Farming for the earth and the people on it
Every apple has a story. A story that is not fully told by a label that says “certified organic”, “no spray” or “naturally grown.” Farms can produce beautiful apples without meeting any standards for health or sustainability but creating a truly healthy orchard and great apples is a more exciting challenge. Our recipe for meeting that challenge and growing fantastic apples includes sixty chickens, gallons of liquefied yucca plants, trillions of Cydia pomonella virus bodies and ½ billion nematodes. Along with this go emulsified kelp, fish and some organic milk. It’s a crazy brew but everything has a purpose in building healthy trees, healthy soil, healthy farmers and healthy apples.
When we took over the Queener Farm in spring of 2014 it had been managed lovingly but with an array of chemical assistance we knew from the start we would have to do without. While the prior owners used the chemicals in moderation, the trees still depended on them to fight off disease. The insect life on the farm was short of beneficial insects and had a population of codling moths just waiting for the chance to multiply. Of course, we didn’t know the extent of all of this until we’d been in it for a couple of summers.
Following the principles of sustainable agriculture that says you don’t treat a problem that doesn’t exist and you assess it first before deciding what and how much – we knew we’d have to watch the orchard without chemicals for a while to know it well enough, to know what exactly needed to be treated and how.
This was more complicated than it sounds as this is a complicated orchard. It has around apple 2000 trees. That’s not overwhelming but they’re in 119 varieties – and that often is. They bloom over an almost three month period, they range from highly disease resistant to totally disease prone. A handful died after one season without sprays. The bad insects love some and refuse to touch others and the bees are more attracted to some than others. Some of them crop every year in abundance, some crop every other year, some are just heavier and lighter for reasons we have not yet figured out, though given their bloom range, some were probably just unlucky with bloom time weather. Some have yet to fruit under our watch. Many of the varieties have little or no information available on them.
This orchard manages to amaze us and confound us in equal measure.
This is the time of year we start to get a real idea of what our apple crop will be like. We learn which varieties are “on” this year and how heavy the crop is on each tree. We also get a good glimpse at what the disease and insect pressure might be like. It’s exciting this year because it looks like a heavy and beautiful crop that is thriving with our new regimen and growing like mad with the abundant rain.
We’ve refined our techniques and feel proud of the work we’ve done to figure out how to help our orchard thrive using safe, healthy and organic practices. We are strict about following organic rules, as next year we reach the three year threshold for certification. But we go even further because a healthy orchard filled with healthy fruit is our ultimate goal. Last year we gazed at some of the trees with a mix of concern and flat out worry. As they recovered from life with chemicals some of them got attacked by diseases. Insect pests found the orchard faster than any of their beneficial predators. So, after a long, wet winter of reading and finding the right resources it seems we’ve found the right disease and insect control regimen for the orchard.
Then this winter we began our new, active “beyond organic” management and we’re seeing all the right insects return, the diseases almost completely disappear and the pests drastically diminish. The orchard appears to be thanking us with a robust kind of health that makes friends wonder what sort of miracle fertilizer we sprayed. It’s amazing and wonderful to watch. The most exciting part is watching the trees as they bloom, leaf out and now begin to grow their abundant set of fruit. They are green and lush, they thrum with pollinators and predator insects. It all adds up to an orchard that feels vibrantly alive.
We had originally planned a very traditional organic approach for this orchard. That approach uses lime, copper and sulfur and while it follows organic rules these sprays are caustic, dangerous for the operator and can build up to toxic levels in the soil. That combined with my own discomfort with being the one under these caustic sprays and the knowledge of how they damage the new leaf tips in the disease curing process led me to keep looking further.
After some study, much of it in European organic orchard research, we switched our disease control to a yucca extract. That and, of course, the chickens whose role in eating larva, decomposing leaves and fertilizing trees, can’t be overstated. One of the first sections of trees we sprayed with yucca were a small group of trees so diseased we had planned to remove them. Trees and fruit were covered in a scab infection and we just didn’t want it to spread further into the orchard. Even in winter the bones of the trees looked sad. Today these same trees are lush and we have to search hard to find even the tiniest dot of scab among the dark green leaves. This is the time of year when scab shows up as dark scabby spots on leaves and, in worst cases like these were, with misshapen fruit. The perfection and clear robustness of these trees just awes us. The yucca may be five times as expensive as the bags of caustic powders that were the traditional organic prescription but we’ve concluded it is more than worth it. Plus, it’s perfectly safe to stand under or even taste. It’s like a molasses that smells of tequila.
Our next step in orchard health has been insect control. Insects got a three pronged approach to greatly diminish the problem ones and allow the necessary ones, pollinators, to flourish. Unfortunately most of the organic approved sprays have some impact on pollinators and other beneficial insects. Here the chickens are key but they have partners in the other “livestock” on the farm – the 500 million very specific and special nematodes. We write odes to the nematodes, and songs and limericks. In part because we’re charmed by these little guys and in part because applying them requires us to shake and shimmy, agitating the mix, dancing around the orchard with 35lb packs on our backs for days on end. Next comes an innovative biological virus that just infects codling moths, they are the apple worms. We use it more like the Europeans, low doses and weekly sprays early in the season with some yucca included to improve stickiness through rain and add a sweetness to make it extra attractive to the bugs. Again, more expensive than the other organic options and more labor intensive. But when we look in the empty codling moth traps and walk through the orchard literally thrumming with bees we understand the benefits of this approach. Applying this expensive virus efficiently is a big part of what caused us to rethink our equipment and entirely rebuild our spray apparatus.
The orchard has a big, complicated 300 gallon air blast sprayer. It had been the primary sprayer. But it was a beast to use, made it really hard to finesse our spray plan because filling it up meant spraying the entire orchard with whatever was in it. It is terribly wasteful as it blasts the universe, not just the trees. So we found an old 50 gallon sprayer that was built to spray the ground and built a new spray boom for it that sits close to the trees and directs spray directly on them from top to bottom at once. It’s light enough to use with our more maneuverable smaller tractor, we create slightly different concoctions now for each part of the orchard and we’re able to use less of the expensive organic amendments because we’re spraying the trees not the world in general.
The use of chemicals not approved for organics ended in this orchard in May of 2014, it rested and healed thru a year and a half of a “hands off” let’s-just-quit-doing-harm plan and now it seems to be awakening to health through our new gentle but aggressive approach. In another year we anticipate being both “certified organic” and astoundingly healthy.
I hope we’ve conveyed here how exciting it is for us to see an orchard that is healing and so alive it is enlivening for us just to be in it. Due to our abundant crop we’re enlarging our apple club, a five month season long apple CSA, and so people can sign up for it and both enjoy our apples and support our healthy transition. More information is on our website queenerfarm.com. We’ll be opening the farm stand for gooseberries, currants and vegetables in June before the apple season actually starts and we welcome you to come out and have a look, share a glass of our surprisingly good first tests of hard cider and pick something fun to eat.
So, here’s to continued vibrancy in the orchard and lots of healthy apples to watch grow.