the over ambitious apple farmer: grafting

As greenhorns (beginning tradespeople), we often have no idea about what we are physically capable of getting done in an hour/day/week/month/season. If there’s a will, there’s a way….right? Let me talk about that for a bit.

I thought my business (Legacy Fruit Trees) would pre-sell 500 trees this year. I pre-sold 4000 instead. “Not a problem,” I told myself…”I’m capable and competent, I sooo have this covered. ”

And so I started grafting. Do you know how long it takes me to graft 250 trees? 8 hours. That’s almost 2 minutes per tree and what I consider to be fairly speedy rate. Here’s the process:

1.) Acquire rootstock (I bought rootstock from Treco, Cummins, Adams County and Cameron Nursery). Rootstock determines the size of your tree (in most cases) and how many years to fruiting. I accepted orders on everything from “standard” rootstock (30 foot tall tree taking 10 years to fruit) to “semi-dwarf” rootstock (down to 12 feet tall taking 2 years to fruit). In a later post, I’d like to review these companies and the quality of rootstock I received, but for now we’re sticking with the basics.

2.) Acquiring scionwood. Scionwood is the most recent year’s growth on an apple tree (any tree you find desireable, you can clone and it all starts with scionwood and rootstock). The time to collect it is in the late winter, when the tree has gone fully dormant (all the sap in the tree is now down in the roots).

3.) Grafting tool. For me, I used the Graftech Manual Grafter by Ragget Industries (review to come later). In the past I just used a victorinox grafting knife, but since I prune for 2 months straight before grafting, I have to give my wrists and carpel tunnel a rest and went with the foot powered machine.

graftech manual grafter4.) Cut scionwood. Cut Rootstock. Stick them together so the vascular cambium  from each are making as much contact as physically possible.

Harrison graft5.) Wrap and seal. I wrapped with a rubber band and sealed everything up using Doc Farwell’s graft sealer. This is the most time consuming of the process and is also the most important. You don’t want your graft union to dry out. Many people used parafilm which will wrap and seal all in one, but it’s not tight enough for my needs with this grafting tool. It will work with other methods, though.

6.) Stick in moist sawdust/peat moss in a cool place and wait for bud swell.

Ok, that’s the quick rundown. Now, 2 minutes per tree…4000 trees…that’s 8000 minutes! 8000 minutes of doing the exact same thing over and over and over again.  At first this was a  lot of fun because grafting is really cool. It’s like putting frankenstein together, only less scary and ultimately ending in delicious fruit. This fun didn’t last very long, though. I started day-drinking beer around the time when my cuticles started to bleed (probably day 6-or-2880 minutes).  It was also really cold and as you can see from the picture below, my grafting shed was (it’s now remodeled) a bit breezy.

Grafting ShedSo I hired someone to help me. The guy showed up and showed real promise and I made the rookie mistake of paying him after 2 day’s worth of help. He never came back.

Then I hired a 14 year old. To all of you out there: NEVER HIRE A 14 YEAR OLD! I had these aspirations of taking him on under my wing and turning him into an orchardist…until I had to re-graft every single one of his trees…which was about 500 of them. Really, if you are going to hire a 14 year old, you have to watch their every move and don’t trust that they understand anything. I wasn’t able to do this because I needed to graft alongside him (you know, to get more done).

A month passed and I hadn’t finished grafting. My fingers and wrists ached, all my clothes were covered in grafting sealer, and my loathing of the activity soared to new heights. This was compounded with the death of my 3 month-old puppy (FedEx ran her over while I was on my way out to the grafting shed) and I was absolutely miserable with 1500 trees to go.

I shared my drama with an apple mentor and he suggested that I stop grafting, plant the rootstocks, and do some bud grafting in the summer. Of course! There was a way out! Budding 1500 trees this summer is doable (I think). If it’s not- I’ve located a professional bud grafter who will come and do all of my trees for me. Yesssssss.

Lesson learned: Discovering (through experience) how long a task will actually take you is called “Wisdom.”

Lesson #2: No matter how passionate you are about an activity, you can burn out. I didn’t think it was possible….

Lesson #3: Teach a bunch of friends how to graft well before the time comes for you to actually start grafting your trees. Have them practice over and over again. Then, hire them. Make sure your friends are over the age of 14.

 

 

 

Some press from the NYFC (I’m featured on their blog)

Introducing Eliza Greenman, Owner/Operator of Legacy Fruit Trees in Virginia:

Eliza in winter attire

Up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia, I am the owner of a small fruit tree company, Legacy Fruit Trees- where I specialize in custom grafting and growing hard cider apple varieties (for now). This year, my first year, I’ve pre-sold 4000 trees which I’ll graft, grow, dig and ship in the coming months. Two days a week, I manage Foggy Ridge Cider’s 18-year-old, 8 acre hard cider orchard which contains 40 varieties of apples noted by people like Thomas Jefferson for making the highest quality cider.

Every day of working in the orchards is a learning experience because each variety wants to grow differently. When I’m not grafting and growing trees for other people, I’m grafting and growing trees for my future fruit and nut orchards (4 acres this year, many acres to follow). I currently have a collection of 650 apple varieties and have plans to design and plant a commercial-scale fruit and nut forest using a diversity of apple genetics and native Appalachian species.

Last year I moved back to Virginia (my home state) to start my businesses and orchards after many years spent in Maine, where I developed my passion and purpose for growing fruit and nut trees. My interest started on a small apple-tree-covered island in Maine and expanded to include MOFGA’s Apprentice and Journeyperson programs, where I steeped myself in the culture of apples.

Foggy Ridge Orchards

After 6 years of immersion, incubation, management and experiments, I received an opportunity to move back to Virginia where I could pursue my life goals of unlocking the potential of old varieties and bringing heirloom fruits back to the general public.

Many of the fruits I associate myself with have genetic resistances and tolerances to diseases facing the East Coast (even the South) and they are also purposeful- contributing to the best fresh eating and value added products one could consume. Hard cider is a product I specialize in, but I can also recommend handfuls of varieties which will make the best apple pies, apple molasses, mince meat, apple sauce, dried apples, and many other products.

Future Orchard Site

In the next few years, my trees will start to produce and I look forward to having people try these exceptional varieties. Perhapsthey will like them so much that they will want a tree of that variety growing in their yard. And perhaps I can tell them how best that tree wants to be grown. Retelling history, preserving ancient genetics, producing high quality ingredients, and creating lasting relationships with our surroundings can all be brought about with an apple tree. And that’s why I love what I do.

via Introducing Eliza Greenman, Owner/Operator of Legacy Fruit Trees in Virginia : National Young Farmers Coalition.