why I dislike the term “silvopasture”

(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.

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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.

Sincerely,

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.

[end rant]

 

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Where Are The Tree Fruit Growers?

Back in August I attended USApple’s Outlook event, a gathering of apple industry executives from around the world to talk about the US apple crop forecast (mostly red delicious). I have almost nothing in common with the average attendee of a USApple event (female, heirloom grower, low-input centered, no access to workers with visas), so I spent my free time reading articles from industry fruit magazines in order to ask questions and talk shop with other attendees. After a few articles, I stumbled on one I felt qualified to address in August’s Good Fruit Grower magazine titled “Developing Tomorrow’s Workforce.”

“Washington State University is teaming up with Washington tree fruit producers to convince young people that there are worthwhile careers in the tree fruit industry, and there’s much more to it than just picking apples.”

and later on in the article…

“Everyone says the same thing: We can’t find people. We’re looking for the best we can. A lot of times we’re retraining someone that maybe isn’t really qualified for some of the jobs we’re asking them to do.”

The more I am exposed to the apple world, the more I hear and see this on all levels. In the month of August alone, I received the plea of “Eliza, can you put us in contact with someone who might want to run our orchard?” three times. In July, I heard it twice. Commercial or more-than-a-hobby people with orchards are looking for help and having one hell of a time finding it. Why is that? Well, aside from a growing number of orchards getting planted by retirees, Dr. Kimberlee Kidwell says that agriculture has an image problem that deters students from considering careers in that sector. She gives the following reason for the image problem:

“People think they’re going to be involved in the harvest piece only, that they’re going to be doing hands-on labor that’s difficult and even not desirable.”

In my short few years as an advocate of young people growing fruit trees, I have yet to hear the reason of “hands-on labor” as a detractor from the job. Usually, having a hands-on job is desirable to the young folk. It’s exercise, fresh air, a lifestyle change…its all very romantic, which makes me think there is a cultural difference between East and West coast tree crops growing. Perhaps she is talking about the sons and daughters of migrant workers, whose parents only do hands-on work without any hope of something else? They know what physical labor looks and feels like day after day, for years on end, and probably don’t want a single thing to do with it. Or perhaps its also an issue of scale. Regardless, I have spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to figure out why horticulture is such an unappealing or difficult field for young people to enter and I agree… Agriculture has an image problem. This blog post is why I think conventional perennial ag is going to continue to have a hard time attracting young people. For all other start up orchardists: access to land, access to capitol, and the ability to wait for your crop to come in are major factors. But, as I said, this is just addressing conventional perennial ag.   

1.) The Generational Gap: My parent’s generation and sometimes their parent’s generation is largely missing from US agriculture as a whole. They are the generations who left the farm, which has interrupted the transfusion of agricultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Many of my friends who try to make farming a lifestyle have to literally start from scratch in knowledge acquisition, land acquisition, soil acquisition, etc.

Why not bridge the gap ourselves and go to the generation who has this agricultural knowledge? It might not be as easy as it sounds. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, Millennials have used a computer for all of it. By high school for me, the internet and cell phones were here to stay and changed communication forever (or until teleporting is a real thing). Texts, emails and various social media platforms are the primary form of communication for us. This is in contrast to the anti-computer generation of my grandparents and many of the apple growers still alive. Communication is almost incompatible, and there’s no age buffer between the two to help out. So, these older apple growers are simply having a harder time finding young people wanting to learn, and visa-versa.

And what if you find an old apple person to take you under their wing? Well, sometimes (from personal experience) they are burned out and will repeatedly try to push you out of the nest with sayings like: “There’s no money in apples.,” and “I think its best you become a nurse.”   As a white entitled millennial from a middle-class background, you also might not see eye to eye with them on their management practices, which are built upon the green revolution…

2.) Ecological/Consumer Ethics: The Millennial generation is one that has a social and environmental conscience. We get our news through the lens of social media, which often casts a dark light on GMOs, cancer causing agents sprayed on crops, inhumane working conditions, etc when the local news does not. As a generation, we’re largely not ok with implementing these practices unless we learned them before we had access to the outside channels. 

We believe that we can make a difference in this world we’ve grown up to view through social media, and this is reflected in our life choices and buying habits. Market trends are showing enormous growth in the organic, ethical and anti-antibiotic foods sector, with no signs of slowing down. We millennials are bringing about social and environmental change through our wallets as consumers; and if we can’t afford it, we do it as farmers. That’s why I became a farmer (for the most part). But you will no longer catch me working on a conventional apple farm that has no plans for rethinking the system. 

3. Access to Training:The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) is an extraordinary organization in Maine which offers workshops, classes, programs and a phenomenal fair (Common Ground Fair) to encourage and educate people on how to live life in a more ecologically friendly way. In addressing the need to connect older farmers with young people, they created an apprenticeship program for inexperienced (and often young) people so they could get a sense of what the farming lifestyle is like. Support for young farmers, combined with affordable land prices and amazing product distribution has made Maine the most vibrant young farmer scene in the country. Young people flock to the state to grow in an alternative way to what we find in the grocery store; one that nourishes communities, the land, and consumers. However, there is a problem with all of this in relation to this blog post: It’s all about annuals and livestock. 

If you are looking for an opportunity to learn from orchardists who align with your values, you’ll spend a lot of time looking. Even in Maine, where I finished the MOFGA Apprenticeship program and entered into their Journeyperson program, I had one hell of a time finding someone who was willing to teach me the ways of growing a commercial organic apple crop. I ended up working for a season at a conventional orchard and after leaving that situation, joined forces with a talented homesteader to learn how I could take her methods and expand them to a larger scale. Annuals and animals are sexy right now and perennials are the red headed step child of the ag world. Stone Barns, NOFA, MOFGA, MOSES, SSAWG you name it… annual agriculture dominates the workshops and conferences, often without any mention of perennials. Yet growing perennials requires a completely different skill set from annuals and young people trained in annuals don’t necessarily have what it takes. They also don’t have access to free information about growing perennials outside of a conventional context (attn: land grant universities, extension agents). This is a problem!

The newest class of farmers are also conscious consumers. The idea of getting a millennial to work in a greedy good-ole-boy agricultural system which challenges their ethics as consumers and humans is almost laughable (in my opinion). Companies like Google and Apple are changing their work environments to attract and hold millennials; When will the time come that ag is forced to do the same? I guess one of the first steps in the apple industry is to stop growing red delicious apples. Millennials need to be able to stand behind a product they believe in. That product is not a red delicious apple. Want to know how to convince young people that there are worthwhile careers in the tree fruit industry? First, think growing ethics: You won’t convince me that spraying a fungicide is healthy for the environment, so stop trying to cite “science.” It’s not that I don’t use science in my decision making on a daily basis (I do), I just don’t trust your biased researchers whose salaries are coming from chemical companies. We live in a culture of bought journalism and I am paranoid. Second, think outreach: How will you reach a generation who lives on the computer? Through the internet! Bring out a campaign that will entice us.  Third, think incentives for these people to stay: Off the top of my head: end of the season profit sharing, student loan forgiveness (I’m sure the lobbying power of big apple can do something about this), freedom to experiment in the name of innovation (through SARE grant applications, etc), continuing education (conferences are a good start), healthcare, etc.

I’m not hopeful you can do it, Big Apple. My dream is that small farmers will be able to do it, though. It will take some long-term access to land, new perennial skill sets penetrating the established ag scene, access to capital, the right genetics for planting based on location, positive and informative advertising for consumers, networking with one another to create a new agricultural status quo, and #eatuglyapples.

The Unexpected Effect of Pigs

I have a lot to say about having pigs in the orchard and have been compiling my notes all summer long for a later, longer essay. Today, however, I want to talk about an unexpected happening of the pigs.

A couple weeks ago, I made the decision to move the pigs out of the orchard and into a new series of paddocks behind the one-day-soon Greenhorns headquarters. This decision came because the timing of harvest was getting difficult with pig rotation, so I figured it would be best to remove them from the orchard for a few weeks. Luckily, the Greenhorns HQ is only a pasture and a backyard away from the orchard so the move was about an eighth of a mile away.

Armed in running clothes with a quart Ball jar full of grain (for noise making), I had Shizue (the newest hire of Greenhorns!) lift up the gate of their old pen and I started to jog across the pasture. As expected, the pigs followed me and eventually fell into a hilarious single file line with Mortimer, the 8 month-old boar, leading the group. If ever I have felt like the pied piper, that was the day.

Before reaching the new paddocks, we ran through Doug and Yvonne Sears’ backyard, where they were standing on the back porch whooping with laughter and clapping as we passed. I guess its not everyday you see a line of little pigs run through your backyard.

eliza herding pigs

Over the course of this summer, I’ve gotten to know Doug (turns 90 this November) and Yvonne (age undisclosed) and they have been wonderful neighbors. They have been married for 65 years and are still so very in love that it makes my face melt to witness it. Ginger, my large French Mastiff, broke the ice with them early on by walking into their house uninvited and asking for a dog bone in her sad faced “I’m going to sit and shake my paw for you” manner. Ever since, Doug and Yvonne have welcomed me and the dog and whomever is accompanying me over for dinner, conversation, a vodka-tonic, or just a quick catch up on the day’s events. It has been really nice to become friends with them.

Doug, a faithful cutter of grass on his riding lawnmower, cuts our headquarters front lawn without asking because he wants to keep us out of the “You redneck; your grass is too long” judgement zone from passerby’s (a zone I really don’t care about, but that doesn’t matter). With that same riding lawnmower, Doug has also helped me to cut paddock lines to place my electric fence, saving me at least an hour of labor. I’m grateful for Doug.

Now to the unexpected outcome of the pigs…

After witnessing the pigs run through their backyard, Yvonne developed a burning interest in them. She told me a couple weeks ago that as soon as it’s light enough to go outside, she goes and says hello to them. She returns throughout the day, often with leftovers from breakfast, lunch or dinner to give them. The pigs, who I believe to be the happiest animals on earth, come bounding from wherever they are to tell Yvonne hello! and that SHE IS THE BEST THING EVER.

Yvonne adores those pigs. Yesterday she confided in me that she has had a bad back over the past year and with the rain and the cold weather that dominates this climate, she has not been able to do the walking necessary to heal. (She also confided in me that her lack of activity is built on excuses). Ever since I moved the pigs out of the orchard and to a place that is easily accessible for her to walk, she’s been walking more than ever and enjoying every minute of it because it involves seeing the pigs.

yvonne with pigs

Her back is feeling better. Doug says she spends more time with the pigs than she does with him.  And today she informed me that the pigs love radishes, lettuce, turnips, and mashed potatoes.

photo courtesy of Shizue!

I’m often guilty of getting wrapped up in the management aspects of farming. How can X benefit Y and Y benefit X without costing me more money? What are the yields? Etc. Today was a reminder that small scale farming can and should hold more than that. It can unexpectedly bring happiness and joy to those surrounding us and even give someone a reason to put on their shoes, grab their cane, and go for a walk as soon as the sun comes up.

Eat Ugly Apples

 This is a post I wrote for AskHRGreen.org

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When you walk through the produce section of a grocery store, it’s always the same view once you get to the apples. Large, glistening orbs of pristine red, yellow and green apples are neatly piled on the shelves, their looks alone inviting the shopper to add them to their cart. So you pick one up and scrupulously examine it to make sure nothing is wrong, add it to your cart, and move on with your purchases. As an apple grower in Southwestern Virginia, I’d like to use four words to tell you what I think about these pristine apples at the grocery store: I won’t eat them.

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It’s not just because they often taste bad (Red delicious – seriously?), but also because how they are grown. You see, that pristine, blemish-free beauty is a result of management – apples do not naturally look like that in Virginia. Left to its own devices on a tree (and it depends on the apple variety), an apple would likely be covered in a smattering of cosmetic diseases.  These diseases do not alter the taste of these apples (aside from sometimes making them sweeter) and are not in any way an indicator of your apple having a worm.  Yet we Americans have been trained to eat beautiful fruit and reject the blemishes. Because we fear these harmless blemishes, millions of gallons of fungicides are sprayed on apples (organic and conventional) every year across the United States to make them go away.

apples3That person on the tractor in a white tyvec suit who is being followed by a white plume of chemical spray – that’s me, Eliza Greenman, age 30. No matter how much I try and cover-up with all of the necessary gear, I get those chemicals on me at a higher concentration than what lands on the fruit. I’m one of the youngest orchardists in the country by a generation and hope to have a long life ahead of me so I’ve started a campaign to reduce the threats on my health as the farmer, your health as the consumer, and the environmental impacts from  farming practices. Eat Ugly Apples.

Making the conscious choice to eat ugly apples is better and cheaper for you as the consumer, protects environmental quality and it’s better for me as the farmer. It’s time we challenged the social norm that currently has us demanding glistening orbs of perfection from the growers. This takes some awareness and I’m here to help.

Good to Do:

  • Consider eating varieties of apples that you’ve never heard of before. There are 7,000 different known varieties of apples in North America and many of these are better suited for growing in the hot and humid Virginia climate. For example, apples called “Russets” look like potatoes and aren’t very susceptible to many of the cosmetic diseases. They taste amazing. Ask for them and keep asking for them!
  • Learn the blemishes. I’m convinced that corporate agriculture named these diseases to sound much worse than they actually are. Sooty blotch, fly speck, apple scab and powdery mildew are the top four cosmetic diseases. My pictures above should help you identify them.
  • Spread the ugly apple gospel! Bring down those naysayers with assurance that they will not get sick from eating sooty blotch or fly speck. Naysayers still rejecting the blemishes? Peel it!
  • Take ugly apples social! Tweet, Facebook and Instagram the handle #eatuglyapples when consuming a beautifully blemished specimen. Let’s get this out there.

Thank you, and may you have many ugly apples in your future!