Cider And Heirloom Apple Vigor: An Hypothesis

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?

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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.

 

 

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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]

 

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.

Stress: The New Bittersweet? (A Radical Orchardist Part 2)

It seems like it has rained every day for the past month in the Champlain Valley of New York and Vermont. Combined with 70-80 degree temperatures, the fungal population couldn’t be happier. It’s like one continual fungal feast over here, and I couldn’t be more psyched. Why? Because I’m absolutely infatuated with the idea of stress in an orchard.

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 4.43.12 PM

In A Radical Orchardist: Part One (which I encourage the reader to read before pursuing this essay), I re-introduced my thoughts about how apple scab, a fungal disease, increases the brix (sugar content) of the apple, which translates into a higher alcohol content once fermented. For hard cider purposes, I thought, perhaps we shouldn’t be spraying-late season fungicides for cosmetic fungal diseases like apple scab, since lingering fungicide residue has been known to kill the ferment (the yeasts) in the wine and cider realms. I also re-introduced the idea of managing apple scab as a value-added disease for cider apples, a thought that is about as radical as it gets these days in the apple world. A thought that I’m still excited to explore and understand in order to embrace it or dismiss it.

This year, I’ve been actively looking for scientific research on the effects scab has on apples, from a nutritional standpoint. I want to know how the apple reacts to scab; What does that fight look like? Does a stressing agent like apple scab bring about super fruits? This research is slow, mostly due to the fact that I don’t have access to any scientific journals, but it’s progressing and has me optimistic. The following is a report on my findings and thoughts.

Stress: The New Bittersweet?

My journey started when I found a paper about the effects of apple scab on the peel of an apple. The article, which can be found here and simply broken down here, stated that a peel covered with scab lesions is higher in polyphenols than one not covered in scab. What’s the big deal? Quite a bit, actually. This is a big deal. Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.27.42 PMScreen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.28.21 PM

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Phenols, such as chlorogenic acid (as seen in the top graph), are classified as antioxidants, meaning  that they tend to prevent or neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are chemicals that have the potential to cause damage to cells and tissues in the body.  Many of the phenols mentioned in the paper above are related to resveratrol (the polyphenol found in red wine which got a lot of news a while back for making wine drinking a life-saving activity). When researched in the skin of non-scabby red apples (aka: what you see in a grocery store), they were found to contain powerful antioxidant capacities, along with anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and cardio-protective properties.

Now, take those phenolic values from the skin of the non-scabby red apple and multiply them by at least 3+ times. That new value is one coming from an apple with scab infection. To further push this point, this article suggests :

The way in which orchards are managed can influence the amount of phenolics, as shown by Veberic et al. (2005), who reported that organically grown apples had somewhat higher amounts of phenolics as compared with traditionally grown apples. These authors concluded that this is probably because organically grown apples face more stressing conditions, for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are not used.

Folks, this is superfood status and at the very least, people should try to source ugly organic apples and eat the peels. Research says that doing so might save your life someday.

Now, to project these findings onto cider…

What makes a cider apple a cider apple? The quick universal answer most people know is that it’s in the tannin. Tannin is a collection of phenols such as chlorogenic acid, phloridzin, epicatechin and the procyanidins (source). Only the procyanidins are considered “true tannins” because they have the ability to tan things like animal hides and give the drying sensation we recognize as astringency (aka: the sensation you get when you stick an acorn in your mouth). For the most part, bittersweet apples have the most tannins, or phenolics, and dessert apples have the least.

https-::books.google.com:books?id=jZvqBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA622&dq=plant%20polyphenols&pg=PA829#v=onepage&q=apple&f=false

https-::books.google.com:books?id=jZvqBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA622&dq=plant%20polyphenols&pg=PA829#v=onepage&q=apple&f=false

A bittersweet apple, taken from this Serious Eats article, is described below:

If there is one style of apple prized above all others by American cider makers, it’s the bittersweet apple. Affectionately referred to as a “spitter,” these apples are low in acid, high in tannin, and impart the classic flavor of finer French and English ciders. At first bite, most would consider bittersweet fruit inedible. But what is ill suited for the fruit bowl is ideal for the cider press.

For the most part, America’s high acid, high sugar apple crop provides all the fuel for fermentation and puckering power necessary for a great cider. But what that fruit lacks is tannin—the molecules that impart astringency and provide a cider’s texture—and bittersweet apples fill this void.

https-::books.google.com:books?id=lATkBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA106&ots=76WFijiMHz&dq=%22tetrameric%20procyanidin%22%20apple&pg=PA105#v=onepage&q=%22tetrameric%20procyanidin%22&f=false(image)

Ignore the yellow highlighting, and the column about gelatin

I hope your wheels are turning like mine were, but in case not, let me break it all down for you.

Cider apple varieties are known for their higher levels of phenolics, because those phenolics (aka tannin) distinguish them from dessert fruit. Those phenolics involved in making a cider apple a cider apple are also the same phenolics that increase in concentration when the apple is stressed with apple scab. If you refer to Figure 1 above, you’ll also see that in addition to high levels of polyphenols, a bittersweet apple is one with a higher brix. Let me remind this audience that this whole Radical Orchardist series started with the deletion of an article I wrote about how apple scab increases the brix in apples.

I’m no chemist, but it seems to me that stress has the potential to send some dessert varieties into the realm of a bittersweet. Now, how about stressing a cider apple? Is the increase in phenols due to stress worth it to the cider maker and the consumer? This study says that phenols in hard cider are absorbed, metabolized, and excreted by humans. Meaning, we’re getting the nutrients.

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phenolic content of apple leaves, healthy vs infected with scab. http://www.sipav.org/main/jpp/volumes/0108/010807.pdf

It makes sense to me. When stress occurs, the apple’s response is to pump the site of infection/attack full of phenolics (see graph to the right) . Look no further than your forest’s edge to find wild, highly evolved, inedible tannic crabapples that serve my point. The crabapples have evolved to contain these phenolics without provocation. The lesser-evolved dessert varieties, however, may need to be provoked through varying degrees of stress in order to produce a more nutrient-dense product, or one that more resembles a bittersweet cider apple.

What does this mean for management? Back in the first A Radical Orchardist essay, I irritated a few folks with the question:

What is a cider apple? Sure, you can have all the old French and English varieties like Dabinett, Frequin Rouge, Tremletts Bitter, Norfolk Beefing, etc, but if they are managed the same as dessert apples…are they really cider apples? I don’t think so.

And I still don’t think so. I believe that growing cider apples requires a completely different mindset than growing dessert fruit in order to make high quality, nutrient-dense, healthy organic hard cider. To me, a part of being a cider orchardist involves learning how to balance stress within the orchard through organic means. What do I need to give the tree in order to replenish the expense of fighting off an infection? What is the tipping point of too much stress? I whole-heartedly believe that these, plus many more, are the questions we should be asking. Imagine a world where the value of an apple comes not from its looks, but from its nutrient content. That’s what I’m aiming for with stress, and I believe there is value in that.

Please, those of you who are researchers…prove me wrong. I have admitted to the fact that I’m no chemist, and without academic ties, its completely reasonable that my understanding is flawed from the free book snippets and articles I find online. Send me a response with accessible PDFs, I’ll make sure to post it in a follow-up essay with reasons why I agree or disagree. Hopefully some great questions will come out of it and some university or private foundation somewhere will want to investigate.

In the meantime, the take home message is to #eatuglyapples and #drinkuglyapples. Embrace the scab, avoid the rot and challenge the status quo.

Postscript: Earlier in this essay, I included the following phenolics to define tannin. They were chlorogenic acid, phloridzin, epicatechin and the procyanidins. From this article, it states that apples infected with scab had:

  • 6.5 times more phloridzin than a healthy apple.
  • chlorogenic acid can be found in the first graph of this essay
  • epicatechin levels are in the following graph:
  •  Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 7.26.50 PM
  • procyanidans are flavanols, which are widely cited by research papers to be the reason why some apple varieties are resistant to scab.





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!

Eat Ugly Apples

 This is a post I wrote for AskHRGreen.org

apples2

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!

Heterozygosity. It’s Why I’m Concerned for Broad-Acre Permaculture

Over the last few years, I’ve watched and read of many people who have put in highly diversified, large scale orchards in the name of creating a commercial-scale food forest (or something to that extent). By “highly diversified,” I’m talking chestnuts, apples, grapes, hazelnuts, persimmons, paw paw, sea buckthorn, lonicera, black locust, etc. Some people call it “Agroforestry” while others are calling it “Silvopasture,” yet both of those systems traditionally involve the harvest of timber crops rather than fruit and nut harvests. The difference between a timber crop and a fruit crop is HUGE when it comes to planning out a landscape, and this difference alone is why I am predicting the economic hard times of many broad-acre permaculture farms. Employing some basic horticultural/orcharding knowledge to repair what has been overlooked is necessary in order to progress and evolve into a better agricultural system. This blog post is designed to air out my concerns and get people thinking about these overlooked topics in order to bring about faster innovation and success. Note:  This blog post is intended for future and potential commercial growers. Not homesteaders.

The reason why I’m predicting hard times? It’s called heterozygosity: Plants grown from seed may not exactly duplicate the characteristics of its parents. What does this mean? Well, let’s use apples as an extreme example… When you eat a red delicious apple and then plant the seeds, you will not get a red delicious apple tree.  In fact, if you plant the seeds from a red delicious, its offspring will produce entirely random results and you’ll likely get something very far from the looks and taste of red delicious. The apple might be green and tiny with a sour taste, or orange and triangular shaped with tastes of honey. The variability is huge, and that’s why we graft. Grafting is basically a form of cloning and every single red delicious apple tree grown in the world comes from the genetics of one single tree. (I’m not going to get into “sports” in this conversation).  

A small sampling of the shapes and sizes of apples, due to extreme heterozygosity

A small sampling of the shapes and sizes of apples, due to extreme heterozygosity

Diversity fuels sustainability and is a basic tenant of ecology, so planting out row upon row of the same grafted tree variety is not seen as a very ecologically-minded process. In fact, as we continue to graft the same thing over and over again (Just yesterday, I learned that 60% of all apple trees planted in New York State are Macintosh), we are hindering any co-evolution for disease and pest resistance and we growers become more reliant on chemicals to produce a crop as nature evolves around us and becomes increasingly resistant to what we throw at her.

The genetic characteristic of heterozygosity found in varying degrees across many, many tree crops is allowing  for a myriad of genetics that might stand up against the current coevolution of nature. In this light, many permaculturalists are advocating planting trees from seed in order to select for a diversity of genetics that will work with your site, climate, etc because that is one of the only ways we’ll create a truly healthy and sustainable agricultural system. Yet, this is agriculture and those of us farmers heading towards growing perennials on a commercial scale need to make a living doing this. Like, a living off the crops…not off of classes, workshops, speaking engagements, etc.

So, what’s the problem in growing food-tree crops from seed on a massive scale? Heterozygosity. You see, though you’re selecting for better genetics, you are also opening yourself up to a bunch of other unknowns about the tree…like when these fruits and nuts will actually ripen. In the case of apples, your ripening/harvesting window in certain areas can run between June and October. That’s a 4 month-long period!  Now, imagine that you just planted thousands of trees across broad acreage without paying ANY attention to when your crops will ripen. Imagine trying to harvest those crops with any sort of efficiency. Hint: It’s nearly impossible unless you have a huge crew of free labor.  And according to the Department of Labor, once your free labor has the skills to competently do a task, they must be paid minimum wage (or else you are breaking the law).

I once managed a 5 acre orchard with over 100 varieties of apples. These varieties were planted in a patch-work style across the orchard without much sense or order. During harvest, apples were ripening across the entire orchard rather than row-by-row and when I left that orchard, I learned to always clump varieties together that will ripen at the same time (or close). In doing this, you’ll save money in harvest costs, sanity, and also be able to actually provide a merchantable crop other than renting out your rows to finish your animals/other’s animals on an absurd amount of nuts and fruits.

In regular agroforestry or silvopasture systems, you are harvesting timber in addition to growing alley crops or livestock. Trees can grow at different rates, but if you planted them all at the same time, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to harvest them at the same time. That sort of planning ahead for timber crops should not be applied to tree-food crops and we need to stop pretending like it can.

A Silvopasture System For Timber

This is a fact: If you plant trees with intention of harvesting their fruit/nut crops for markets/value added without a harvest plan, you will be screwed when they come into bearing. 

In Central Asia,  edible”silvopasture” (harvesting apple/walnut trees for timber/firewood is illegal) is an integral part of their apple and walnut harvest. The basal area (term used to describe the average amount of an acre occupied by tree stems) of the apple and walnut trees in the forest allows for healthy pasture underneath the trees where livestock are grazed before and after the harvest. The results: You get an apple crop (home processing), a walnut crop (one of few ways to make money there), meat and milk products from livestock (to feed your family) AND the livestock are cleaning up the pre-harvest drops (usually full of pests), keeping the grass low for actual harvest off the ground, and eating the post-harvest drops/leaves (to get rid of pest and disease). These forests are rather broad-acre (thousands of acres) and are broken into parcels which people lease. Walnuts and apples don’t ripen uniformly within these forests, so having these small parcels leased to families ensures a complete harvest because their livelihoods depend on it.

Apple-Walnut

Apple-Walnut “Silvopasture” in Kyrgyzstan.

Planning out a broad-acre planting of anything? Farmers, regenerative agriculture designers and permaculture designers heed warning.  It is very important to have your rows timed according to harvest if you or your client intends on making any money off the system. Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farms has done a wonderful job of this in his permaculture orchard which has allowed for people to go in and pick a variety of different fruits from a single row. In the coming weeks, the rows change to account for ripening. He’s not on a broad-acre scale just yet and has integrated u-pick into his business plan, but it’s the same type of thinking needed for broad-acre perennial plantings.

I’ve seen a lot of pictures of a vast diversity of trees planted on contour swales, keyline, terraces, etc. People wanting to incorporate livestock into the mix have these grand visions of running livestock row by row to create fruit/nut finished meat. Now, wouldn’t that be nice if everything in that row ripened at the same time so you’d only have to send your livestock down that row once after harvest? You can also add some extra value to the scenario by listing off specific varieties (which have stories) that went into this meat.  That’s efficiency and truly forward thinking and planning.   It’s where permaculture and regenerative ag needs to be.

Some of you reading this might have this feeling of dread because you just planted out a acres of extreme, unharvestable chaos.  If you leave your landscape be, you won’t end up with the commercial perennial agricultural system you sent out to create that talks bushels per acre, yields, and everything else an investor or someone replicating your model should ask about. Instead, you’ll likely end up with a food forest preserve that you might be better off treating in the same fashion as those in Central Asia. The model of having others come in and lease parcels of your food forest to harvest isn’t a bad idea either. Perhaps some will consider this as a future model.

I’m interested in creating and using low-input management techniques to grow fruit and nuts in an ecologically savvy way that will change the face of current agriculture. I’m interested in bushels per acre, harvest efficiency, timing. When a corn-grown kid from the FFA wants to know bushel numbers and pricing for these agriculture systems, I want people to be able to present a serious and factual case for him or her to consider changing over.

How do you fix and prevent this?

Some questions to ask your landscape designer:

1.) How many bushels per acre of (insert crop) do you anticipate for harvest once this system is mature?

2.) Will these trees be planted in a way that will allow for a streamlined harvest rather than a hunt-n-peck scenario?

3.) What varieties of these fruits and nuts are you thinking of? Can you please give me harvest dates for these varieties in my area (or extrapolate)?

Tips for those of you who have an unharvestable situation:

1.) Start your research on ripening times for varieties/band your research with others/hire a consultant who can give you this information. Try to procure scionwood from people who have harvest information. There are 7500+ known varieties of apples out there. How much do you want to bet that a couple hundred of them ripen at the same time?

2.) Learn how to top-work or hire someone who is an expert to do it for you once you’ve found varieties suitable for your layout. Or, if you already have trees producing in a haphazard pattern on your landscape, start taking notes of when each tree is ripe and be prepared to top work them into a pattern that makes some harvesting sense.

3.) Planting from seed? Start reading up and learning about true plant propagation and breeding. You can get a good idea of what to plant out from your nurseryin a few year’s time with conscious breeding and innovative techniques.

4.) Encourage and support nurseries and individuals to venture off the beaten path and start really breeding/fruit exploring for low-input management techniques. Support their taking of notes.

5.) Don’t balk at these plant breeders for patenting a plant/tree which they’ve put many hours, dollars (from their own pockets) and observations  into in order to improve the agricultural system. That’s the cost of innovation. Heck, universities are doing it on tax-payer dollars.

Whoa there, apple scab is a healthy thing?

I decided to get scientific this evening and look up what happens to the apple when it has been infected by apple scab, Venturia inaequalis. Like I had guessed, it looks like the benefits to the consumer are heightened when the apple has scab. After some searching, I found this article, which I’ll go ahead and spoil by saying this: The health benefits were multiplied with the presence of scab on the apple.

Once upon a time, Slovenia and Austria teamed up to study the differences between a “healthy” apple peel without any disease and an apple peel infected with apple scab.

Apple With Scab Lesions

Versus

Apple Without Scab Lesions

 

The study found the following:
Compared to a “healthy” peel, scab lesion tissue had:

  • ≤ 3.1-times higher hydroxycinnamic acid content
  • ≤ 1.3-times higher dihydrochalcone content
  • ≤ 3.9-times higher flavan-3-ol content.
  • Showed slightly higher phenylalanine ammonia-lyase, chalcone synthase, chalcone isomerase, flavonol synthase, and dihydroflavonol 4-reductase activities.

That’s a mouthful. Let me just tell you what some of these mean (and provide links):

Hydroxycinnamic acid – A group of flavonoids, best known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory health benefits as well as the support of the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Dihydrochalcone– Another group of flavonoids, known for anti-inflammatory qualities.

Flavan-3-ol– Associated with the prevention of chronic diseases. Often found in tea, citrus, and wine.

Phenylalanine ammonia-lyase– Used for treatment of the metabolic disorder Phenylketonuria.

Chalcone synthase– A promising enzyme that pharmaceutical companies are currently exploring for dietary supplements and health products.

How about that. This, of course, is the peel of the apple we are talking about. Given the article above, would you rather drink cider made from scabby apples, or cider from non-scabby apples?

I welcome all articles proving me wrong. I searched for all I could find relating to apple scab and nutrition, and didn’t come up with much. This is a learning process and I don’t have access to scientific journals and such. I take what I can view for free on the internet.

 

 

 

 

A Radical Orchardist? Part One

Last fall, I wrote a blog entry for my previous employer talking about apple scab, and how brix tests have shown that apples with scab have a higher sugar content than apples without scab. The article got a lot of attention and sparked some new (and much needed) conversations, and I should have saved what I had written (so I could post it here). You see, I wanted to reblog it today, but have realized that it has been taken down since I left. This is all very interesting to me and has basically supplied me with content for today’s blog entry: Being a radical orchardist.Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 9.43.13 AM

Part 1: Fungal Disease People want affordable organic, and that’s usually not possible unless you grow it yourself or start eating ugly (cosmetically blemished) fruit. Fungal diseases like apple scab can largely be controlled by orchard cleanliness: breaking down the leaves after they fall, making sure the fruits are all picked up, pruning for good air flow (and removing the debris) and selecting apple genetics that aren’t as prone. Despite these efforts, however, you’re likely to still get some disease in your orchard. To the commercial dessert fruit grower, this is a bad thing because a scabby apple is an unsaleable apple. But to the cider maker, I think we’ve thought this more of a problem than it actually is. My article I wrote for my previous employer (seen in the snapshot above-right) said that after repeated trials with my refractometer and a bunch of apples, I found that apple scab raises the brix, or sugar content, of an apple due to the apple’s response to the fungal stress. Higher brix= higher sugar content=more alcohol in cider. I have spent a little time researching the nutritional content of apples with scab compared to apples without scab, and the overall nutrition of the apple is higher with scab (click to read that blog post). To me, that’s a value added disease if managed for moderation…especially if the apple hasn’t been repeatedly slathered with fungicides (organic or inorganic). Yet, we North Americans have been taught to only accept the most beautiful of apples, ones free of cosmetic blemishes, and that is why fungicides are sprayed at alarming rates in orchards across the continent.

Hewes VA Crab

(Hewes Virginia Crab, without fungicide or insecticide)

Dessert fruit is NOT process/cider fruit, so why are cideries accepting apples that have, in my opinion, been inferiorly managed for cider? The short answer is this: Unless cideries are growing their own apples, they have to buy from conventional growers. The information given from extension agents is how to grow dessert fruit, not cider fruit, and there is a difference. There’s such a shortage of cider apples that cider makers really don’t have much choice at the moment to question growing practices, and they aren’t at a point to talk with the growers about management.

This also begs the question: What is a cider apple? Sure, you can have all the old French and English varieties like Dabinett, Frequin Rouge, Tremletts Bitter, Norfolk Beefing, etc, but if they are managed the same as dessert apples…are they really cider apples? I don’t think so.

But back to where I said that these apples are being inferiorly managed for cider… Here’s a scary example: If you work within the cider or wine realm, you’ll learn that fermentations have been known to delay due to the late season sprays of sulfur based fungicides like Captan (a broad spectrum fungicide) on apples and grapes arriving at the press. Some cider makers I have talked with said that their ferments have stopped before and they attribute it to late season fungicide sprays. This means that some of the yeast added to the juice to start the transition from juice to alcohol died due to the fungicide residue on the apples. A fungicide used to keep the dessert fruit beautiful.  Those who spray Captan will sing the praises of how, if used in combination with IPM practices, it will hardly leave an environmental impact. Yet, if the residue is killing the yeast during fermentation, I can’t imagine what it is actually doing to the environment and the person spraying it in its concentrated form. Also, imagine what it is doing to the flora in your gut. This isn’t talked about. Cider is new with consumers, so they don’t yet know the questions to ask.  I once asked a couple dessert apple growers who have traditional cider apple varieties why they are treating their cider apples the same as their dessert fruit. “It’s cheaper to manage them all the same,” they said. I think the truth actually rests within the realm of “Doing something different to the cider apples is a pain in the ass.” Which is, basically, the mantra of almost every apple grower (minus about 30 people) I’ve ever met. Would you rather drink cider from an ugly apple free of chemicals which encourages a healthy fermentation, or a cider from conventional dessert fruit apples that has to be babied with all sorts of enzymes, yeast nutrient and other additives due to an ill fermentation? Would you rather eat an affordable, organic apple with cosmetic blemishes, or one that has been repeatedly sprayed with chemicals in order to ensure it’s beauty? That’s a radical thought, and it’s what I’m after.

I’m excited to learn and work towards building a different cider story. It’s such a new industry… there’s room for a rewrite. Understanding the insects, preserving diversity in the soil, working with more disease resistant genetics, managing for the site… it’s all so radical, yet so very practical.

Questions to ask your local cider company: 

1.) What percentage of apples do you import from other orchards in order to make your cider? (I can list 3 cideries off the top of my head who grow ALL of their own apples. It’s not many)

2.) Are the apples you are buying grown as dessert fruit? Or grown as cider fruit? (Ask them to differentiate)

3.) What are the management practices of these growers? Do they spray a late-season fungicide to prevent the cosmetic diseases apple scab and powdery mildew? Consumer awareness can change the ethics of agriculture. By asking these questions, correcting your buying habits and telling your friends what you have learned, growers and cider makers will eventually have to give in to change. That’s how Ag works in America, unfortunately.