There’s More to Eating Ugly

Today I attended Future Harvest-CASA‘s annual conference, which focuses on sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and even in my short 32 years on this earth, I’ve been witness to it’s decline due to poor agricultural/homeowner practices and various versions of greed permitted on local,state and federal levels. A concept like saving the Chesapeake Bay is one that is overwhelming if you think about all of the moving parts, but if you think about what you do on a daily or weekly basis, and then add some Chesapeake Bay awareness and adjustment..you’re making a difference. If everyone does this, a small difference turns into a big difference and a new conscious culture is underway. Voila!

Back to the conference… I attended one session about eating ugly fruits and vegetables, where the founder of FruitCycle, Elizabeth Bennett, gave a candid talk about her eat ugly business model and how it was going. From her website, TheFruitCycle.com:

Fruitcycle is a social enterprise that makes delicious, healthy, locally sourced snacks. We focus on using produce that would otherwise go to waste and we provide jobs for women who have been formerly incarcerated, homeless, or are otherwise disadvantaged.

The idea of taking beaten, bruised, battered and unsaleable produce and turning it into a nutritious value added good is an important one which resurrects nutrition from a landfill fate. There’s a lot of talk around the importance of these actions and many people are starting companies to deal with this “waste.” I’m a full two-thumbs-up about all of this, but there’s a part of me that aches to shout: There’s a lot more to eating ugly than keeping foods out of the landfill!

First of all, let me point out that this ugly food movement is currently built on the waste stream of conventional agriculture. This form of agriculture is often short-sighted, input-driven and damages ecological/human health systems in ways we know and do not yet know. In the case of apples, the ones getting repurposed are also the ones whic were sprayed with pesticides and didn’t make the cut as a fancy grade A. I am not ok with this. Yes, we’re reducing the waste-stream; But are we changing anything about agriculture or the health of humans and the environment? Probably not.

This is what eating ugly means to me:

1.) Eating truly ugly fruits and vegetables can help to heal your watershed.

Ugly Apples

The apples pictured above are about as ugly as it gets. Aside from the puncture marks (I shook the tree and picked-up the apples rather than hand-picking from the tree), there are a multitude of ugly things going on with this apple that aren’t acceptable by the general public. In addition to a splotchy multi-colored complexion and a short and squat stature, there are two cosmetic blemishes present: sooty blotch (the dark blotches) and fly speck (the small black dots). Both of these cosmetic blemishes are caused from harmless fungi that doesn’t change the flavor, texture, or anything about the apple other than looks. In case you winced when thinking about an apple covered in harmless fungus, just remember: You, the reader, are also covered in lots of fungus

Unless you have an apple tree in your yard and/or happen to know where an abandoned orchard is somewhere, you likely don’t ever see apples like this. That’s because millions (yes, millions) of gallons of fungicide are sprayed on orchards across the United States every year just to make these apples look like this:

Granny Smith Apple

Rather than this: (both are Granny Smith apples)

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There are other inputs, too… pesticides which kill both beneficial and pest insects, herbicides to control the grassless strip under the trees, and synthetic fertilizers to get these crops producing, etc. Whether by a disruption of the ecological food chain or actual chemical contaminants, many of these inputs eventually wind their way to the decline of our tributaries and various bodies of water. All because we have been taught to eat perfection. 

What if we ate ugly because it meant that we approved of ecologically and humanely ethical growing practices? What if producing ugly was on purpose and not a waste product? In becoming more conscious of our eating acts, even if it’s just choosing to eat a low-spray apple, we are taking steps towards saving the Chesapeake Bay. We have that power.

2.) Eating ugly encourages diversity

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There are more than 7000 varieties of apples in the United States right now. They vary in size, shape, color, taste, texture, weight, keeping ability and culinary use; you name it, there’s an apple for that. These apples also grow in different locations, need different nutrients, and have different tolerances to insects and disease. Yet, all we know are the grocery store 8 and that’s because the extension service and the land grant universities don’t know anything other than these apple varieties and their offspring.

When encouraging someone to eat ugly apples, I’m encouraging them to eat an apple that looks like a potato; one that doesn’t have a uniform color scheme; one the size of a ping-pong ball; one that has lumps. These small, ugly, lumpy apples might be better adapted to your area than, say, the usual glistening orbs of perfection pictured above. And when a tree is able to get what it needs from a site rather than rely on inputs from humans, we’re creating an agriculture that is more naturally organic…and delicious…and ethical. I won’t ever push an apple on you that doesn’t taste amazing in cider, or a pie, or in molasses, or as a dried apple.

3.) Eating ugly can be more healthy for you

It has been scientifically proven that apples with cosmetic disease can be considered super fruit due to the nutrients being pumped into the apple from the tree when under “attack.”

4.) Eating ugly allows one to access healthy, ethically minded food more affordably

In minimizing the inputs, the grower is paying less for producing a crop. This carries over to the consumer.  You want organic? You want probiotic? Eat ugly. But not just any ugly; ask how the produce was grown. Then give feedback. Lots and lots of feedback.

 

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The Gift of Columnar

I’ll begin this little essay about apples, but I’m going to end with oak trees. If you are interested in silvopasture, stick with me… 

Back in the 80’s, there was a sport (genetic mutation) which occurred on a single McIntosh apple tree in the UK. This branch was different from all the others in that it was virtually free of side branches and STILL produced an edible fruit. The apple people started calling this sport a columnar or fastigiate apple, and it looks like this:

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I originally learned about this kind of apple tree from Nick Botner, an apple/grape/pear/cherry/peach/etc curator in Oregon, who showed me the growth habits of his columnar collection. Once he showed me the spacing one can achieve with these apples and the form they take on, my mind took off.

I go back and forth on planting high density orchards. The numbers work out economically to grow high density if you have the start-up capital, and the pruning and harvesting time involved is hard to beat. But my problem is in the trees themselves. Grafted onto dwarfing rootstock, their small root balls are unable to mine the soil like a larger tree does and as a result, they require irrigation, fertilization and weed free strips in order to keep them producing like they should. Not to mention, I’m suspicious that apples produced by dwarfing trees don’t taste as good or have the nutrient density of the deeper rooted ones.

My thoughts for a few years now have circulated around: How can I grow a high density orchard more sustainably with less inputs? This columnar apple is an idea which could potentially address these thoughts.  Theoretically, I could graft these trees to larger rootstocks (such as m111 or wild crab) and have them much closer together than otherwise possible in a regular orchard planting. On these larger rootstocks, they’d be able to fend for themselves and would require lower inputs. Right?

I’ve yet to try this due to funds, but I am actively seeking all columnar cultivars possible to try out in a nursery setting to see how they do…

Which leads me into how this blog article is going to transition into oaks. When google searching for columnar cultivars, I started including another search term which is used as a descriptor for upright growth: fastigiate. To my surprise, I learned of other fruit trees which possess a columnar nature; Peaches, pears, cherries… and even OAK TREES.

Before I launch into oak trees, let me be clear for a second and further spell out the meaning of a columnar tree because it matters. In the apple world with all of it’s new rootstock technology, it is known that more trees per acre produce more bushels of apples per acre…earlier (more precocious). This is why all sorts of orchards are converting over to high density plantings…because they are now able to maximize acre production. Now, why not apply this sort of orchard thinking to silvopasture?

Enter: Quercus robur ‘Fastigiata’ x Quercus bicolor(and other hybrids with ‘fastigiata’)

Once upon a time, an English Oak hybridized with a Swamp White Oak and produced this:

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Do you know what this is?! THIS IS A 45 FOOT TALL TREE WITH A 15-20 FOOT SPREAD!!!

Do you know what this means? With this type of hybrid oak, there’s a real chance you could pack-in far more healthy oak trees than ever before onto an acre (or a hedge), all of which will produce acorns. Just like with apples, more trees pre acre likely means more bushels per acre.

In old (early 1900’s) articles I’ve read about oak cultivation, there were once oak trees called names like”Juicy Hog Biscuit” to indicate that these cultivars were grafted to pastures where hogs were fed from these trees. There were stories of oak trees which produced heavily and oak trees which produced annually*, and the TVA even started a project which ended up getting cancelled on oaks for livestock production. Yet, given the way of our agricultural history which has largely abandoned diversity, today we’re left trying to single out stellar cultivars and breed others.  With a lack of these Juicy Hog Biscuit genetics in today’s time, could a hybrid oak possibility like this be the new feed lot where you can finish your pigs on more bushels per acre of acorns than previously thought possible? I’d like to think so. I mean, if we’re doing it with apples, why not oaks?

I’m chomping at the bit to do something like this for my pigs in the near future. Whether a hedge or a flat out orchard planting, we’ll see.  Let’s put our heads together to see how we can better access these genetics and get moving on these trees. They are good in wet soils, dry soils, cold climates and warm climates. Please contact me with ideas and thoughts. Questions I have:

-What is the mast production like for these hybrids?

-Age to production?

-What happens if I top this tree? Will it still keep the columnar form?

This is also a reminder that further breeding needs to happen in order to make this form of agriculture competitive with corn. What if we crossed a specific white oak known for abundant acorn production with an English oak (var fastigiata), for example? We’re looking for the columnar shape which would likely make itself known early in the selection process. This is all very exciting to me and the potential is limitless.

 

 

 

*On a recent NNGA thread, Sandy Anagnostakis pointed out that many oaks could be annual bearers if the late frosts could be avoided.