On their own roots

A long time ago, orchard and nursery people often grafted scions from known cultivars onto dug-up root pieces from apple trees. This was one of the ways in which orchardists and nurserypeople were able to propagate specific varieties rather than getting something completely random from seed. The other way was to graft onto existing trees (called top-working, or top-grafting) or onto rootstock produced by planting seeds.

 

51207_root_graft_lg

 

Root grafting (on purpose) has largely disappeared as a horticultural practice due to the rise of clonal rootstocks. We are now able to decide what size tree we want and how soon we’d like the tree to bear apples, which has been the primary cause for eliminating old “standard” sized trees from the landscape.  In fact, you wouldn’t believe how many old orchards I visit where the owners have been told by the extension service to cut down the old orchard and plant high density apples…

It’s true that high density apple systems have proven themselves to make more money than trees able to stand up by themselves (in a high-input dessert fruit market), but I’m not totally sold on that model when it comes to growing process fruit for cider, pies, etc. I’ve run the numbers (which I’ll share soon) and you’d have to plant many, many acres of apples to make it work out financially (if you were to sell wholesale and not turn them into your own value-added products). After it’s all said and done, you’ve got an orchard that can live for 25 years on a spacing that makes it hard to “stack functions,” or grow other crops/animals within your system to have a diversified income (which is necessary for me)

*Disclaimer* I have heard from a smart orchardist outside of Pittsburg who is growing black raspberries on the same trellissing as his high density apples with wild success.

 

Eliza fameuse tree

Back to root grafts:

  • Yes, these trees are often times very large compared with apple trees grown on clonal rootstocks.
  • Yes, they are going to take 10-10+ years to bear fruit.
  • Yes you can only fit 55 trees per acre…

But…

  • I’ve seen a lot of old apple trees in my lifetime, like the one pictured above which is over 200 years old! That tree was root grafted and, as a result, on it’s own roots.
  • The Fruit Explorers, a group of which I’m a founding member (along with Pete Halupka of Harvest Roots Farm and Ferment), traveled around the South last year looking for all sorts of apple trees. By far, the healthiest trees we found were those on standard rootstock or growing on their own roots. We were in the hot, humid, zone 7a-8a South which is known for all sorts of rots, fireblight strikes, fungal infections…you name it. And the trees that looked the best were the big ones. All of this observation caused me to believe that we probably have the best chances of growing low-input trees if they are on big roots.
  • I can grow other crops in the rows between the trees. I can graze animals. I can have a diversified income stream while waiting for the orchard to come into bearing and for the canopies to narrow the rows.
  • The trees will be of uniform size if you are root grafting the same cultivars within the row
  • Who’s to say these trees won’t each drop 100 bushels of apples a piece?

Basically, all of this is to say: I think that root grafting isn’t such a bad idea for an orchard if you have the space and the time.  I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll have the space in the next couple years, so the remainder of this blog post is about my thoughts and actual practices of root grafting…

This year, I ordered 1000 southern crabapple trees from the Maryland State Nursery (Malus angustifolia). I decided on M. angustifolia because I’m in the South and these crabapples are better adapted to this hot and humid climate. Also, I had already decided that I wanted standard sized trees, so why not use them as a rootstock?

Well, after I ordered them I did some digging and realized that M. angustifolia, which on average is not that large of a mature tree (maybe 20 feet), would probably not be able to handle the vigor of the heirlooms and cider varieties I wanted to graft. Across the boards, from writings I found in the 1800s to anecdotal quips from friends and thoughts from mentors, it seems like the majority of these seedlings would only be able to handle the graft for a few years and then the top would eventually outgrow the bottom, resulting in death. The success stories I read involved topworking mature, already-in-the-ground-and producing-crabapple trees OR grafting onto crabapple stock from Russia. Russian crab stock is more vigorous and able to handle the older varieties and I’ve seen evidence of this in very old orchards in Maine, where the cultivar died out and the crab stock bolted upward.

Compared to the Siberian crabapple stock we ordered last year (Malus baccata), this year’s rootstock was tiny and we were left trying to figure out how we were going to graft it because on average, our scion is larger in diameter than above the root collar. That’s when I settled on the idea of root grafting.

12721959_10154034586037520_1787493655_n

This is a larger example of a the M. angustifolia crabapple we received from Maryland.

12596221_10154034586042520_772136871_n

I use a foot powered saddle grafter much of the time to save my hands because I battle carpel tunnel due to repetitive orchard/nursery movements combined with being on the computer too much of the time.

12527999_10154034586057520_478322637_n

This is what we’ve done to many, many crabapple trees. We took the root, made a grafting cut (some whip and tongue, many saddle, some omega and some cleft). Roots are often difficult for me to graft because many of them aren’t straight, but squiggly. This is where the saddle grafter came in handy, or we employed the cleft graft.

12026593_10154034586112520_345237393_n

We left the scions larger when grafted. Usually, you only need a bud or two for grafting but I decided to leave 5-6 buds for reasons I’ll tell you about later in this post.

12595959_10154034586117520_1932771233_n\

Pictured above is the final product. We grafted the scion to the root, wrapped it with a rubber band to make sure the union was nice and tight, and then wrapped the graft union/rubber band in parafilm (wax tape) from top to bottom. Some of you might be thinking: A rubber band PLUS parafilm! That’s overkill! And it is, to an extent (though it is pretty much a guaranteed take if you are able to make your vascular cambiums line up). But here’s why we did it…

By itself, horticultural rubber bands will degrade in the sun and fall off the tree within a certain time period so you don’t have to worry about it girdling the tree. By itself, parafilm will also degrade/expand/drop off a tree later in the season without it girdling the tree. TOGETHER, however, your tree is doomed for girdling unless you manually get out there in the summer and cut it off in time. I learned this the hard way, folks.

Why are we using this rubber band/parafilm method for grafting a root when I won’t be able to cut it off due to it being buried in the soil? Well- the answer is this: I want the girdling. Before I put this all together for you, I need to go on a brief tangent (which connects, I promise).

Last summer, we visited with Jason Bowman of Horne Creek Historical Farm (one of the sites that has Lee Calhoun‘s entire collection) and he was kind enough to take us through the orchard. Every year, I notice something different about trees and during this particular visit, I noticed how tree form differs from cultivar to cultivar. This is nothing new, really, because I’ve pruned many different cultivars of apples and they are all different. But this time, my knowledge of what trees had better disease resistances combined/confirmed with Jason’s were overlayed with tree form. I started to notice how apple varieties like the Dula Beauty naturally had wide crotch angles, creating better natural airflow and therefore, less fungal problems because humidity wasn’t being trapped within the tree as readily as some other varieties.

Keeping this in mind, I’ve been wanting to return my most disease resistant cultivars with excellent tree form (wide crotch angles) to growing on their own roots because I think they will require less pruning down the road (which is one of the big arguments for going to smaller trees…less and faster pruning). I want to see what size these trees will be without interference of rootstock, how many bushels of apples these trees will bear, and I want to taste an apple on it’s own roots as compared to another rootstock. That’s why we’re grafting in a way which will eventually have the root girdled from the scion (by using the rubber band/parafilm method). Alone, it’s fairly difficult for an apple cutting (scion) to produce roots on it’s own, so that’s why we’re grafting it to the crab roots. I want this crab stock to be a nurse to the scion, keeping the scion alive and fed while it starts to produce it’s own roots, and then to die off!

We left the scions long on these roots (5-6 buds rather than 2-3) to give room above the graft union to plant the scion. We’re going to try out two methods for this:

1.) We’re going to plant the whole thing and leave 2-3 buds sticking out of the ground. There will be irrigation.

2.) We’re going to plant the root and the graft union, and then cover the soil with several inches of sawdust which will be under irrigation. The area where damp sawdust contacts the scion should encourage root growth into that space.

When the time comes for digging these trees up and transplanting them, in a year or two, we may cut off the crab root if it’s still attached and alive. We’ll see! Updates to follow whenever we dig these things up (starting in the winter of 2016/2017).

Screen Shot 2016-03-18 at 1.52.36 PM

 

 

 

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)

20151024_111525

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

green-light-collection-apples-for-sale-at-grocery-store-on-oxford-street-paddington-sydney-new-south-wales-australia

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.

 

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?

imageedit_20_9184260796

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.

 

 

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.

IMG_0814

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

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 3.28.12 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 10.51.33 PM

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.

apples1

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.