Putting in my notice.

On my one year anniversary here, I put in my notice that I would be leaving by the end of the year.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to put in your notice, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to “what’s next.” At the same time, I’m in mourning. I had so much hope and energy to be here, had told myself that it was going to be a permanent move. I spent all of my savings on erecting a greenhouse and starting a nursery business, taking any security blanket away and throwing me into this crazy world. I have learned many things this year about myself, running a business and working with southern heirloom apple varieties. I had some really awesome days and some days where I felt so miserable that I wanted to just disappear. I have never been more stressed out, sleep deprived or lonely in my life, yet I still thought this was where I needed to be. I attribute this to my often ridiculous love for the trees, which blinds me at times.

When I worked with a very old man in Maine managing his 100 variety orchard, he had me spraying a fungicide on the trees with a wand sprayer as he drove the tractor up and down the rows. Having never sprayed this fungicide before, he assured me that wearing a rain coat was sufficient. I got so much of the fungicide on me that that my skin started to burn intensely and I felt physically ill (vomiting). I was confined to the bed for the remainder of the day and didn’t feel right until about a week later. The smell of this particular fungicide makes me ill to this day, much like certain hard alcohols make others feel after one bad night of overconsumption…you, know, our body reminding us to stay the hell away.  I know that I was improperly clothed, but I vowed then and there never to be in a situation where I had to spray anything like that again. I also vowed to never be in a management position where I have someone spray those chemicals.

This is why I decided to head down the cider apple route. As an apple orchardist with an heirloom niche, it was a perfect transition for me to manage trees in a way that I thought would be more responsible for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. It was a way to grow ugly apples and have them be valued for their flavors rather than their looks. Every tree is different and these old genetics have a thing or two to teach us, so I was excited to learn from the varietal collection here. Over the past year, I have learned a lot from the trees, some subtleties and some big picture items. Enough to have me convinced that I can grow within my own personal ideologies in order to produce a fantastic and all together healthy product if given the opportunity to keep working with the trees in what is nowadays seen as a careless, ignorant, and improper management approach.

This is why, at this time, “This is a business” is not a good enough excuse to get me to spray things I don’t believe are necessary given the goals and objectives. I can’t concern myself with the now and turn a blind eye to what my impacts might be down the road on this landscape and other people.  That’s not responsible, I can’t let myself spray a tree with pesticides, fungicides, hormones and other chemicals without knowing what the tree’s genetics and natural associations are capable of producing. Perhaps that is the definition of a radical these days.

Yesterday someone from a University came by the cider house and asked me what I had sprayed earlier that day. I hadn’t sprayed anything. She was smelling the residues left behind from the previous pressing of apples brought in from a conventional orchard. When I had walked past them last week, I could smell fungicide residue from 50 feet away.  Had there been any question, one could just go and look at the dusty film on the apples to confirm suspicions. Apparently this smell can linger 3 days in a parking lot, which is disturbing on a variety of levels.

I’ve been told that I should seek out this conventional dessert fruit orchardist’s advice, the one who delivered the above mentioned apples. I should have him look at my spray schedule in order to help me adjust it and make the right decisions, they said. Perhaps I’m just really naïve or ignorant, but it’s hard for me to believe that this person and I have anything in common other than the fact that we’re growing the same fruit that has more than 7000 known and genetically different varieties.

Eliza is very (might be tragically) wrong, but smart and innocent.” That’s from an email that was haphazardly forwarded to me from a person concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing, so they sought out professional advice. Look, I will be the first person to tell you that I have no idea what is actually the right way to be doing things, but I also didn’t  hesitate for a second to call up that highly opinionated person who had never actually talked to me about my management practices, nor seen the trees in question and ask him if he really thought that his practices could be translated to my location. He could not say. The shoe does not fit universally.

I chose to accept the criticisms from that man and prepare for a life of always being wrong until one day, maybe, I’ll be on the right track. It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work and a lot of cooperation between growers who are within my same wavelength, but only recently have I realized that I’m strong enough for the job. I have shed a lot of tears, been emotionally and physically drained, and felt the solitary rigors of my profession to the point where I’ve wondered if it’s worth the work. But then I see the effect this work can have on those I encounter.  Seeing people’s interest catch on fire makes all of this worth it. 

Deep down inside of me, there is an unexplained energy that propels me forward with all of this and gives me a voice. It’s the same feeling I had 6 years ago when I was up in the tree, learning how to prune for the first time. It’s a purpose, as if every cell in my body thinks I should be doing this. I will keep learning from the landscapes around me and encourage everyone else to do the same. Go fruit exploring, learn from the trees planted in the landscape from our neighbors 100+ years ago, for they were planted for a purpose and the fact they are still standing and producing copious crops is a valuable lesson to try and uncover. Ask hard questions, be insatiably curious, look beyond the orchards, and convince people to eat blemished fruit (#eatuglyapples).

I’m prepared to follow this gut feeling and I’m also prepared to fail terribly in pursuit of potential valuable gains for the health and sustainability of orcharding.  With that, I put in my notice.  Lookout, world.

(we set a record this year for harvest, 7 tons per produceable acre. It was a good production year, but that number I just gave you, 7 tons per acre, was the amount we pressed. )
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virgin birthing

In a recent article written by National Geographic, a female python in captivity, Thelma, gave virgin birth to 6 (half-clone!) baby snakes in 2012. Only recently has the DNA confirmed that no male has ever been present in the making of these hatchlings. This phenomenon of virgin birthing in nature is called “parthenogenesis,” which basically means that these creatures were able to self-fertilize or reproduce asexually. (Harry Potter fans out there, I can’t get “parthel tongue” out of my head. Which is totally what Thelma the snake speaks, with a lisp.)

My introduction to the concept of “parthenogenesis” happened over a decade ago when I was writing a paper for a biology class. I had grown tired of writing the same old standard science papers, so I decided to turn in a paper that was half science, half sultry romance. At the time, Jerry Springer was a big name on television and the concept of parthenogenesis fit in quite well into a “who’s the daddy” type of drama.  I remember being handed back the graded paper and written in giant red across the top, it said: “Ms. Greenman- See me after class!!!”

I walked into the office after class and was commanded to SIT DOWN. So I did, thinking that I might be receiving an F-. It took me a while to look into her eyes and when I did, I saw a face beaming with entertainment. She looked at me for a few seconds and with a laugh, got up with chalk in hand and made me sit through a lecture on the juicy particulars I had missed in the Jerry Springer scenario and then told me re-write the paper to include what I had just learned.

She sent me that national geographic article this morning with a note: “Perhaps this will help contribute ideas towards the nature novel you need to write.”

What does this have to do with apples? Well, let me try to tie this all together (since this is an apple blog, after all).  In the horticultural world, we have a similar term called “Parthenocarpy,” which literally means “virgin fruit,” and refers to fruit which is developed in absence of fertilization. These fruits are naturally seedless and, basically, they are freaks in nature. Just like Thelma the python.

Lee Calhoun writes about an apple called Bloomless, Seedless, Coreless in his book, Old Southern Apples, but it turns out not to be seedless, and actually has two cores.  Still, TIME magazine wrote an article in 1941 about a discovered coreless apple:

“The first coreless, seedless apples known to science were discovered only last year. Weighing a plump quarter-pound each, they grow on a freak tree in Mrs. Libbie Wilcox’s backyard in Huntington Park, Calif.

This week the Department of Agriculture is working with the tree in the hope of making seedless apples as commonplace as seedless oranges. Since there are no seeds to plant, the new fruit must be propagated by grafts on normal apple trees.”

To the extent of my knowledge, this project was not successful (or else they are being kept where the fertile mules live). It makes sense for these apples to be quite rare, because it’s the apple tree’s #1 job to disperse seed. If an insect gets into an apple, it’s often headed straight for the seeds. Once those seeds are eaten, the tree notices that the apple can no longer do it’s job in growing future apple trees and (literally) lets it go. Apple trees don’t like free loaders, either.

So there, I’ve brought it back to apples. I’d love to find that apple written about in TIME magazine, though. Would be nice to add to the collection.

Vigor on a landscape continued

Ok, in this post which lists my incomplete and quick jumble of apple tree vigor thoughts, I introduced the photo below. It shows the fall flush of late season growth (bright green), which I’ve decided to use as a visual indicator for vigor.  Quickly, so you don’t have to go and read the last blog post, my theory is this: For a heavy soil that receives a lot of rain, slope matters when you’re planting very vigorous varieties (v^3) of apples. Vigor isn’t a good thing in my mind, at least not for apple production. The tremendous amount of vegetative growth this orchard gets makes the trees more susceptible to fireblight and reduces the fruiting potential. I want to learn how to better control vigor in order to more organically reduce pressure from fireblight and lack of fruit (there are antibiotics and black magic sprays that address these issues in a conventional orchard). Enter in this picture below: I know it’s a bad picture (I could really use a cool drone for this sort of thing), but you can see the green flush of the upper NE corner and how there is a lot more growth on those trees than the rest. I decided to look at the web soil survey (through NRCS) this morning to see if the soil map complements my theory that slope and aspect (but mostly slope) do have an important effect on tree vigor.  North Orchard Fall Flush

This is what I found!

North Orchard Soils

(Note: the rows were sprayed with roundup in this picture. I will one day talk about this, because it’s a real issue)

Soil types for North Orchard

You see! The difference between a “sloping” loam and a “steep loam” is totally corroborated in the picture that I took.

So what does this mean?

It seems like everyone in permaculture is on the “plant on contour,” “swale,” or “keyline” kick. I’m here to remind everyone that no site is the same. We have a rocky silty loam that is clay-rich after 7 inches down. We get a lot of rain. We have problems with too much vegetative growth and not enough fruit bud growth. Swaling, contour plantings and keyline are often seen as silver bullets for regenerative ag and in many circumstances, I agree. However, it’s time to think about the crops we want to grow and how to get fruit off of them. In Southwestern Virginia, trapping water would would cause INSANE vigor that would reduce our crop and increase susceptibility to disease.

Of course, rootstock and variety selections matter as well, and I’m mostly talking about heirloom varieties here which tend to be more vigorous anyway. If you live in an area that has heavy soils, a decent amount of rain, and want to plant fruit trees…give slope and aspect a thought in terms of vigor. Steep slopes where water isn’t given an opportunity to slowly seep into the soil…might be worth the thought.

One time, MC Hammer retweeted an article about me

Over labor day weekend, an article came out about me and apples on the epicurious blog titled:

Why We Should All Consider Eating Ugly Fruit <—click to read.

and then this happened on twitter…

MCHAMMER retweets article and picture of ElizaThis means that MC HAMMER read an article about me and apples and shared it with over 3 million people! How crazy is that?!  So, he’s performing at the South Carolina State Fair next weekend and I’m thinking about going with a large box of heirloom ugly apples in tow. Maybe he’ll be my rap ambassador for apples! That would be awesome! Perhaps a music video could be in the works…

#eatuglyapples

Some basic thoughts on apple tree vigor

I’ve learned a lot from the orchards this year surrounding vigor, and I feel like this course of study will be life-long. We get a lot of water here in southern Appalachia and while some apple varieties manage to sip this water, others gulp it and produce massive amounts of growth. You might be thinking: Growth! That’s wonderful! And it probably is if your tree is growing in a forest and needs to grow tall in order to reach the canopy and get some sun. But for an orchard, we have goals to harvest the crop and not the timber. When you are faced with a tree that has vigorous tendencies, the energy (sap) from the roots often rockets into growing new branches instead of growing new fruits.

These vigorous tendencies of many heirloom apple varieties are part of the reason why you don’t see them at the grocery store or in orchards today. Vigorous trees are expensive to prune, often more susceptible to fireblight (a bacterial disease), tend to produce less fruit, and can’t be spaced as closely together due to being bushy. Each of these varieties are totally different apples and requires different management techniques. The difference between a black limbertwig and a roxbury russet is the same as the difference between me and my best friend from high school. In the end, we both need food, water and shelter…but its how we use that food, water and shelter which ultimately dictates our health and quality of life. Like the black limbertwig, I seem to thrive in poorer environments. Natasha, my best friend who represents roxbury russet in this analogy, most certainly thrives in richer environments where there is abundance. (She’s going to kill me if she reads this).

This is the puzzle of heirlooms that I’m excited to spend my life trying to unlock. Where are these varieties happiest grown? What practical measures can I take to bring about more balance between vegetative and fruit growth?

Here are some brief thoughts (I could wax poetic about all of these bullets but I’m keeping it short in favor of readership):

Pruning: I have been a member of the EVERY WATER SPROUT MUST GO club before and now I’ve started to rethink this membership. For the vigorous trees, perhaps it’s not a bad idea to just trim these water sprouts rather than cutting them all out (water sprout= vigorous shoot of growth that is only 1 year old) so they can develop fruit buds and maybe start producing apples in another year. Fruit buds, by the way, are produced on second year growth. See diagram below (Cox is short for Cox’s Orange Pippin, a popular apple from the UK):

Site selection: You could argue the pros and cons for planting North, South, East or West until you are blue in the face. Rather than doing this in a blog, I’ll just tell you what I saw this year: South and Southwestern slopes are your poorest and driest sites due to the sun baking off water. At foggy ridge, we have a fairly steep south facing slope with rows of trees heading North-South. At the top of the hill where it is less sloped, vigor is higher than at the bottom of the orchard where the slope has steepened. This can sort-of be seen by a picture that I recently took of the trees with flushes of growth after a bunch of fall rain. The northeast corner, which is also the “flattest” land in the orchard, has tall shoots of recent growth, whereas the bottom southwest facing corner (that you can’t see) hardly has any flushed growth. Of course, these are different varieties and I’m just speculating here, but it’s a thought. fall flush with drawing

You might want to think through planting  apples on contour if you live in a wet area with heavy soils and don’t know how the varieties will respond. That is, if you are going for fruit production. In Kyrgyzstan, the wild apples were growing on depleted, dry soils. Contour will help you to harvest nutrients instead of them flowing down slope, but could also result in gigantic half-barren trees.

I won’t get into soil type, but that’s also important, if not the most important. Some apples want to be grown on sandy soils, others on clay soils. Some like wet roots while others like dry! The only way we’ll find out is if people start planting the same trees in different soil types.

Rootstock Selection: We have now have a not-so-secret weapon that all those men at the pomological society meetings didn’t have 100 years ago. Dwarfing rootstock! The size of the root ball basically dictates how much water and nutrients the tree will get. Think of it like arteries. If you have clogged arteries (dwarf rootstock), your activities are limited due to a reduced blood flow and oxygen uptake. If you have totally clear arteries (standard rootstock), you aren’t restricted by blood flow and you can go run a marathon if you want. Let it be known, dwarfing varieties die much more quickly than varieties grafted to larger rootstocks (much like blocked arteries cause heart attacks which kill at an earlier age…to stick with the analogy). So, the thought goes like this: If I graft a very vigorous variety (V^3) onto a rootstock with a tiny root system, the growth would have to be moderated because those roots can only take up so much!

Is this true? Well, partially. We’re learning, still. Thanks to the hard cider movement, people are actually grafting these V^3’s to dwarfing rootstock. Soon we shall see how varieties like harrison, a very popular cider apple (and the most vigorous variety I have EVER witnessed) grows for these people on a smattering of different soil types and rootstocks. I bet there will be a particular site somewhere in the US where Harrison can grow easily and without many inputs. It makes me excited to think about finding a true home for these varieties. To me, that’s the definition of terroir.

You see, this sort of thing used to happen all of the time! People (I assume old men) would attend pomological society meetings and discuss what is working for them and what is not. This information rarely was extended to other parts of the country due to the fact that news didn’t travel as efficiently as it does now. Nowadays, we have social media for instant dissemination of information. I just need to work on getting these people to talk, experiment, compare and contribute to documents like this for their area:

That’s where young people are really important. The average age of an orchardist is in the high 50’s, low 60’s but I seem to meet a whole of of them over the age of 70.  Many of these people (men) aren’t necessarily interested in trying new things, nor are they interested in using social media. These people will keep on doing what they’ve always done. It’s the next cohort that needs to be corralled into an arena of experimentation, information dissemination, excitement and camaraderie.

That’s part of why I’m here, I guess.