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 “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


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.