tying up and holding onto in the soils. I hope that Organics gets a lot of credit for that.

There are very few insects that we actually have to control. Aphids and mites are biologically controlled by natural predators, if we don’t screw the system up by using insecticides, which also harm the beneficial insects.

Codling moth, which is the worm in the apples, if we don’t control that, we’re going to get eaten alive. So, if we’re going to control it, how do we control it without screwing up the rest of that system?

When we were conventional, invariably you put on the worm spray, the codling moth spray, and then because you killed off many of the natural predators, you’d have to put on an aphid spray and also a mite spray. Those are really harsh sprays and the pests are really good at developing resistance. So, you’re on this chemical treadmill.

Whereas, once we got rid of those conventional materials, aphids and mites disappeared from the system because of the proliferation of natural predators. They’re there, you can find them – you need some food for the biological predators, but I don’t even scout for them anymore. They’re a non-issue.

Natural Insect Control with Pheromone Mating Disruption

If you look at our insect control program, it’s really the result of organic research in the last 20 years.

For example, for codling moth for worms, our first line of defense is pheromone mating disruption. We’re putting out dispensers with the pheromone specific for that insect – the pheromone that the female insect emits to attract the male.

We’re blanketing the orchard with that pheromone. Those pheromones are very specific to that insect. We’re not disrupting any natural beneficials by putting out this specific pheromone, but we’re controlling codling moth.

Our second line of defense, if they’re still finding each other, is a natural virus that is specific to codling moth again. So you can apply it, it doesn’t affect any other insects, and it doesn’t disrupt the system. It only hurts the insect that we’re going after, and it’s a naturally occurring virus – essentially like releasing ladybugs to control aphids – so I think that’s really elegant.

This spring in fact, we came out and green peach aphid, which can sometimes blow up was there. At one point I thought “uh-oh, this may be one of those years that the peach aphid is going to get ahead of us.” Two weeks later, you couldn’t find them. Ladybugs and other natural predators moved in, and away they went. If you look at the trees now, you wouldn’t even know they were there.

Funding for Research on Organic Farming is Needed

I still hear “Organics can’t feed the world” and I just don’t believe that.

I think if you compare our peach production to conventional peach production we can equal it. Apples, maybe not so much, but other crops, we can do better.

I think if we did more research on Organics, if we had the equivalent amount of research money into Organics that we’ve had in conventional, those arguments would go away.

If people take a taste at our farmers market and walk away and then they turn around and come back and buy from us because they’re stunned, that’s a good day. And that’s means we’re doing our job.

The more we do that with carrots and broccoli and tomatoes and all these things that people should eat for health, but we make them enticing and stunning, then the five-a-day program isn’t even needed because people just want to eat those things.

Growing “The Best” in a Complex System Requires Humility

We as organic growers need to be proud of what we do. But one of the concerns I guess I do have in Organics, just my own personal philosophy, is that I think we have to be careful about making claims that organics is “the best.” I think we can always say, “our goal is to be the best” – that’s what I strive for here.

Can I tell you I grow the “best peach” this weekend at the market? Well, that’s up for you to decide. You can go around and taste everybody’s peaches, and if mine are the best then great – that’s what I want to be. Sometimes I hit that, and sometimes I don’t.

In Organics we have to be wary that we are dealing with complex systems and we don’t know everything. I think it’s the wording of striving for betterment and to continuously improve is really critical, instead of saying “it’s just the best.”

We’ve seen conventional growers not become Organic but over time soften up their programs. Oftentimes it was giving them space where they didn’t have to be wrong. They’ll say “Wow, when we took this pesticide out of our system, we saw this result and that was pretty cool!”

So there’s no judgment. Then suddenly you see some of these hardcore growers going “I don’t know if I should spray because I might not want to take that beneficial out” and you’re like “Bingo!”

I think we need to give people room to change gracefully and to learn and to be proud of what they’re doing. This is really, really important.

Even as organic growers we need to say, “Yeah, maybe we’re not as good as we could be, but that’s the direction we want to go.”