Danny Billens is an organic apple grower with 25 years’ experience. His orchard covers 8ha, of which 6.5ha are apple trees, 1ha pears and 0.5ha plums and cherries
It’s not an easy job, but I can certainly make the same amount of profit as I could growing apples using pesticides.
The fruit is mainly sold to wholesalers, organic markets and through organic box schemes. Lower quality fruit is used to produce apple juice and pastries in his daughter’s bakery.
Date of establishment
Danny was born into a farming family, but trained as a pastry chef. He started growing apples in 1987 and in 1990 switched to organic production, as he no longer wanted to use pesticides. Thanks to contact with Dutch and German apple growers, he managed to learn a lot about alternatives to pesticides, as well as pest control techniques and disease management.
Number of associates and workers
1 employee and seasonal workers
The agro-ecological practice
- Reliance on organic control techniques: minimal application of organically-certified pesticides because Danny is convinced that most organisms in his orchards (such as parasitic wasps, earwigs and ladybirds) are useful.
- Introduction of approaches that have a positive impact on the ecosystem
Technical information on the agro-ecological practice
He uses copper sulphate against scab, the most damaging apple disease, but only in spring to protect the trees from diseases, and in a dose that is ten times lower than that recommended on the package (300 to 500gr/ha). As an alternative to copper sulphate he also uses bicarbonate (sodium/calcium).
Sulphur and lime sulphur (California mixture/bouillie sulfocalcique) are also used as alternatives. The choice of one or the other is dependent on weather conditions. In very rainy periods, he prefers to use lime sulphur, since it is slower to wash away.
Spinosad, a broad spectrum product, and pyrethrum are generally only applied in emergency, because of the harm they can do to beneficial insects such as ladybirds and earwigs. Therefore, he applies this only in early spring, before earwigs and ladybirds appear, principally to combat the apple blossom weevil.
An effective new treatment for the codling moth is the confusion pheromone. A fragrance that attracts male insects is sprayed throughout the entire orchard, so that the male is unable to locate females for mating.
To avoid caterpillar damage, Danny prefers to use a bacterial toxin such as Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) as this works in a more targeted way.
If rosy apple aphid becomes a serious problem, the apple grower uses NeemAzal, an agent obtained from the neem tree (Azadirachta. indica), which only targets rosy apple aphid. This is fairly effective, but timing of the application is critical to its success.
In the fruit growing industry, a few hours can make all the difference to the effectiveness or otherwise of methods to fight pests and diseases. Spring (end of March – end of June) is the most sensitive/critical period for diseases and infections. Since the availability of accurate meteorological information is crucial, Danny is connected to the pcfruit npo weather station, which provides accurate meteorological data (temperature, humidity) hour by hour. This enables him to react promptly if an infestation is imminent.
Flowers are grown in Danny’s orchard as feed for populations of beneficial insects, such as earwigs, wasps, lacewings and ladybirds. He sows pasture seed mixtures at the field edges, and lets dandelions, daisies, buttercups and other herbs bloom between the trees.
Weeds are hardly a problem for Billens, except for root weeds such as nettle, thistle and sorrel. These he removes with a shovel. Tree lines are kept weed-free mechanically. It takes some work, but he considers it the best solution. In an alternating system, he allows smaller flowering weeds to grow between the tree rows, while the other tree rows are mowed.
More details can be found in the Greenpeace report, “The bitter taste of Europe’s apple production and how ecological solutions can bloom”, p44-48
Financial information about this practice
- Weather station: the weather station is owned by Proefcentrum Fruitteelt vzw (pcfruit npo). The fee for this service is €200/year and allows Danny to download information on his smartphone.
- Various products used: Danny has set up a purchasing group with 15 other organic farmers, enabling them to negotiate better prices through bulk purchase discounts.
Through careful monitoring and the addition of biodiversity to his farm, Danny is able to minimise the use of external inputs (like bio-pesticides) and instead focus on building long-term health and resilience into his farm. He also invests in modern technology.