When pigs have free choice [in Chernobyl]

I had a brief period of downtime last week and what did I do? I got in bed with my computer, a glass [bottle] of Eve’s pommeau , and a hankering to read about pigs in cultivated places (could be an orchard, could be a wood pasture). After some rabbit hole google searches, I stumbled on a bit of research that made me excited: A paper on pigs in Chernobyl.

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Back in 1986, Ukraine had a nuclear disaster affecting 1000 square miles around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. All of the residents within this 1000 square mile exclusion zone were forced to evacuate, leaving their livelihoods behind. Many of the inhabitants were subsistence farmers, who were forced to abandon their gardens, orchards, hogs and chickens. Since, a radioactive landscape thrives in the absence of humans.

In 1992 and 1993, scientists ventured into the exclusion zone to capture pigs at different times of the year in order to record their age, weight and stomach contents. They wanted to know what in the heck these domestic-turned-wild pigs were eating once all of the people left. Turns out, I wanted to know as well! The results were put into a beautiful chart that I wish I could make using excel:

Chernobyl Pigs

Apologies for the blue light blocker

As someone who is VERY into perennial livestock food schemes, I LOVE this chart. This shows what free choice looks like within a human manipulated environment. Give a pig an orchard, herbs, abandoned grain silos, evening primrose and small rodents, and watch their preference by season. What’s very interesting to me is the absence of grain in  their Fall, Winter and Snow-bound winter diets. Yet come spring, the pigs are back on the grain train, though never more than a quarter of their diet. I also enjoyed seeing an absence of fruit in the early winter diet, but a presence in snow winter. This has got to be due to apples and pears that don’t fall.

Support my writings and more through the purchase of charcuterie at www.hogtree.com

HogTree Logo

I think there is a lot to learn from this type of study and would LOVE to know if this sort of study exists for anywhere in America. This study shows that pigs eat a LOT of evening primrose, dandelion/dandelion cousins, hawkweed and stinging nettle. All of these plants re-seed happily and profoundly by themselves, offer amazing nectaries for insects, and can provide medicine and food for us, too. Not to mention, these plants also comprise a garden club planting scheme from hell. (Mwahahahahahaha) 

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Evening Primrose

Evil cackling aside, lets examine Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp) a little more deeply for a moment. It is native to the US and was brought to Europe in the 1600s, where it quickly established itself all over the place (Ukraine included) and has now naturalized. For human consumption, it was once cultivated for the roots, which taste like salsify. In today’s time, it is now grown for the seeds which contain large amounts of Omega-6 oils. Natives used the whole plant to treat minor wounds and bruises, and the roots to treat hemorrhoids. The pigs probably know about all of these health and wellness benefits, which is why they love it so much.

From a horticultural perspective, there are many cultivars of Evening Primrose. Some are annuals, some perennials and some biennials. Some are drought proof and love infertile soils, others prefer moist fertile soils. Some grow to be 6 feet tall, while others become low-growing ground covers. The diversity is huge within this plant’s genetics and it seems like there is a cultivar or two (or three) for everyone. The other interesting thing about Evening primrose is how it is propagated. They are amazing and prolific self seeders, but they are also propagated by division. Division is when the roots are divided into smaller pieces and then replanted wherever you want.

With the ability to be propagated by division or by seed, it seems as if Evening Primrose is well adapted to the pigness of the pig.   Pigs and their rooting behaviors would easily divide this plant and provide a seed bed to be sewn for the plants loaded with seed. What roots they don’t eat would return again the following year in plant form. Perhaps this is, in part, why this plant occupied such a large space in their yearly diets?

Though I could see it becoming slightly out of control, there is more to learn about this plant and others in their applications as pig fodder. Identifying fodder for pastured pigs in cold (or not so cold) climates that will thrive against repeated destruction is hard to find. I’m excited for some of you out there in the world to give it a try.

*Rumor has it, evening primrose is also a japanese beetle trap crop. I wonder if pigs will eat Japanese beetles? Has anyone ever observed this?*

Chernobyl Apples

There was an old Ukrainian
woman at the market
selling her goods.

            Come get your apples!
she calls.
                  Chernobyl apples!

Don’t say that,
someone tells her.
No one will ever buy

                    radiated apples.
Don’t worry, she says.
             They all buy them.

Some need them
        for their mother-in-law.
Some for their boss.

     There was an old Ukrainian
woman at the market
selling her goods.

Come get your mushrooms!
she calls.
Chernobyl mushrooms!

                                                -John Bradley


September Giveaway (In October)

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I’ve been helped out by a lot of people this year. In thanks, here is a Gantt chart (my favorite kind of chart) of September apple drop dates for Zone 6b East Coast climate (with scribbling all over it because it’s hard to let go***). This is for you silvopasture folks, you u-pick folks, you livestock-in-orchard folks. Many of these apples are very cold hardy, so you Northern folks adjust to your own climate using common cultivars like Macintosh to guide you

I still have June/July/August/October in my secret crypt, but I’m giving away the abundant month of September. Thanks to all.

(Donations are accepted for this compilation if you find it of any use)


***It is hard to let go because this info is very difficult to come across and has involved both years of personal research and study from orchards and people in Maine, Virginia, New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. At this point, my life’s work is categorized into 7 months, May through November. This is 1/7th of my life’s apple work so far. You might be thinking: No biggie, 31 apple varieties in order. But it is a big deal.  Please use it, respect it, fix it according to your particular climate, and build from it.

HogTree: Update, Thoughts, Lessons

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

1.) Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.) Rain and Pigs and Fruit Trees

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

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

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

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3.) Cover Crops

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

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

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

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4.) Fermenting Feed

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

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

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

Crossover time!

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

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

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5.) Tree Fodder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.) Fruit-Drop Schemes:

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

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7.) Nursery Tree Business: 

Hicks Everbearing Mulberry and Stubbs Announcement:

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

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

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

8.) Planting Trees:

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

9.) Next Year’s Pigs:

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

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

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

The Launch of HogTree

Last year I went through a collapse. The best I can describe it is the imagery of me walking down a dirt road while being shot with arrows. I tried to pull them out and fight back with the first few shots, but more shots  continued to hit and sink into my flesh. By late fall, the fight was gone in me. I was bleeding out and in a dark place. I had no choice but to let the darkness envelop me.

During this period of time, I questioned myself, my life, my passions. I felt hollow. What was it all for? If I am to pursue my passions, will I always suffer like this? And how much more can I handle before it’s no longer worth it?  As these questions floated by me in the darkness, I heard a voice whisper: “Eliza, you are here to love apples.

It wasn’t the first time and I have a feeling it won’t be the last time that apples pull me out of depression. Slowly and incrementally, I started to give myself time to think about the things I loved and the patterns of my life. With each passing day of thinking about what I loved, business plans emerged. Caution and negative feelings turned into strategy. Conducting a personal inventory on what I had in my possession turned into talks, workshops, and mulberry trees for sale. When put all together, HogTree emerged.

HogTree Logo

First of all, what is HogTree? 

HogTree is a diversified orchard system designed and synched to the rotation and feeding of livestock while also growing commercial process fruit. Imagine a paddock filled with trees that drop fruit/nuts at the same time. Now imagine many paddocks incrementally dropping fruit from May through November. That is HogTree.

I have mulberry cultivars that will drop fruit from May through July. I have around 30 apple cultivars that, when put in order, will drop fruit from late June through November. I have special genetics gathered from notable Quaker horticulturalists like J. Russell Smith, John Hershey and Yardley Taylor to add to this system as well, including: persimmons, chinquapins, chestnuts, pears, pecans, oaks and hickories. In essence, HogTree is a practical arboretum designed to preserve rare or otherwise unwanted cultivars in order to feed livestock…and more.

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Summer drop scheme for apples in my area.

Why would you design an orchard to feed livestock? Because that’s the first income layer. If you are going to start an orchard, you’ll need to make some income during the time it takes for the orchard to start bearing (This is also important when trying to get a loan from the bank).  Some people grow annual vegetables and I think that’s perfectly fine, however I do not want to spend all of my time bending over. I’m a much happier person if I reach up rather than down. I also want to incorporate an income stream which will help manage the orchard throughout its lifetime. After a few years of having pigs in orchards, I’ve discovered that pigs do the job of an unskilled intern and deposit fertility in the process.

What about the second layer? That’s commercial process fruit production. Interspersed within these paddocks in inventive ways are cultivars which grow well for me in this area and have a high quality in value-added markets. These fruits will be mostly managed by livestock with a few steps of intervention coming from humans. Though it’s 5-6 years out, I’ve already promised this fruit to amazing makers/friends/business people who will not only treasure this fruit and turn it into the best product they can, but who also give a shit about our impacts on this earth and humanity. My fruit will go towards producing products with a positive and aware message.

Ugly Apples

Before I go to the next layer, I also need to put out a disclaimer. When I first got into apples, I wanted to grow alllll the varieties. I wanted to find uses for them all, so people could feel as rich as I felt when having access to hundreds of varieties/tastes/textures/uses.  I started growing heirloom apples for cider because they otherwise had no market due to natural cosmetic blemishes/weirdness, but were too special and delicious to me to not be given a purpose. In growing them for livestock first, process second, I’m giving them a new niche.

Is there a third layer?  Yes, the nursery layer. This year I’m selling the Hicks Everbearing Mulberry along with what we think is Stubbs Everbearing Mulberry (positive ID coming next month (May)) through HogTree. Both were championed by J. Russell Smith and John Hershey for being the original “Hog Trees,” with each tree responsible for feeding pigs and chickens for 3+ months in the South.  I sold 250 newly grafted trees in January, which are shipping out now, but this coming winter I will be selling hundreds more as 4-5 foot tall trees. In the next few years, I’ll start to sell the apples, chestnuts, chinquapins and persimmons that are part of my drop scheme. HogTree is an orchard system.  In selling these trees, I’m selling the order in which they belong in the scheme.


Fourth Layer? Of course!:  Talks. Workshops. Tours. Helping people to learn from my mistakes. U-Pick (If you have a system designed to efficiently rotate livestock through, humans are no different).

There are more layers, but this is the 5 year layout as of right now. Now to reality!

What do I have right now? I have an 8 month lease on 10 acres in Loudoun County, Northern Virginia. The 8 month lease is so I can prep the ground for orchards to go in this winter with pigs (an annual income), while also keeping  a healthy dose of caution related to land tenure. In 8 months, the landlord and I should be able to see if it’s a good fit and will then discuss a long-term lease.  I’ve been burned badly in regards to land tenure and much like being in a romantic relationship, I do not feel comfortable planting trees which will be around for my lifetime after the first couple dates between me and the landlord. Working with pigs as my first activity on this new property feels safe, whole and doable.

10 pigs will be arriving in early May from David Crafton, of 6 Oaks Farm. He is a passionate wealth of information and all of his pigs are from pasture genetics, so they contain the necessary gut biome to raise them in an orchard-in-the-making setting. He has been working for years to develop his own breed, the Carolina Forest Spot Hog, but in waiting for this breed I’m receiving a heritage-breed mix from him largely consisting of a large black x tamworth cross and bluebutt crosses. The goal is 200+ pounds of delicious marbled red meat in 7 months with them eating 90% pasture/fodder. I’m excited to work with them.


With that said, this timeline is how I currently predict HogTree will be developed in the next few years:

Year 1: The land is responsibly “pigged,” removing grubs, spreading minerals/nutrients and planting cover crops after them in order to prep the ground for orchard plantings. This is also a trial run for a long-term lease with the landowner. These pigs will be supplemented with some off-farm feed (non gmo peas, barley and whey mostly) because they are working to transition a blank canvas/pasture into an orchard and will need some supplement to grow within my 7 month time frame. HogTree the nursery sells mulberry trees online.

Year 2: (If pig year 1 pans out, otherwise repeat yr 1 on new piece of property), I will be planting fodder trees and fruit tree rootstock. Considering fodder trees,  I have the genetics for trees whose leaves are as nutritious as alfalfa and way more drought tolerant, providing high digestibility/minerality and nutrition when the grass starts to underperform. These trees will be harvested annually starting in year 3. HogTree continues to sell mulberries online.

Year 3: The fruit tree rootstocks will be topworked (grafted). In addition to pasture, the pigs will be eating tree fodder and early season mulberry fruit by this point.  HogTree sells summer apples and mulberry trees online.

Year 4: Pigs will hopefully start to taste their first apples off some trees. They will continue to eat pasture and leaf fodder from the trees. The full gamut of fruit trees will be available through HogTree.

Year 5+: Pigs will be fed/fattened/finished off tree leaves, fruit, nuts and pasture. Harvests for process fruits will begin.

*In order to make this vision and business plan work, I will need the investment of consumers. That means I am opening up a waiting list for 20lb box/quarter/half/whole hogs for the 2018 year. Please realize that in buying this pork, you are supporting the future of HogTree’s orchard system, which will show the important links between animals and orchards. Please consider buying pork from me if you want to see HogTree set this orchard system into motion. Click here to get on the waiting list!*

Update: Support my writings and more through the purchase of charcuterie at www.hogtree.com

HogTree Logo

Passing of Joyce Neighbors- Alabama Apple Hunter

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In November of 2013, while sitting in my house in a holler in the middle of nowhere Virginia, I decided to take Lee Calhoun’s book, Old Southern Apples, off the shelf. I did this nearly every day, opening it up to a random page and reading the contents- sort of like one would with a daily calendar. On this particular day, I opened it up to a page mentioning the apple variety ‘Granny Neighbors.’ The explanations follows:

In her self-published book, Apples: Collecting Old Southern Varieties, nurserywoman Joyce Neighbors of Gadsden Alabama, writes: “A seedling apple variety found on my Dad’s farm in Clay County about 1975. . . and was growing in a trash dump about 50 feet from a hackworth (apple) tree. . . My dad named the tree after my mother. This apple variety has grown well in Illinois, where it was “one of the hits of this year’s tasting.” Fruit medium size, roundish conical; skin pale yellow splotched with red and some faint stripes; stem almost long in a wide, russetted cavity; dots scattered, large and small, grey; calyx greenish, open; basin corrugated, moderately shallow; flesh yellow, subacid; Ripe August. No catalog listing.

As with all apple books who mention someone’s name, I wondered if Joyce Neighbors was still alive. After posting in NAFEX’s (North American Fruit Explorers) facebook page, I learned that she had corresponded with others in the past year and was, more than likely, still around! I then tried to find her address online and noticed her place was for sale. With that, I vowed to go and see her as soon as I could.

In January of 2014, when driving down to attend the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Conference in Mobile, Alabama, I stopped and knocked unannounced on Joyce Neighbor’s door. When the door opened, I told her that I was here because of apples, and she let me in without hesitation.

Some older apple people will tell you that they don’t have much to offer when you want to come visit. This is, of course, an exaggeration..but in the case of Joyce it at first seemed as if she had taken on her orchard as a representation of herself.  “There’s not much left of the orchard…” she told me when I first visited. “I had a guy working for me who was helping to fight back the brambles and prune the trees, but he stole from me and I had to get rid of him.”  When I asked if I could see the orchard, she told me that she wouldn’t let me go by myself, and her legs wouldn’t let her go with me. I honored her request not to go into the orchard that day, knowing I’d be able to see it someday.

Before she became a fruit hunter, Joyce worked for a retired army general for 22 years and that experience taught her organizational skills beyond what most people consider to be proficient. She was an ambitious soul, where after a full day at work, she would stay up until 2 am every night, working on an over-the-mail business management correspondent course.  Joyce finished this two year course in 6 months.

She was never married, having chosen to take care of her younger sister instead. The years of stress involved in taking care of her sister had taken a toll on her nervous system and by 2000, she had developed tremors in her hands and neck. Shortly before I had visited, her sister was put into an assisted living facility because Joyce was no longer able to care for her properly.  Since then, things seemed to be looking up for Joyce. Her tremors had greatly improved and she was once again able to write her name using a pen and paper.  Aside from the phone, her primary method of communication was through email. She was incredibly computer savvy for her age.

When looking at Joyce’s computer, a large desktop, her screen saver flashed apple after apple after apple, all different varieties. I watched for a long while, waiting for the slide show to end, but it kept going. Hundreds of pictures of apples, many of which she had taken. Only a few of them were labeled on the screen saver, yet she knew every one of them by heart. “Buff, Cherryville Black, Wolf River, Early Cortland…now those are ones I grew!” “Maidens Blush, Spartan, Iron Black and Sal, Betsy Crocket, PawPaw Sweet.” This went on and on…

“Red Rebel!” She yelled as it passed along her screen. Her brother’s wife had a red rebel apple tree growing in her parent’s front yard.  Her Brother drove a truck under the tree so he could reach up there and take cuttings for Joyce to graft. Red Rebel was a better tasting apple than Carter’s Blue, the way Joyce grew it in her orchard. “Lee Calhoun said it was a good apple, too. But it’s not the Rebel he’s been looking for,” she said. “Make sure that everyone knows it. My Red Rebel is not Rebel!”

“That’s one right there! White Buckingham! Now you gotta get White Buckingham from Tom Brown. It’s the biggest apple you’ll find. Bigger than Gloria Mundi.”


She got so excited watching that slide show with me and calling out the names. Though her orchard was inaccessible to her in her own back yard,  it was preserved in the form of a screen saver.  She could watch it for hours on end, reminiscing about the flavors and growth habits and the hunt for each.

Joyce got into hunting apples when it became evident that she needed to save some apple trees off of her Father’s farm (one of them being Granny Neighbors). In 1979, She ordered a grafting kit from Stark Brothers and got Jim Lawson to sell her 10 rootstock (m7 she thought). She went by the directions in the grafting manual sent from Stark Brothers, and all 10 of them took. From there, a nursery business was born. January 14th, 1985- Joyce got her nursery license from the State of Alabama.

She told me how lucky she was to have received her nursery license. “It wasn’t this easy for all women,” she said. In her travels to find old Alabama apples, she visited Brannon Nursery because they were once a source for many of the old apples on her list, including  the very illusive Black Warrior. Joyce arrived to Brannon nursery expecting to meet with old Mr. Brannon, but to her surprise and delight, it was Mrs. Brannon who ran the nursery! It turned out that Mrs. Brannon was a school teacher who hated and subsequently quit her job. She wanted to be outside, working with trees, so she applied for a nursery license from the State of Alabama in 1960. They denied her a license because she was a woman. Undeterred, Mrs. Brannon then sought a nursery license in her husband’s name…and began grafting.  Joyce would go on to tell me about how Mrs. Brannon root grafted her apple trees (the only method she used). In December, she would take 3 or 4 inches of a root off an apple tree and then graft the scionwood to it. She put them in moist pine sawdust immediately after she grafted them and once they had taken root, she’d plant them out. Mrs. Brannon died a couple years after Joyce found her, and she wished she could have asked her more questions.

In Joyce’s own nursery operation, the most she ever grafted in one year was 700 trees, but she preferred to graft around 300 trees a year. They were always planted in pots, and people had to come to her. Never once did she ship a tree. She told me that on rare occasion, people would come to her with only enough money to buy one tree, not knowing that it needed a pollenator. Joyce would then go and find the most obscure variety she had that was a compatible pollination partner, and would sell it to them for next to nothing. She retired her nursery business in the spring of 2009, though her nursery sign was still hanging in 2015 when I went back to visit her with my friends Pete Halupka, Lindsay Whitaker, and Pete Walton.


Turns out, Joyce loved selfies. Here we are, eating apples from her orchard.

Joyce LaRue Neighbors, 90, of Gadsden, Alabama, died September 30th, 2017. The apple world has lost one amazing fruit hunter and nurserywoman. She’s now eating and describing all the lost apples she came just short of finding, with Black Warrior being the first.

“It’s best to grow a variety out yourself and learn how to describe it. Learn how to describe a variety. Learn that for your own use. It’s going to vary for where it’s grown. Somebody down the road might be different from me. And the cultural processes have a lot to do with it. A lot to do with it. My growing condition, the pH, would affect it. Other people might look at it different. Give it plenty of sunshine. Roots don’t need to get water logged. You got deer? Put up an 8 or 10 foot deer fence.” –Joyce Neighbors

Pete Halupka, who lived a little over an hour away from Joyce, became a friend and mentee of hers. His write up is below:

RIP JOYCE NEIGHBORS. Who I am so proud to say was my dearest friend and apple mentor and deeply influential to many apple enthusiasts. Gadsden, AL. 

I’m very sad to say that I was sending Joyce a holiday email, and when I googled to remind myself of her email, rather than switching email accounts, I saw her obituary. It makes me feel terrible, but I hadn’t emailed her since her passing in September, 2017.

I first found Joyce in Lee Calhoun’s Old Southern Apples in 2014. She was listed under the Alabama apples that she had found since the 1980’s. I Googled her name to find her contact as I just couldn’t believe there was an Alabama apple hunter, doing what I wanted to do.

I called her number. As many have. She was a bit dismissive till I told her I wanted to help her find “Black Warrior”, an apple she has never found. She perked up. She invited me over to her nursery and old orchard. I was elated.

I came to her home, for the first time. I knocked and heard her faintly speak across the house to hold on. She sat me down, almost immediately, at her old computer. She told me that she was very adept at computers after a long time as an assistant to a General. It was clear she actually could navigate her computer amazingly well for someone her age and of her generation. She began to do something really specific. She was opening Word documents and each individual document was titled for each apple variety she had in her orchard. Within each document, was vivid descriptions of her apples both from other sources but also her own descriptions in her book. For the next six hours, she spoke about apples. I have literally scores of hours of her speaking. I also have stacks, and stacks of papers of her writing and others.

I made sure that each variety was accounted for in her orchard. They were grafted and distributed by me, but also scores of apple nerds across the country and world. She found almost 10 Alabama varieties out of “extinction” that had much cultural importance to our ancestors. Each of those varieties is planted, and sometimes fruiting. For someone like Joyce, an botanical preservationist and apple hunter, this was her legacy.

The last time I saw Joyce, I showed her my two year old “Red Rebel” apple planted in my orchard, a variety she found after it disappeared for many years. I was elated to show her and in a touching moment together, she was having trouble speaking her words, and I saw one tear down her weathered cheek.

When Eliza Greenman, Pete Walton, Lindsay Whiteaker and I went to visit Joyce one time, we went out to the orchard (which she hadn’t walked in four years) and found several apples (Red Rebel, Horse and Captain Davis). When she saw herself in the iPhone, she giggled, she became just so excited and asked us to take more. This made us so happy, as she often would be a little closed off due to pain or discomfort, but then some days she would be very open and giggly.

If you want to learn more about Joyce, unfortunately there is limited information. But, the best interview available is a Southern Foodways podcast on #thefruitexplorers with Eliza Greenman and I, where Mary Helen Montgomery does a great interview with Joyce. I will link this below. Lastly, If you can find it, she has a self published book of her varieties and other Southern varieties available not online but from folks who have it. It is now time to scan her book in, as well.



Wanted: June Ripening Apples (and Pears)


Summer apples are rarely of interest to most apple growers and consumers. Compared to their later season kin, they bruise easily, are often described as lacking texture (or “mealy”), low in sugar, and having a very high acidity. They might not seem very fun from this brief description, and I’ll go into detail of why these apples are fun for me in a bit, but first: Light hearted stereotypes of people who find/have found summer apples to be exciting:

1.) Elderly people from New England & other places labeled “Cold as Hell”


Picture taken from a google search

In my own personal experience, 90% of people over the age of 80 know of the Russian cultivars “Red Astrachan” and/or “Yellow Transparent” because of apple sauce. These are the first popular apple cultivars to ripen in New England and have a relatively thin skin that disintegrates when cooked down into sauce. That disintegrating skin quality, by the way, is a big factor defining a “sauce apple.” If you have to peel it before you cook it/have to use a food mill to get the peels out: It’s not a true sauce apple.

I made some apple sauce this year from an old Yellow Transparent tree in Northern VA (Apples cored, halved + Pot + Stovetop) and my tasting audience (employees of Southern States Cooperative), thought it was too acidic. I, the person who subsists on apples for months out of the year, thought it was great. But I’ve realized that my area in Virginia has lost much of its culture surrounding summer apple sauce. In New England, it seems to still be alive…for now.

2.) People alive in the early-mid 1800s


A woman from NY reaching for a Yellow May apple from VA, as her trees are still in bloom.

In researching early ripening apples in my home state of Virginia, I’ve run across several accounts of growers from Southern Virginia selling “Yellow May” (a June Ripening apple for them) to New York markets for a pretty penny. Turns out, before the Russian cultivars (like red astrachan and yellow transparent) hit the scene, people in the Northern states were hankering for apples in June and buying them from the South. They probably ate them, rather than making sauce, because I don’t think texture was as big of an issue as it is now (thanks, apple lobbyists).

Why am I looking for June ripening apples?

Quick answer: For animal fodder

Long answer: It is my ambition to create animal paddocks based on drop times of fruit. WHAT THIS MEANS: I will one day be able to rotate animals from paddock to paddock and have that synched with drop times. Their feed will entirely be the grass growing in the orchard and the dropped/shaken-off fruits from the next level up. I’ve done quite a bit of work/collection for the later months, but the early months are much harder.



Anyone north of Virginia, in mountainous areas, or familiar with the USDA plant hardiness zone map 7a/7b*: If you know of an apple that produces in June and can get access to it/provide contact info to me, I would love to hear about it. The perfect scenario is this:

1.) I’m provided with some background info on the tree you’ve identified as a June bearing apple. This includes location, what you think it might be called, when in June it bears (early June/late June) and any other info you can find (bloomtime is something that comes to mind, but not that important). This is so I can keep notes on your selections and credit you in the future! Pictures are also a huge help.

2.) You can either take scionwood from the tree or get me the contact info so I can write/call the owners and see about getting some scionwood from this tree. I will gladly pay for your time and effort. Please, before taking scionwood, reach out to me so I can make sure we are on the same page as to what scionwood actually is.

3.) You mail the scionwood to me and I compensate you and credit you in future descriptions and work!

Other items of note:


I DO NOT CARE WHETHER OR NOT IT GETS BAD DISEASE (but would love to hear about this if you have info)



I DO NOT CARE IF YOU ACTUALLY HAVE A JUNE BEARING PEAR. That’s amazing, too, and I want to hear about it.

I ONLY CARE IF IT BEARS IN JUNE. Come one, come all…get in touch with me if you know of a June apple bearing in slightly colder climates.

*The reason why I ask for zone 7a/7b or colder (the lower the zone number, the colder) is so I can extrapolate. If someone in zone 5 has a first week of June apple, that could very well be a mid-late May apple for me. May apples in Northern VA are non-existant as far as I know, and I’m also very interested. The earlier the bearing, the more diverse of a diet my animals get earlier in the season. 





The Holy Grail of Apple Nerdery is Here…

When I apprenticed for John Bunker in Maine, one of my paid gigs was to help create an online apple key. All summer and fall, I entered apple descriptions into the computer from a gigantic three ring binder containing 16,000+ apple varieties. That three ring binder was Dan Bussey’s book, version 1 of The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada….in size 5 font with no pictures.  I didn’t even make it out of the B’s that year.

The Illustrated History of Apples in the United States and Canada

7 years later, the day has come for this 7 VOLUME SET to now be available for purchase and hugging. This, friends, is truly the holy grail of apple nerdery. And it’s affordable at $350 (which includes shipping). Don’t believe me? Try buying an original copy of Apples of New York Volumes 1 and 2. (and you only get 2 volumes compared with 7)

I just bought a set and thought I’d share it on this blog because I’m excited about it and want Dan to sell thousands of volumes. With the exception of William Cox’s A View of the Cultivation of Fruit Trees (which I’ll probably never own a real copy of), I’m fairly certain my heirloom apple library is now complete with this acquisition.

Wondering what to get that special someone in your life who enjoys apples? Why not get them the most overwhelming 7 volume set of apples you possibly can this year. The pictures alone are worth the $350.

Dwarfing Mulberries: An Afternoon with Dr. A.J. Bullard

“Over here are the mulberries. This one is a pure Morus rubra that produces 2 inch fruits.” “Liza. Can you tell me what is different about this tree?”

This is the way of Dr. A.J. Bullard. He playfully taunts you with little snippets from his 70+ years of tree knowledge and then immediately follows it up by asking you seemingly impossible questions. “What is different about this tree?” 

Dr. A.J. Bullard isn’t a former horticultural professor, but a former baseball player and Dentist who is a botanical wiz. He reads botanical textbooks and then writes letters consisting of page upon page of single spaced revisions and fact checking to the authors. The most common complaint he voiced to me in reading these texts was how everyone seems to copy information from book to book rather than doing the research for themselves. Dr. Bullard is that man, the guy who has studied the intricacies of the Southeastern plant world so thoroughly and in real life that he often receives identification questions which have stumped the arboretums and universities (and he figures them out).

I didn’t know this about A.J when I went to visit him. I knew of him as the former president of the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX) who probably knows more about mulberries than anyone in the US. His knowledge is integral to the advancement of mulberries as a tree crop in the United States.

This blog post/essay is in relation to a running conversation about mulberries that I’ve had with A.J ever since we met (my boyfriend would tell you that I talk to A.J on the phone more than I talked to him when we first started dating).  The full conversation will be in the form of a presentation at this year’s annual NAFEX/NNGA conference in Tifton, Georgia. Among the multitudes of reasons why you should be there, hearing A.J. talk is one very, very good reason.

“What is different about this tree?” 


Slowly, we approached the above pictured mulberry tree and he asks us again: “What is different about this mulberry tree?” I think on it for a bit and come up with nothing, so he asks again. “What do you see that is different with this tree?” I got nothing, A.J. No idea. “What about the height? It’s no taller than 12 feet,” he says. Ah, right…mulberries aren’t normally 12 feet tall unless they are a naturally dwarfing cultivar. “Correct!” “What if I told you this wasn’t a dwarf cultivar? What if I told you that I have figured out how to dwarf mulberries?”

Dear readers- Have you ever had your mind blown? It’s a flooding of immense realization and wonder and excitement, all at the same time. What I’m about to tell you not only blew my mind, but in a strange way paralleled my own exploits.

Dwarfing trees is a huge deal these days. Thousands and thousands of orchard acres are getting converted yearly into dwarfing orchards because 1.) more trees per acre=more fruit per acre 2.) smaller trees are easier and cheaper to manage/harvest. If you pick up an fruit industry magazine, there’s usually a very good chance of the magazine featuring one article on the promise of better dwarfing rootstock for pears/cherries/peaches/name fruit tree in the coming years because that’s where the industry is headed. However, there are some downsides to all of this and it’s usually in these three sectors: Costs (because trellis systems or support posts are expensive, Longevity (dwarfing rootstocks are shorter lived, maybe 25 years), and Input (these trees require tending from humans or else they’ll suffer and/or die).

What A.J has done to get dwarfing mulberries would allow an orchardist to fit close to 200 mulberry trees per acre. It costs less than, say, planting the same number of apple trees per acre on an m26 rootstock (semi-dwarfing) because the trees you plant are able to stand up without the need for support posts. They are longer lived (the trees pictured are 40 years old). And there are no chemical or water inputs necessary (other than establishment necessities).

Mulberry trees are naturally tall for fruit trees, usually around 30 feet or more (for M.alba and M.alba x M.rubra hybrids). Given the standard size, if you were to prune heavily every year, you could probably fit 70 trees per acre (more like 40 trees per acre if you didn’t prune heavily). With Dr. Bullard’s dwarfing methods, you could likely plant 3-5 times that amount per acre. Which, just to throw it out there, would be an incredible set up not only for people wanting to sell mulberries, but also for pastured chicken or pastured pork operations (more about that later).

Alright, so what goes into Bullard’s dwarfing methods? Note: What I’m about to discuss is only an hypothesis. We don’t know what is actually going on, but this is our best guess. Well, we think the name of the game is incompatibility. If you study the history of apple rootstocks like I have, it’s only a matter of time until you start to come across accounts of rootstocks (aka, the roots to which you graft your cultivar/scion/variety) imparting various characteristics into the cultivar/variety (here’s a fun essay on the subject I wrote last December). Some characteristics include a change in flavor, tree size, fruit size, disease resistance, yields, and death, among other things. Some of these characteristics (like death) are deemed incompatibilities. Keep this in mind.

Alright, so what did A.J do?

He took Morus alba (white mulberry- brought over from Russia in the 1600’s for silk production) and to it, he grafted Morus rubra (red mulberry-our native mulberry) or a rubra x alba hybrid. He planted the grafted trees in pots and let the rubra send out a vigorous shoot. Then he tightly wrapped a copper wire just above the graft union and buried the whole tree, leaving a small amount above ground. What grew up from there became a dwarf mulberry tree. Across the boards. At one point in time, he had an orchard of around 150 cultivars and he employed this method to fit them all into his yard. If you look at the above picture, you’ll see other dwarfed mulberry trees- all different cultivars.

He put the trees on their own roots using a method very similar to the one I made up 2 years ago (which you can read about in this essay). That’s part of the reason why my mind was blown, because I’ve been down this rabbit hole before with apples; only with A.J I got a chance to see a glimpse of what the future could possibly look like for my experiments. And also, there are major agricultural implications for this (a later essay).

Why does it work? We’re not totally sure, but we both think it could be some form of incompatibility transferred from the M. alba into the M.rubra which imbedded itself into the scion/variety/cultivar by the time the rootstock/nurse root girdled off and the tree was on it’s own roots. That incompatibility caused dwarfing. If you look at the ground where tree hits soil, you’ll see a bulge. Perhaps that’s where the vigor went.

Anyways- this is all very exciting and details of all of this, including how exactly to do it (which I’m doing as we speak) will happen this year at the NAFEX annual meeting in Tifton, Georgia.