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. )