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DANIEL SUCAR
The Advocate

Local Journalism Initiative

The question is: Can you grow a good apple in Quebec without using chemical pesticides?

The answer is a resounding yes, according to Anick Joanisse. She has spent nearly two decades growing organic apples in Hudson, and debunking the widely held belief that the fruit can’t survive without pesticides.

But she will be the first to admit she has hit a few snags along the way.

“In our first year, we lost 400 of the 1,000 apple trees we planted because we didn’t have enough money to install a fence to keep deer away,” she said on a recent fall morning, sitting among the apple pies and golden honey bottles on display at her rustic gift shop on her 20-acre property in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region.

Joanisse, who runs Le Verger de Hudson Bio with her husband Eric Leger, admits forgoing the fence was a rookie mistake. It also marked the first of many challenges the couple has had to surmount since their love affair with apples began in 2002.

Another came in 2016, when a nasty case of fire blight struck their orchard. The contagious disease decimated 200 apple trees and pushed Joanisse to call in reinforcements from the provincial ministry of agriculture.

Two years later, the couple woke to bare trees and thousands of apples scattered on the ground after a particularly mighty September storm. The beating forced them to cancel their apple-picking season a month early.

“Obviously, there’s no shortage of things that can go wrong at the orchard,” Joanisse said, laughing. “But that’s the price of doing things differently. We’re moving away from the principles that have been fed to farmers for so many years.”

Most growers spray their trees with pesticides, like Immunox, to kill unwanted borers and fend off diseases. But Joanisse uses a mineral-based clay to create a protective, organic barrier between the apples and insects – including her nemesis, the coddling moth.

The clay, which is made up of the mineral kaolinite, is sprayed on the trees between 15 and 25 times over the spring and summer, depending on how many insects she counts in her traps. It leaves a white, powdery residue that, when applied, makes it seem as though the orchard is completely blanketed in snow.

“We don’t do anything systematically,” the orchard owner explained. “We only intervene if we need to.”

She also feeds her trees with composted wood chips and picks every weed in the field by hand. This is done as an alternative to using herbicides that contain glyphosate, like Roundup.

She’s not the only one protecting the trees from unwanted pests. She’s assisted by none other than ladybugs, who feed on aphids and moth eggs. She gets so much help from them, in fact, that she bestowed them the highest honour – a place on her orchard’s official logo.

Of course, the success of these organic practices all hinges on selecting disease-resistant apple varieties. Le Verger de Hudson Bio has 17 of them, including Empire, Honey Crisp, Liberty, Spartan and Eden.

If all this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. Joanisse will be the first to tell you, though, that the relatively small size of her orchard makes it easier to be pesticide-free. Most commercial orchards boast roughly 20,000 trees, she says, while hers only has 2,800.

In fact, the easily manageable size is what first drew the couple to purchase the 20-acre property from a local dairy farmer all those years ago.

That, and the location. The couple are from Hudson and wanted to find a way to stay close to their families, friends, and roots, all while fulfilling Léger’s lifelong dream of owning an apple orchard.

Joanisse, who is an upholster by trade, recalls how farmers in the area would scoff at her husband’s plans to go organic during those early days, arguing it would be impossible for self-taught first-timers to start a pesticide-free orchard from scratch.

“Any time we talked about our vision, people would laugh at us,” she said.

Two decades later, and the only ones laughing are Joanisse and Léger.

Next spring, she’s planning to add another 1,000 high-density trees to the orchard. They will be planted close together, with branches tied in a way that allows the apples to grow vertically.

It will be an experiment of sorts. Organic apple farming traditionally calls for the trees to be spaced out. This is done so wind can naturally dry the apples after a rainfall, which helps the fruit remain free of physical imperfections, such as spotting.

Joanisse and her husband, however, are hoping to get around that challenge by installing a mill-like contraption among the high-density trees, to mimic the effects of the wind.

After that expansion, though, the sky’s the limit for Le Verger de Hudson Bio.

“We didn’t go into this thinking that we wanted to leave a legacy,” she said. “But as time passes and the orchard grows, we find ourselves learning new things. It’s a beautiful thing, and we want to hold onto it for as long as we can.”

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