Pigs, Plum Curculio and Organic Standard

Next month, I’m getting five American Guinea Hog piglets (2 females, 3 males) from my amazing mentor, Shana, who lives up in Maine. For people who knew me when I lived in Poquoson, VA, the idea of me getting pigs probably doesn’t come as a surprise. When I was in the 8th grade, I negotiated with my parents to get a potbellied pig…as a pet. I read everything I could get my hands on about pigs, from veterinarian books to encyclopedias to library books (the internet wasn’t really a thing back then) and at one point, I vehemently gave up eating pork products and started putting up pig facts on the bathroom mirror every morning for my Mother to read. Eventually, they caved in and I called her Oprah, short for Ophelia.  I became an easy person to shop for because everyone got me pig things. Paper, plastic, metal, glass, aluminum, steel…you name it, I received it in a pig-shaped form. For all of high school, Oprah served as a backdrop for every single school project I ever had to present. She was a double helix for genetics class, she was Piggy in my Lord of the Flies book report presentation (Me: “Sucks to your as-mar, Piggy” Oprah: “Oink”). At 17 years old, she’s still alive (and lives with my sister).

This time around, 17 years later, I’m getting pigs for another reason… Apples!

Borrowed from grassfood.wordpress.com

The American Guinea Hog is a small heritage breed which is known for it’s foraging ability. These pigs love to eat grass, clover, dandelions, etc and are able to supply most of their diet from a good pasture mix. Because of their ingrained foraging skills, they don’t root as much as the other pigs…which is a characteristic I’m looking to select for in an orchard setting because I can’t have trees toppling over due to a pig being on a rooting binge. So, why am I getting pigs?

First of all, let’s talk about the foreign language spoken in the apple-growing realm this time of year. No matter if you’re hanging with an organic or a conventional orchardist, we all speak the same apple language to communicate how far along our apples are out of dormancy and that begins with the poster above. Sometimes we refer to these stages with excitement (“Hooray! Winter is over! I’m at half-inch green and it’s May 5th!”), while other times we speak this language with utter disgust (“I’m at pink and it’s supposed to go down to 24 degrees tonight. Efff.”). When trying to pre-treat your trees for an insect (like aphids) or disease (like apple scab) attack, there are sprays for all of the nine stages above. For the pig purposes of this entry, however, I’m going to skip to steps 7-9: Bloom to fruit set, which is happening right now by the millions as I type from the Champlain Valley.

As the apple blossoms give way to little apple fruitlets containing tiny seeds, insects are reacting. Particularly, the dreaded plum curculio! These little weevils fly in from their overwintering condos in the woods/brush piles/trashy fields/hedgerows, land on the little apple fruitlets, and insert their eggs. You know they’ve successfully done this because they leave a crescent scar as evidence (middle photo). If the egg is a dud or the apple is able to grow fast and crush the egg, it often heals over with an ugly scar, but it’s still edible (side note: this is what google gave me when I google image searched “disfigured but loveable”). If the apple isn’t able to grow fast and heal over, the egg will eventually (in a matter of days) hatch and the larvae make their way to the core of the apple to hollow out a nice space for itself. You see, this is all part of it’s grand and evil plan, because it knows that once the tree finds out about the little fruitlet not being able to reproduce, it will cut it loose. The plum curculio larvae then falls to the ground safely in it’s padded apple lounge and after two weeks hanging out and getting fat in the fallen fruitlet, it emerges and heads into the soil. A week or so later, it bursts from the soil as an adult.

Plum curculio is a major pest in fruit orchards and management usually involves a spray of some sort. The organic folk will cover the fruitlets with a kaolin clay called “Surround,” which irritates the insects and causes them to fly away in frustration without depositing its eggs (or taking a bite). The problem with this method is the amount of times you have to spray surround and the fact that it gunks up the sprayer and leaves a white film on everything.  The conventional guys will often spray Imidan or pyrethroids around petal fall (stage 8 in the photo), which are insecticides that you have to time according to Plum Curculio’s flight in order to kill the devils. The problems with insecticides have to do with them being “broad spectrum,” so you’re killing other insects in the area that do some good, like pollinators (bees!) and predatory mites. But what if you don’t want to or can’t spray?

This is where the pigs come in. The piglets I’m receiving next month will be 8 weeks old and their arrival will correlate perfectly with “June Drop,” the time when the apple trees let go of their infertile fruitlets containing plum curculio. In a study by Michigan State, they found that each tree, on average, releases around 120 fruitlets during June drop and with using 8 week old pigs as little apple eaters, they got all but two per tree. The results later that summer: the plot that did not have pigs had 5 times more plum curculio feeding injury than the plot with pigs. That’s great!

But here are the problems with pigs:

1.) This study said it took 27 pigs per acre two to three days to clean up the June drop. I cannot handle 27 piglets at this moment in time (I’m an apple grower and farmer activist, not a hog farmer…just yet) and I’m also only getting 5 piglets next month. I’ll put them to work in a smaller orchard in NY. Every bit will help, right?.

2.) Organic certification gets complicated with pigs cleaning up June drop. Rule 7 CFR Part 205.203 of the USDA Organic Standards states that raw manure (like poo from a pig) cannot be applied if there are fewer than 90 days until harvest (120 days if harvesting off the ground). What does this mean, exactly?

Besides the fact that 90 days is ridiculous for tree crops if I plan to pick the apples (I’ve heard rumors that the fear comes from poo on our shoes contaminating the ladder rungs which we have to climb to pick the fruit. I call BS on that one…especially with these high density dwarfing systems), it means that we have to get innovative in what apples we plant in the future. Say June drop happens on June 15th. 90 days from June 5th is September 13, 2015. So! We need blocks which will ripen after that date in order to have the piglets pick up the plum curculio infected fruitlets. Luckily, there are many apples that qualify. However! If you’re thinking “Oh, I’ll just forgo organic certification,” there’s something you all should know….

The Food Safety Modernization Act in it’s first write-up required 9 months of wait time after applying raw manure to the orchard. After much complaining (this is why every farmer and farm sympathizer should voice their opinion or the opinion of their trusted farmer), they have removed the 9 month clause in favor of further investigation.  This could be serious, folks. If your farm makes more than 25k in a year in produce sales and you are in the US, you’ll have to eventually comply.  One day, I’ll write a terrifying blog post about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and how everything the permaculturalist/ low-input orchardists/silvopasture/agroforestry folks want to do with selling fruit from their landscape will likely become illegal unless you start making relationships now. Combine with a trade organization that has lots of money who can advocate for your cause, go talk to your Congressman, write influential people in your area. It can work. For example, take a look at the pecan industry, who successfully got a congressman to change the FSMA to exempt tree nuts from the raw manure clause, since cattle are often run through pecan orchards pre-harvest. These guys likely aren’t organic but it doesn’t matter…you have something in common with them on this one. Relationships matter, even if you don’t see eye to eye with other farmers or share their same agricultural ethics.

Back to pigs…

I’m also planning to have the pigs go in and clean up the orchard after harvest. Having them eat the apples that weren’t marketable enough to make it out of the orchard as cider is great because they might have a disease on them which may overwinter. If they root a little, that’s fine too…because they’ll help to break down the leaves and disrupt the homes of any overwintering larvae. And, everyone loves apple finished pork!

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5 thoughts on “Pigs, Plum Curculio and Organic Standard

  1. I like this approach, but can you be sure that the pigs will eat all the fallen apples? Otherwise, some curculio will escape and still infest the orchard.
    And another thing, won’t the piglets rub against the trees’ trunk and maybe dig out (I don’t know the proper English word) the roots?
    How about using hens to peck the infected apples?

    • Hi Daniel- did you read the article about Michigan State’s trial that I linked in the post? Out of 120 fruitlets dropped per tree, the pigs ate 118 of them.

  2. Love the beginning and your writing… you can write like that as much as you want…

    Our pigs are proud – doubt they would deign to eat fruit drop apples… unless the whole system was out of balance and they didn’t have anything else… Science and studies and universities love to report on system out of balance type things – you know like a filed upon field of apples upon apples with some pigs underneath. I wonder what a trashy field is – one with milkweed, ironweed, joe pye and goldenrod prob.

    Anyway, I’m on your side. But I like best to read about people’s success with things they’ve implemented. The world wide web is full of sustainable ag/permaculture ideas that people are just about to try out.

    And on a personal note, I would never get a pig that was that cute. Dangerous.

    Disfigured but loveably yours,

  3. Morning Eliza,
    As a budding orchardist and cidermaker, your writing has been a welcome plethora of information that is hard to find elsewhere. Beautifully and passionately written.

    On that note, how does the FSMA affect value-added products like cider? Especially if the cider is produced from an estate orchard.

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