Mothus Interrupus and Other Ways to Grow Fruit Organically

Many shoppers will pay a premium for apples, peaches, and grapes that are grown locally and organically. But there just aren't many fruits that fit these requirements in our markets. So Pennsylvania is funding research to help fruit growers in the region move away from using chemical weed and pest killers. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan reports. And click "read transcript" for a tarte tatin recipe recently served to G20 world leaders that included local, organic apples. Finally, don't forget you can call with questions about food and the environment. Phone anytime at 412-25-ZESTY to contact Jennifer and Chef Bill Fuller for their interactive Earth's Bounty 2.0 call-in segment.

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HOST: Many shoppers will pay a premium for apples, peaches, and grapes that are grown locally and organically. But there just aren't many fruits that fit these requirements in our markets. So Pennsylvania is funding research to help fruit growers in the region move away from using chemical weed and pest killers. The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan reports. It's part of our Earth's Bounty series on food and the environment.

Nat. Sound: Trees rustling, slight snaps

JORDAN: On a sunny fall day, three teenagers snap large red apples off trees sagging with fruit. Farmer Rob Shenot supervises the youngsters on his family's sixth generation farm, north of Pittsburgh. Shenot says that part of the reason these apples, which are larger than baseballs, look so perfect -- is because of something called mating disruption. He leans to the side as he points to the top of a tree.

SHENOT: Can you see this broken limb? There's sort of like a broken strawÔø? those tubes have pheromones.. There's at least one of those in every tree in the whole orchard.

JORDAN: The artificial pheromones are copies of chemicals that female moths use to let males know where to find them. But when an orchard is saturated with the fake stuff, it confuses the male moths.

SHENOT: They can't the pinpoint female's location and it's driving them nuts and they can't mate.

JORDAN: Which means they don't produce larvae that feed on fruit. The fake pheromones are, in effect, an organic pesticide. But Shenot is not an organic farmer. He's mainly interested in cutting costs to stay in business. And this new technique is working for him.

SHENOT: The first year, we saved 50 percent of insecticide sprays Ôø? this year, 60. This year we were able to cut out four or five insecticide applications that we would have had to make. As far as cost of putting out pheromones, if you can save two sprays, you're breaking even. We were able to do better than that.

JORDAN: Shenot also set up traps to see what types of moths are populating his 100-acre orchard. So he knows that he's not just imagining that they're goneÔø? and so that if they are detected, he can spray insecticide before his crop is damaged. Shenot learned about mating disruption from Penn State scientists who are trying out organic techniques in demonstration orchards near Gettysburg.

Nat. Sound: Torching from truck

JORDAN: Today, these researchers are testing out fire as an organic weedkiller. Weeds can steal water and nutrients from trees, as well as harbor mice that eat the trees' bark. Plant pathology professor Jim Travis is directing another scientist driving a tractor with a large propane tank and torch. They're figuring out the right speed and angle to fry weeds around young apple trees.

TRAVIS and other researcher: You browned those guys up. So this is about 3 miles. OK. And the RPM is 1800.

JORDAN: The research into organic techniques started about five years ago, when the state horticultural association asked Penn State to help growers use organic methods. The growers wanted to capitalize on the 30 to 50 percent higher prices at which they can sell fruits like apples to wholesalers. Although Pennsylvania is the fourth leading state in fruit production, less than one percent of organic apples sold in the state are grown here. They were afraid of not using synthetic chemicals in a wet environment where fungi thrive, and they worried that insects would be a problem. Travis was inclined to agree that it couldn't be done. He thought he'd just get this over with and move on to another more interesting project.

TRAVIS: We thought we'd give it a try but no one was convinced.

JORDAN: The USDA and the state have spent over 250 thousand dollars on the organic initiative. The efforts haven't always gone as hoped. Some disease-resistant heirloom apple varieties the Penn State team thought they might try just didn't work out.

TRAVIS: Ôø?I remember one in New Jersey called sheep nose, real hard and green.

JORDAN: And he says it was as flavorless as its name. Travis' workers have also had to spend more time, fuel, and sulfur fungicide than they'd planned to use earlier this spring because it was particularly rainy. Sulfur washes off trees easily, leaving them susceptible to fungal growth. But several of the other organic techniques Penn State's examined ARE working. Like using plain old milk to prevent a type of mildew, and vitamin C to curtail rot. Overall, the success rate with organics has ended Travis' earlier skepticism.

TRAVIS: We tried organic treatmentsÔø?and in fact they were effective. So, as a scientist I had to say, I disbelieve my technique, or I believe organic can work. Fruit is just as good a quality as anything that couldÔø?ve been grown synthetically.

JORDAN: Back at the Shenot farm, customer Elizabeth Bianchin thinks the apples grown with fewer pesticide sprays, look and taste great. And she's happy to learn about the organic techniques being used in the orchards. Bianchin's heard that growers usually have to spray apples with a lot of pesticides.

BIANCHIN: What I've read is apples are one of the things you try to buy organic Ôø? I'm not an all or nothing kind of, you know Ôø? I just think if you're cutting back, that's so important.

JORDAN: There are several other fruits that are often high in pesticide residues, according to the Organic Consumers Association. And farmers will be getting help from scientists on growing some of those fruits organically as well. Penn State is trying organic grape growing Ôø? and when the economy improves, the team hopes research money for peaches comes through.

It'll take time to see if all this research leads to more organic fruit in the market. Travis is pleased that -- whether a grower's going for organic certification, or someone more like Rob Shenot, who's simply saving money -- farmers are yielding the fruits of the researchers labor.

For The Allegheny Front, I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan.

OUTRO: Another Pittsburgh-area fruit farm -- Soergel Orchards -- is transitioning to organic apple growing with PSU's help. And even the rich and famous are taking notice. A caterer served those organic apples to world leaders during the recent G20 Summit. They were baked in a caramelized dessert called tarte tatin. ...

Puff pastry sheet (from a 17 1/4-ounce package available in many stores freezer sections)
1/4 cup local organic butter, softened
1/2 cup fair-trade sugar
7 to 9 Pennsylvania Gala apples (3 to 4 pounds), peeled, quartered lengthwise, and cored

Special equipment: a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet

Preheat oven to 425Ôø?F.

Roll pastry sheet into a 10 1/2-inch square on a floured work surface with a floured rolling pin. Brush off excess flour and cut out a 10-inch round with a sharp knife, using a plate as a guide. Transfer round to a baking sheet and chill.

Spread butter thickly on bottom and side of skillet and pour sugar evenly over bottom. Arrange as many apples as will fit, core side up, on sugar, packing them tightly in concentric circles. Apples will stick up above rim of skillet.

Cook apples over moderately high heat, undisturbed, until juices are deep golden and bubbling, 18 to 25 minutes. (Don't worry if juices color unevenly.)

Put skillet in middle of oven over a pan to catch any drips. Bake 20 minutes (apples will settle slightly), then remove from oven and lay pastry round over apples.

Bake tart until pastry is browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer skillet to a rack and cool at least 10 minutes.

Just before serving, invert a platter with lip over skillet and, using potholders to hold skillet and plate tightly together, invert tart onto platter. Replace any apples that stick to skillet. (Don't worry if there are black spots; they won't affect the flavor of the tart.) Brush any excess caramel from skillet over apples. Serve immediately.

Cooks' note:
--Tart can cool in skillet up to 30 minutes. It can also stand, uncovered, up to 5 hours, then be heated over moderately low heat 1 to 2 minutes to loosen caramel. Shake skillet gently to loosen tart before inverting.
--Try substituting other Pennsylvania fruits, like pears, for a variation of this dessert.