Apples and other tree fruit have been grown organically for many centuries. Conventional chemical methods, by contrast, have been used only for the past hundred years or so. Yet most orchard consultants today will tell you it’s impossible to grow fruit organically. The paradox lies in the economy of these times, not in the orchard itself. In fact, a handful of apple growers across North America are successfully producing beautiful organic fruit, employing both the intuitive practices of our great-grandparents and the scientific discoveries of today’s integrated pest management research. Apples like these—naturally grown and healthy, full of flavor and nutrition—can be produced only on the small farms and in the backyards of people who are intimately involved with their trees.
The Apple Grower is intended to bring the stewards of these orchards—and those who dream of doing the same—together. To share what’s known and not known about all aspects of organic fruit production. To state the commercial realities of orchard ventures and look at how the economic context can be changed for the better. To carry on the work of our great-grandparents into the twenty-first century. To learn how we can pass on to future generations orchards that are not hazardous to our health.
Many of the threads to the tapestry we’re weaving together are in place. The basic knowledge about good orchard ground, pruning techniques, the value of thinning, and harvesting for flavor is well established. The debates about rootstocks and varieties, ground-cover management, and spray options are good ones. Our brightest threads come from replicated results in controlling apple scab, lepidopterous moths, and apple maggot flies. Threads that were obscure just ten years ago now glitter as well. We can confidently ask plum curculio (long considered Public Enemy Number One) to inflict its damage elsewhere and get an obedient response. Our eyes have opened to the fascinating world of microorganisms and the bigger picture of true soil health. Yet the human thread is perhaps the most ambiguous of all: Why do we ask of our orchards what we do?
There are definite answers to some long-standing dilemmas in this book. Equally key is understanding the ways we need to think to overcome further challenges. The depth of detail provided here comes from many sources and is meant to inspire us as growers to workable ideas. Everyone—whether you are struggling to make a living at farming or are a fledgling home orchardist—can contribute to the discussion. Knowledge and cooperation are part of our power. The rest lies in the heart and a deep love for our trees.
My apple doings have changed considerably since the first edition of this book. The water-powered cider mill operation we had going then came to a grinding halt when liability issues became more important than agrarian freedom. Our long-standing lease was taken back, the cider mill shut down for good, and the trees mostly cut down. Needless to say, I felt like I had lost part of my family. And yet it was an apple tree that eventually “spoke” to me at an herbal workshop I attended in Vermont. Herbalists say every plant being has a spirit, of sorts, and so it is with trees. My meditations that day focused in part on what to do next with my life. I sat beneath a garden apple tree I had pruned for a friend earlier that spring. Deep within a voice stirred.
You, too, are pruned, apple grower, in order to become stronger. Now this cut is open, dripping the sap of your visions and hopes. It will heal, as all things do in time. Afterward you will be stronger to carry the harvest to come.
I knew at that moment that although my path might have changed, it had not been altered. That somehow I needed to embrace all the challenges of community orcharding, including the human ones.
What had seemed such a blow was in actuality an opportunity to think better. Here was a chance to continue growing apple trees on a much-reduced scale on our own farm (a few miles down the road from the former cider mill), where I could try out my intuition about healthy apple ecosystems from the get-go. The time was ripe to combine the lessons I’d learned in working with healing plants with the agrarian common sense inherent in any self-motivated farmer.
All of which requires a patience measured in years, of course. We now have about 240 trees in the ground on a wide assortment of rootstocks in Lost Nation Orchard. These plantings are in small blocks scattered about our Heartsong Farm Healing Herbs operation. Ours is not premium apple ground, but it is land we own outright. Sometimes I’m tempted to consider a move in order to grow many more apples. Other times I know my relationship with this place runs deep and leaving would be difficult.
We are constantly evolving, as any sustainable farm operation should. We sell apple shares to families in our local community wanting flavorful fruit. Larger harvests in future years will bring the kinds of opportunities shared in the marketing chapter of this book. We have not given up on honesty in language: We press real cider, though admittedly by far simpler means (on a hand-screw press) with the help of our shareholders. I envision an addition to our post-andbeam barn where someday soon there will be a small commercial press and an innovative “earth refrigeration” system. Such investments can only come over time as community energy builds. Inch by inch, the gardener says; tree row by tree row, say I.
I realize that I am not promoting the orthodoxy of the day in The Apple Grower. This no-holds-barred position is intended to challenge every grower and cooperative researcher to think more intelligently. A number of surprises wait on these pages. The range of methods offered needs to be tailored for localized conditions, as no orchard is ever quite the same as another. Orchardists tap into a wide knowledge base in trying to figure out what works for them, both practically and economically.
Our discussion of holistic disease management will take a revealing look at the role of nitrogen fertilizers and fungicides in increasing tree susceptibility. Time and time again I’ve watched friends who read the original edition of the book simply not get it when it came to reducing the number of sulfur sprays considered necessary to control apple scab and the like. Holistic connection takes into account far more variables that affect overall health, rather than merely repressing disease symptoms by allopathic means. Knowing why the apple tree thrives in a forest-edge ecosystem suggests understory practices by which orchardists can abet Nature’s way. Promoting the health of the soil is the means by which orchardists produce life-enhancing fruit that in turn promotes human health. The right kind of yields and financial rewards follow from there.
Our attitude toward ecosystem diversity determines the pest reality we manage in our orchards. Growers who acknowledge that all beings have a rightful place will subsequently find gentler ways of balancing insect dynamics in order to achieve a decent crop share. Growers who resort to tactical warfare will spend far more of their time and resources in annihilating anything that moves. The allies to be found in a systems approach to orcharding will more likely be absent if we focus instead on remedial inputs that impact each situation anew. Nature insists we become wiser, and that requires an open mind. The biodynamic practice of paying attention to each farm’s individuality is something we all need to comprehend.
Communication among growers rates high, in my opinion, when it comes to being a less ignorant cuss. Please keep me informed as to what works in your orchard so I can share solid results on the research page of my Web site (www.herbsandapples.com). You are a part of this quest whether you currently use some chemical sprays or not. Growing safe fruit with a minimum of off-farm inputs is a mutual goal, not an exclusive club. We share a kinship that makes us family.