Do you have 50+ acres of farmland you’re just dying to sell to the right person?
Does it have 30+ acres of pasture and a perennial source of water?
Is it within Loudoun County, Virginia?
If so, let’s have a conversation. Here’s my abbreviated life story:
I am a Virginian, born and raised in Hampton Roads (the City of Poquoson). I had to get the hell out of there because it was becoming too big for its britches and I never quite felt like I belonged. So away I went to college and 6 years later, I found myself in Maine- struck with an unconditional love of apples. It’s genetic (from my great-great-great grandfather) and I had no say in the matter; it was 100% full blown passion from day one. That was in 2008 and ever since, I’ve been a devoted heirloom apple orchardist and advocate working with various people along the East Coast (read more of this blog for details).
The thing that separates me from other young orchardists (if you can find them) is that my training and interest is in the lesser-to-hardly-known cultivars rather than the mainstream. I have probably managed 250 cultivars of apples from Maine to Virginia and eaten far more than that, likely into the 1000 apple cultivar spectrum. In being exposed to these apples, one begins to realize that they are all different. Not just in taste, but in growing habit/personality. There is no one-size-fits-all management method to heirloom apples because they all have their different genetic quirks; and unlocking these secret quirks is part of the excitement I find as an orchardist. I believe the key to designing and managing an orchard in the most ethical, ecological and truly sustainable (read: low-input, recycling of nutrients, regenerative long-term farming) way is to select the right combination of genetics for the right site (this is also called “terroir”). That’s where mainstream apple growing has gone awry, and the niche I hope to fill as Virginia’s only commercial organic apple grower (along with other fruit and nut trees).
What are the goals?
Grow organic apples (and other fruits like persimmons) for the process market (specifically for hard cider/spirits)
Develop a production arboretum which serves as a genetic repository for fruit and nut trees/shrubs which thrive in this Northern Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia region.
Incorporate livestock into the orchards/arboretum. Animals in orchards is an age-old thing and it makes total sense from a management perspective. Call it “silvopasture” if you’d like…
Offer a quarterly fruit school to those wanting to learn ways of cider and heirloom apple production on-farm. From graft to glass. Farm to bar.
Be a place where people can come and see, with 100% transparency and explanation, how we’re going about agriculture. “You can’t grow organic here” will NOT be our default response to those seeking organic fruit. Our response will likely be: “We have these cosmetically blemished organic apples and they taste awesome. You’re welcome to buy them. If you’re still uneasy, you’re welcome to eat or drink them sight-unseen at these locations…”
Why Loudoun County?
This place has been sending me signals for a while. It is rich with Quaker horticultural history, which my fruit exploring team and I are uncovering one grafted tree at a time. We have found more old grafted Chestnuts, Pecans, Walnuts, Hiccans, Honey Locusts, Persimmons, Pears and Apples here than anywhere else I’ve been, and to me that’s a sign. Many of these fruit and nut cultivars have lost their identity and purpose, and its up to us to figure out why our Friends of the past grafted them.
Loudoun is the fastest growing county in the state and the importance of finding these trees and saving them (through grafting) is of priority from a standpoint of genetic diversity, but also in preserving history. I can graft; I can grow trees; I am a great story teller; I can spot an old graft from 100 yards away. All of those skills will be working on saving these grafted trees and bringing them to an AR-1 lot near you.
Access to markets is also an awesome attractor. If any market can tolerate organic ugly apples, I think it is this one. #eatuglyapples
Who is involved?
I have a partner and his name is Pete Walton. He’s a great guy who shares the same vision I do, only from a livestock-in-various-orchard-systems perspective (it makes so much sense to incorporate animals into the system). We work well together and it’s a healthy, well-balanced partnership.
There’s also the dog who is a committed member of this land search. An avid swimmer and in need of cooling down in 70 degree “heat,” she is the biggest advocate for having running water on the future property.
And then there are the pigs, who are currently being rotated throughout Loudoun County as garden tillers/preparers (if you need your garden tilled and fertilized by these rooting machines, get in touch). They are part of our work force and we’ll have more next year.
How am I going to afford property? Loudoun is EXPENSIVE!
Well first off, we’re looking for someone who isn’t wanting to sell their land to a residential developer. If you are that person looking to cash in, our thoughts on long-term land use are a bit different.
Secondly, I’m also a woman of many resources! Don’t read this and think… Oh, Eliza can’t afford MY land. You may be right (ex: $4,000,000 for 170 acres), but it might also work out by enlisting some help. I’m well connected and this work has attracted some backers, so just let me know if you have something, ok? We look forward to having a conversation!
Recently, I was on the phone with a mentor and we were discussing hedgerows (my new pet project, aside from brewing all sorts of alcohol). With some of the species I mentioned, I was told that livestock would eat them down to nothing and render the hedgerow useless. After having a few tree species rejected, I frustratingly asked: “What if I planted my hedgerows with invasives like multi-flora rose, then?!”
Without any hesitation, my mentor said: “Invasives like multi-flora rose are very delicious to many animals, like my goats. You might be suggesting invasive plants for your hedgerow because they are vigorous and seem to outcompete everything else, but try to think about vigor from another perspective. If plants with high vigor are also the most sought after by animals, don’t you think that vigor might be an evolutionary trait to survive browse?”
This is the first time I’ve heard this perspective on invasives and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about it. After some minimal research, I found out that the subject is still debated today by ecologists as the “plant vigor hypothesis.” Generally speaking, vigorous plants have higher nutrient densities than non-vigorous plants, so herbivores are more prone to eat them. However! If the very vigorous cultivars are able to put on a bunch of girth, many herbivores aren’t able to eat the whole thing because of their jaw size.
This, of course, has got me thinking about apples. Here’s why.
In many essays on this blog, I’ve talked about how I consider many cider and heirloom cultivars to be very vigorous as compared to most of the grocery store cultivars. Vigorous cultivars are harder to prune, occupy more space (so less trees per acre), have issues with vegetative vs fruit bud proportions, etc. In general, they are harder to grow. After reading more about this “plant vigor hypothesis,” I wonder if there is a connection between vigor and nutrient density in apples cultivars?
From an evolutionary standpoint, a correlation between vigor and nutrient density makes sense to me. Many wild crab apples in the US have much higher tannins (aka polyphenols, which =nutrition density) than cultivated varieties. This is from the many lifetimes spent co-evolving with insects and herbivores who are trying to eat them. From observing crabapples in the “wild” and planted in landscapes, it seems as if many trees have low vigor and perhaps this is because they have evolved to have an unpalatable deterrence for animals and humans alike?
In hard cider, many of the wild crabs are too much for our palates to handle and though very nutritious, they will cause a harsh and likely negative consumer experience. So what have we done? Over time, cider drinkers/makers/apple growers have selected cultivars to grow which are palatable to the consumer, but also contain enough tannins (or polyphenols, or natural defense) to give the cider some substance. Could it be that in selecting not-so-astringent apple cultivars for eating/drinking, we’re unknowingly selecting for more tree vigor? If the apple cultivar hasn’t evolved enough to deter herbivores through astringent taste, then do genetics dictate that it must rely on vigor to survive?
These sorts of questions make me excited and I’ll keep learning about these processes in order to try and uncover different management ideas that don’t involve regulating vigor through the use of dwarfing rootstocks, black magic hormonal potions like Apogee (which converts vegetative buds into fruiting buds), and planting in light soils. All of those management aspects, I suspect, are making the vigorous cultivars less vigorous/more fibrous/less nutrient dense.
Thoughts to be continued, but in the meantime here are a few off the top of my head:
Thought 1: Pruning extremely vigorous varieties like an herbivore in order to get faster fruit set?
Thought 2: Continuing to fruit explore to find mixes of wild x cultivated which hit high nutrient densities, palatability, and lower vigor. (I’m writing a fruit exploring book about how to do this at the moment)
Thought 3: Making crabapples a significant part of my home breeding program.
(I was writing another essay today and found myself going off on a rant about the term “silvopasture.” I decided to remove it from my essay and make it a new post…so here you go).
For close to a decade of my life, I was either a student of forestry or a forester throughout the US and Germany. I studied and worked in a variety of forested environments, and eventually made the transition from forestry to horticulture. The two realms, forestry and horticulture, originally came together for me was when I started learning about the lesser-known tree and plant species which produce medicinals and food within the forest and forest edge. I became quite good at foraging for food and medicinals while on the job and the idea of managing a piece of property for fruits and nuts became much more exciting to me than managing for timber. The transition from forester to horticulturalist began when I started to transition from forager to farmer; from forest to orchard.
An orchard is an intentional planting of trees or shrubs that is maintained for food production. Orchards comprise fruit, vegetable, and nut-producing trees which are grown for commercial production. Orchards are also sometimes a feature of large gardens, where they serve an aesthetic as well as a productive purpose.
Now on to this term: Silvopasture
Silva in latin means forest or woods. Pasture comes from the latin Pastura, meaning feeding or grazing. Together, you get grazing/feeding in forest or woods.
When I first heard the term “Silvopasture,” I assumed it was the act of thinning or planting a forest for timber/firewood and beef/pork/mutton/poultry, etc production. And in some cases, it is. But I have to address the other cases where silvopasture has become a term for planting fruit and nut trees on a pasture for some form of commercial fruit and nut production and introducing animals to the scene.
An intentional planting of fruit and nut trees is an orchard. For centuries, people have grazed their animals through their orchards because it makes complete and total sense on a practical level. Animals are an integral part of management in my opinion and weird health fears and scaling up are likely to blame for the elimination of grazing. In the rest of the world, though, animals are still in orchards and it isn’t called silvopasture. Here’s a recent photo-example from Kyrgyzstan: A dwarf apple orchard with beasts in it.
Or an olive orchard with goats in it in Northern Italy:
Both of these systems pictured manage for a tree crop and a meat crop (and grass crops). No timber will come out of these systems, and prunings take the place of coppice wood (which could be used as firewood). (Note to self: Pruning vs Coppicing is an interesting topic to revisit in a future essay).
How very American of us to first remove animals from orchards on account of scale and fear, and then put them back in and rename the system. My dislike of the name silvopasture isn’t just in the semantics, though… This renaming thing we Americans do is directing people away from sources of valuable information. Information like how to grow these trees for tree crops on a moreso commercial scale is a practice studied in horticulture rather than in forestry. Though it’s nice to have feet planted in both realms, the difference is important! I know, because I’ve worked and studied in both.
If you want to pursue growing fruit and nut trees in a field/pasture for the commercial harvest of fruits and nuts while also incorporating animals into your management and income stream, try search terms like “orchard grazing” or “hogs in apple orchards” or “cows in cherry orchards,” etc. With this knowledge, you’ll likely get a lot more out of your time spent on google, like THIS.
Eliza the ORCHARDIST
However, I did see it worded in the UK as “Silvopastoral Orchard Agroforestry,” which is totally fine because all of the descriptors and origins are there.
This is an essay written by my friend Barb Fernald for the Working Waterfront newspaper in Maine. She gives me a big mention! You can click to it here!
Fall has been a season of superlatives in the Cranberry Isles. Along with a November that might turn out to be the warmest on record, in Maine, the foliage has been the brightest we’ve seen in years. A simple walk or trip to the mainland begs one to pull out the camera time and again. Best of all, this has been an amazing fall for apples. All over the islands the trees have been loaded.
On a November Saturday, I caught up with my neighbor, Kaitlyn Duggan, and her two-year-old son, Bode, as they were going down the road by our house. They were each eating an apple from the tree in Mark and Vicky Fernald’s yard.
When I said I was going to write about apples Kaitlyn’s eyes lit up. “I love picking apples on the island. It’s one of my most favorite things to do! Getting outside in the fall sun, picking with a view of the water, it’s the best. And it’s free food!”
We commented on the tree filled with yellow apples by Jack and Ellie’s house on the edge of the Sand Beach.
“I’ve probably picked six grocery bags full from that tree this year,” she said. I and many others have been to the same tree several times, picking up drops and reaching the low branches to pick, with a view of the Islesford harbor.
Kaitlyn’s husband, Cory, has been making cider, experimenting with different blends of island apples. He figures he has pressed, pasteurized and preserved at least 40 gallons this year. Kaitlyn has made several batches of applesauce, adding flavor and color with rose hips from her own garden. I asked if she knew what kind of trees were around the island. She said, “You really should give Eliza a call.”