HogTree: Update, Thoughts, Lessons

Last May, I wrote a post announcing the launch of my new orchard concept/business called Hogtree. Since writing, an entire summer season has come and gone and HogTree pigs are nearing their market date (I have a few left and if you are interested in purchasing, click here). With the pig season coming to a close and a rainy day forcing rest, I wanted to take some time to write an update for you all. This is a long one, folks.

1.) Land

I am nearing in on 6 months of an 8 month lease. The lease, which was an experimental one to see if the landowners and I could be good farm partners, cost $1. The pigs were to be pastured in future orchard rows, prepping the property for future orchards if it worked out between the two parties. I am happy to report that, to the best of my knowledge (and farm partner Phil demanding me write an online update), the two parties get along very well and share an affinity for the pigs. This isn’t to be taken lightly, as we’ve been through a lot together this season:

-First of all, we are 30+ inches above our normal rainfall for this year. It has been wet and muddy and not glamorous or romantic whatsoever in having pigs. Catching pigs in the pouring rain. Moving pigs in the pouring rain. Feeding pigs in the pouring rain. Fun!

-Secondly, we had some tragedy strike in the form of losing 2 pigs to heat stroke. The weather has been tremendously variable, and 2 weeks of rain ended abruptly with 2 hours of intense 96 degree sunlight. That 2 hour period was enough to put two pigs over the edge. Dealing with the two deaths showed crisis could be handled in an empathetic way.

-Thirdly, we all value hard physical work. I had never considered this factor before in leasing land, but I’ve begun to value it in a huge way. Hard physical work needs to be valued by all invested, and it often is not.  Having landlords who are into your vision because of the romanticism and can’t see past the weeds is a problem I (and many of you) know all too well.

And last, we’ve had some fantastic help from two extraordinary people, Grace and Kris, who are there whenever I have to leave town, move pigs, ferment feed, pick up whey and don’t have a truck, etc etc etc.

We are moving forward with further planning/visioning for 2019. That includes what the lease will look like, what shared labor and equipment looks like, and making sure the big picture is in agreement.

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Farm Partner Kelly getting to know the little pigs with gifts of strawberries

2.) Rain and Pigs and Fruit Trees

I don’t know what the future holds for our weather patterns other than likely being totally whack, but here are some observations.

-It only seems to pour these days. This makes having pigs difficult because they become rooting machines in the rain. I don’t actually know why this is, but I have a theory that it is earth worm related. If you hang around someone who harvests night crawlers, you may see them bang a metal rod into the soil. That reverberation, I’m told, mimics the sound/energy of raindrops hitting the ground. Loving rain, the night crawlers come to the surface. It’s my theory that rain=earthworms coming to the surface= pigs starting to root in order to eat these earth worm. I could be totally off base about this theory, but it’s what I tell myself whenever it rains (Rain=protein, Eliza.). This rooting action is a problem when you don’t want your orchard to get pocked with ankle-spraining craters, and given the rain this year, some new game plans need to be adopted…

IT IS TRUE that once an area has been “pigged” (as in, gone through virgin ground and thoroughly rooted to eat all the grubs, dock/dandelion roots), the pastured pig genetics tend not to root much. Maybe a sod flip or two every now and then. However, add a 2 inch rain event in a couple-hour period and shit gets real, fast. Pigged or not, I’ve learned I’ll need to set aside a “pig overflow” area in the orchard, where they can go if the sky opens up and dumps on you. This is an area(s) that can be disturbed and I have plans for what that will look like (hint: rhizomatous, stoloniferous and suckering shrubs/trees).

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3.) Cover Crops

I don’t know grass. It’s not something that has been in my wheelhouse of knowledge nor have I tried to seriously learn about it because I’m a tree person (Just recently, I had a mentor show me the difference between orchard, timothy and alfalfa).  I’m learning, though, and that involves learning this whole reseeding-a-pasture for grazing game.

-I learned first hand that if you seed barley into a field without anything else, it provides an EXCELLENT nursery for foxtail, an eager invader here.  I’m not sure if it was my seeding density (probably), but I’m also going with a need to co-plant clover with anything else I try to seed. Feedback and experience is welcome on this, but it might take me a week or two to respond because it takes me at least 2 weeks to respond to anything this time of year.

-I’ve seeded crimson clover with buckwheat with great success (and such a great insectory right about now!), and oats with peas (needs clover, I think), and just finished seeding wheat with red clover and, of course, everything I have mixed all together (because what the hell?). These are all annuals because they will probably graze the paddocks again (aside from the wheat/clover paddocks), but I couldn’t handle thinking or learning about a perennial pasture this season. This is an area I’m looking to step into this winter.

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4.) Fermenting Feed

I used to do things like make hard cider and brew beer. Now I just drink other people’s beer and cider and spend my hobby time fermenting pig feed. It has been a journey that I want to take a minute to write about.

I don’t want to treat my pigs in any way different from how I treat the trees. This means, I want my tree sprays to be pig beneficial, and my pig inputs to be tree friendly. So! This year I watched a few youtube videos/read some articles of various people fermenting their hog feed and it varied from water to energized water (using a vortex machine) to whey to using Effective microbes.

In the fruit tree world, there is a defense strategy in organic management that I’ll call “colonization.” This involves spraying alive yeast and bacteria beasties onto your trees in order to colonize the surface, effectively setting up a viking fortress on the surface of the leaf that strongly discourages harmful cultures from buying leaf real estate there. Whey and Effective Microbes are often talked about in the beyond-organic fruit management world as good leaf colonizers….

Crossover time!

Effective microbes (known as EM) are expensive. Like, a barrier to affordably using it in an orchard unless you can ferment it and keep it going forever (akin to keeping a sourdough starter going). However! I happen to have ties with a feed store in the area that sells livestock grade probiotics for WAY CHEAPER. EM contains Enterococcus faecium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum which can all be found in Probios (not sponsored, but would totally be up for it). EM also contains Bacillus subtilis, which can be found for cheap as an additive to the chicken feed industry for increased weight gains. I acquired all of those ingredients as well as striking a deal with a local cheese maker to get her whey, and then I started to ferment the feed.

After some time, I developed a “house culture” that I think is pretty fantastic. A little bit of feed from the last batch is used in the new batch and the result is a wonderful pineapple/tropical smell. I’ve yet to get it analyzed, but that’s part of my winter’s work to see what proportions of what it may contain. I’m hoping to turn this culture into a colonizing fruit spray that makes the whole environment come a little more alive and beneficial from a microbial perspective.

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5.) Tree Fodder

This is a huge topic that I will only briefly talk about today, but it’s an important one. HogTree’s orchard systems are based off of a tree fodder scheme, so putting trees in order according to harvest. Fruits and nuts are considered part of tree fodder, and I have a plan for those from May to November. What I haven’t talked much about is the leaf fodder scheme that is a part of my plans (which is still housed under the topic of tree fodder). For years, I’ve been dreaming this up as part of my ideal orchard system and I had to travel all the way to France and Spain earlier this year to feel like these plans weren’t crazy and out of reach.

This year, I fed heaps of leaves and the stems to the pigs. It was a test at first, and then became a regimen. Here’s a sampling of what I fed:

  • Mulberry- This is like candy to the pigs. The leaves have a protein content between 18 and 28 percent, rivaling alfalfa. Unlike alfalfa, mulberry is drought proof.
  • Willow- This is a mild pain reliever and natural wormer for the pigs. Watching them eat willow is a treat to behold. They strip the bark and eat it like spaghetti. I can only imagine that it is uncomfortable to gain 1.5 pounds a day. I will be planting more willow after watching their affection for the leaves and branches.
  • Black Willow/Pecan- Both of these species come from the walnut family. They are great natural wormers (black walnut being more potent than pecan) and the pigs enjoy the leaves and stems on occasion. They are currently loving the dropping nuts from these already established trees.

This business of feeding trees to livestock is not new. It’s an ancient process involving select pruning methods of certain tree species (usually called pollarding, but for some reason coppicing is all the rage in the states right now. The difference is the presence of a trunk).  Feeding leaf fodder to animals is an adaption to drought, as something like a mulberry tree is 100 times more drought tolerant than alfalfa. Being a tree person, of course I took to the idea of tree hay over ground hay, and here we are.

Seemingly regular trees will be a part of HogTree’s orchard, but many of them will be cut back in extreme ways. What some people consider “Crape Murder” is my total M.O these days and it would take me a few hours to explain why. Just know it is undisputed in Europe that if continually pruned using these ancient techniques, these truffula-like trees can live forever. Many have already proven to be over the 1,500 year mark.

This is my mycorrhizal game in the orchard. Drastic cuts on various species in the orchard cause some (but not even close to all) roots to die and/or release a root exudate that provides food for all sorts of soil life underneath. In ancient forests where trees still stand that once got this human treatment, the mycorrhizal diversity is quite amazing. Not to mention, hollowed out stems become amazing habitat for those seeking refuge. An old pollarded tree in Sweden was found to be housing 26 BRAND NEW, never before discovered species of beetles.

Oh, plus you get all the tree remnants laying above the surface after all the livestock go to town consuming what parts of the branch they want. Another mycorrhizal boost.

6.) Fruit-Drop Schemes:

I’ve added quite a bit more diversity to my fruit scheme thanks to some old citizen science I’ve come across in the recently scanned POMONA archives (the publication of the North American Fruit Explorers). This includes drop schemes for peaches, Munson grapes, plums, asian pears and many more apples. In the future, I’m looking forward to helping more Northern people out in HogTree-like quests, but only after I help my people in the South, first. Stay tuned for an announcement by the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) via their facebook page and website, as well as on here, for when the scanned Pomonas will be available for members to search!

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7.) Nursery Tree Business: 

Hicks Everbearing Mulberry and Stubbs Announcement:

Due to all the rain in May and June, I had a 100% graft failure rate for all mulberry nursery trees planted in the ground. 10-20 inches of rain caused every single graft to blow out of the rootstock. 2000 failed grafts, to be exact.

The in-ground mulberry rootstocks are doing just fine, however, and some are already up to 10 feet in height. Despite any found history or knowledge on summer budding mulberry with green budwood, we went for it and all looks well. I hired one of the best grafters in the country to help me and he is still optimistic about it all. If this doesn’t work, we’ll chip bud with dormant wood next summer.

This will delay the Hicks and Stubbs tree availability until early winter 2019/late winter 2020. Cross your fingers, folks. Once they are ready for shipping, they will be on 3 year old roots and will be extremely vigorous once planted in their new home. Lots of lessons learned on this one… like, mulberries are NOT APPLES (lol). Despite the financial hit/delay I’ve had to take this year with this setback, nothing has been lost other than time, energy and a lot of scion. So stay tuned! I’m looking forward to supplying loads of everbearing mulberries to farms across the country. #hogtree

8.) Planting Trees:

This winter I’m planting lots of rootstocks. I’m not bothering with planting grafted trees because the risk is far too high for deer destruction, and therefore waisted money. I plan to graft these trees above browse height once they get that tall, that way it’s only 1-2 dollars lost at most if the deer get in (which they probably will).

9.) Next Year’s Pigs:

The farm partners and I are already excited about getting pigs for next year. Perhaps we’ll get 24 ;-). I’ve had great success with David Crafton (of Six Oaks Farm)’s pastured pigs. I received 11 heritage cross pigs (tamworth x large black, blue butt x large black) from him this year and they have been great. I have also raised berkshire hogs this year that came from a local guy and the difference is day and night in terms of foraging. David’s hogs come ready to eat blackberries, any tree leaves you throw at them, grass, etc. Those poor berkshires still don’t really get it and rely mostly on fermented feed.

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One thing of note about receiving pigs. YOU HAD BETTER MAKE AN AREA AS TIGHT AS POSSIBLE OR ELSE YOU WILL BE CHASING LITTLE PIGS FOR HOURS. Assume they can escape through anything, because they can. I even had one jump through a hog panel and then 3 others followed. I have spent far too many hours this year chasing pigs BUT I’m in pretty decent shape as a result. Pig cardio can be a thing.

**Apologies for the largely sepia tint to these photos. I put a blue light blocker on my computer and it snap shots the photos this way. At least you won’t be killing your eyes looking at my pictures!