Triploid Apples: An adventure into their history, breeding and use

One of the most important considerations to me when growing apples in the South is if the cultivar has a tolerance to pests and diseases. Called “the final frontier” by my Northern and Western apple growing friends, the Mid-Atlantic and the rest of the US South are notoriously difficult areas to grow domesticated fruit. In true Southern hospitality, our soupy humidity and hot temperatures not only extend a warm embrace to all sorts of pest and disease here, but invite them to stay for a long while and breed.

Despite this high diversity of fungal, bacterial and insect pressure, there are still old apple trees in the landscape that have survived decades upon decades of environmental assault. These trees have been the subject and target of much interest in my network of fruit explorers, as these specimens are proof that it is possible to grow purposeful fruit and trees in this landscape without toxic, self-perpetuating inputs. In past essays, I’ve discussed rootstocks being a factor in this, where larger root systems tended to produce healthier trees.  But there are more factors in resilience than just the root system. In today’s essay, which has literally been in my drafts for 3 years, I want to discuss something I’ve been casually studying for years: Polyploidy, or having more than 2 paired sets of chromosomes.

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I’ll begin with a bit of history. In the early 1900s, there was a Swedish plant breeder and geneticist named Herman Nilsson-Ehle, who had spent much of his professorial career breeding wheat and oats for high yields in Sweden. He was a huge fan of Gregor Mendel, who had released his findings on inheritance only 8 years prior to Nilsson-Ehle’s birth, and his whole outlook on plant breeding research was a hat tip to Mendel. Mendel, for those of you who may be struggling to remember, was the Monk who stared at pea plants and developed the fundamental laws of inheritance, which we encountered in high school biology as the punnett square .

Before I go any further, I want to give a quick warning. From my research on Nilsson-Ehle, it appears he was a fan of “new Germany,” and saw the genetics research under Hitler’s regime as a means to save the world. In order to only showcase the apple breeding aspect of this man, I’m not going any further in this subject. If you want to read more on his thoughts, which scarily echo modern times, you can go here: Lundell 2016

In his early research of breeding cereal crops, Nilsson-Ehle would sometimes observe natural mutations in the hundreds of thousands of seeds he planted out for observation. These mutations had much larger, rounder leaves and after poking and prodding these mutants, he discovered their large size was due to having 2 additional sets of chromosomes, or polyploidy (Usually a diploid (2 sets of chromosomes), these plants were now tetraploid (4 sets of chromosomes). These plants exhibited giantism in all ways aside from vigor (which was relatively low). While the leaves and shoots were much thicker than diploids (2 chromosomal pairs), the flowers, fruits and seeds were nearly double in size. This was remarkable to Nilsson-Ehle and prompted him to theorize: If I take this mutant tetraploid and cross it back with its diploid self from the same cultivar, I should get a triploid (3 sets of chromosomes) that brings about enhanced genetics of both! 

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He was right. The tetraploids he crossed with diploids produced triploids that were more vigorous, hardy and resistant to disease than their diploid or tetraploid counterparts due to enhanced genetic modifiers inherited from the parents of two different ploidy (tetraploid and diploid). This brings me back to fruit exploring in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US. The large majority of US cultivars known today as being able to tolerate fireblight, apple scab, powdery mildew, and loads of other issues while still persisting in the Southern landscape for decades upon decades are triploids! Including the Dula Beauty, my sturdy family apple cultivar.

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So the US picked up on Nilsson-Ehle’s breeding work and adopted it to their work in the states to breed for hardy, disease resistant apples, right? Nope. WW2 happened and we were already distracted with breeding for scab resistance (more about that in a bit). In 1950, famed berry breeder George Darrow reported on Nilsson-Ehle’s work in an address to the American Horticultural Society. In this address, he mentioned the premise behind Nilsson-Ehle’s work and connected the dots in how this way of thinking has translated into berry breeding for larger, higher quality cultivars. He briefly mentioned apples in this address, reporting that a tetraploid sport (mutant) of McIntosh had been found growing on branches of a normal McIntosh tree in New England, but the mutant branch was only half tetraploid, as the cortex of the wood was diploid (making it a ploidy chimera). He said they were trying to stabilize the McIntosh chimera as a full tetraploid through tissue culture, and I believe they achieved this due to the photo below. This was the end of an interest in sustainable fruit breeding in the US, in my grumpy opinion.

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Come on, Eliza, what about the Liberty apple? Goldrush? RedFree? Prima? [Slight rant/history on apple scab. Skip to below scabby apple pic to avoid]. Sure, there was a breeding effort between selected US land grant universities (PRI= Purdue, Rutgers, Univ. of Illinois) that began in 1926 to create scab resistant apples. They succeeded in doing so in a basic sort of way, which eventually led to the downfall of this research.  The style of their research was “monogenic,” or relying on a single gene to control scab resistance in an apple cultivar. There was also a whole lotta inbreeding going on.

The gene identified to have scab resistance is called the “vF gene,” which comes from the cultivar “Malus floribunda 821.” The reason why they picked this gene is because they could identify it in seedlings using molecular markers, so they didn’t have to waste time growing the trees to find out if it was scab susceptible or not.  That worked out well enough for a while and they selected some ho-hum cultivars (minus Goldrush, which is awesome but incredibly prone to cedar apple rust) to make available to the public. In 2002, the first reports of scab infection were reported on the scab-resistant apple cultivar ‘Prima.’

In 2011, a German pomologist wrote an article about all of this and, thankfully, it was translated into English shortly thereafter. What he found, looking into the lineage of most US and Euro scab resistant apple cultivars, was a huge amount of inbreeding going on. Not only that, but the cultivars being crossed back to themselves were highly susceptible to scab! I’ll quote directly from the article:

“Today the global fruit breeding industry is producing a wide range of varieties, with one big difference: the overwhelming majority are descendants of just six apple cultivars.

The author’s analysis of five hundred commercial varieties developed since 1920, mainly Central European and American types, shows that most are descended from Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Jonathan, McIntosh, Red Delicious or James Grieve. This means they have at least one of these apples in their family tree, as a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent…” 

Many of the PRI releases have these 6 cultivars crossed multiple times in their lineage. If you do this right and bring out the right traits without problems, it’s called ‘line breeding’. If you end up with problems, it’s called ‘inbreeding’.

The second and main problem with this breeding work, in my opinion, was in our complacency with our selections. We basically ignored any further breeding efforts for scab resistance in order to pursue “Crisp” apples. Takeaway message: FEEL GUILTY ABOUT EATING A HONEYCRISP, COSMICCRISP, CRIMSONCRISP KARDASHIANCRISP ETC. BECAUSE THATS WHAT BREEDING LOOKS LIKE NOW INSTEAD OF BEING ABLE TO GROW APPLES WITHOUT MAJOR INPUTS! Too bad we haven’t been thinking about triploids or even multiple-gene scab control for the last 50 years.

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Guess who has? Russia. 

Since the early 80s, the All Russian Research Institute of Fruit Crop Breeding (VNIISPK) has continued with the scab resistant vF breeding work that spread across the US and Europe, only it is way more badass. Not only are they breeding for scab resistance, but they’re breeding for tolerance to late frosts, consistent yields without having to thin fruit, COLUMNAR growing habit AND Nilsson-Ehle’s version of triploidy (Speak a little more into my dirty ear, Russia). However, the near-sensationalism of these claims doesn’t stop there. Dr. Evgeny Sedov, the primary researcher in this endeavor (and someone I would really love to interview), closes the abstract of one of his scientific papers that goes into his triploidy research with the following that is so, so Russian:

“It is noted that triploid apple cultivars developed at VNIISPK are inferior to none of the foreign cultivars, based on a complex of commercial traits, and they significantly excel foreign cultivars in adaptability. Our apple cultivars may contribute to the import substitution of fruit production in Russia.”

Some mentioned and additional benefits of triploids (Or reasons to pursue more polyploidy breeding):

  • Adaptability to climate, disease, stress: In the above quote, Sedov writes how his triploid apple cultivars significantly kick other apple cultivar ass in terms of adaptability. And based on my research covering the last 100 years, he’s not wrong. There have been many observations by the scientific and lay community reporting that triploids end up being more cold hardy, more heat tolerant (the thickness of leaves and fewer, larger stomata give rise to a lower transpiration rate and more water retention that can be used during drought), have better nutrient uptake, and improved resistance to insects and pathogens. The theory for triploids having a higher environmental adaptability has to do with  an increased production of secondary metabolites, which enhance plant resistance and tolerance mechanisms (as well as chemical defense). 

  • Thinning: Triploids often have low fertility due to a reproductive barrier of having an extra set of chromosomes- making pollination difficult. Some apple pollen tends to pair decently well with triploid apples to get a decent crop. With most cultivars it isn’t great- just good. This could be seen as a boon to this class of ploidy, but I see it as a good thing. One of the greatest challenges to organic apple production is the thinning process. Most non-organic orchards thin using chemical sprays to knock off flowers or fruits. To this day, many organic spray chemicals either do a lackluster job, or oh-god-that’s-far-too-many-job of thinning the fruitlets off, leaving many orchardists to either thin by hand or accept biennalism (which was a 3 hour conversation at Stump Sprouts one year). If you have healthy pollinator populations, less fruit on the tree will guarantee you a return crop the next year, barring other environmental catastrophes (which you’re better prepared for with triploids, anyways).

  • Vigor: In the past, I’ve written about vigor on the Elizapples.com blog and how it’s my number one enemy in the Mid-Atlantic given my heavy soils, warm temperatures and ample water supply. Though I need to revisit those essays and condense them into my current evolution of thought, the reason for my past concerns around vigor is that I have conditions that induce [what I’d like to think is] “artificial vigor.” In my climate, this shows up as extreme vegetative growth, which sometimes gives rise to heightened fireblight pressure and other vulnerabilities. Though “artificial vigor” is likely what an incompatibility of growing conditions looks like, I’ve started to differentiate it from what I’m calling “true vigor,” or youthfulness through heterosis/hybrid vigor. This is where triploids shine.

    When you start digging in old texts, back before the rise of clonal rootstocks, you might encounter mention of two classes of trees referred to as “Standards” and “Fillers.” The “standards,” often mentioned as Baldwin and Rhode Island Greening (both triploids) were larger trees that took longer to bear fruit. These were thought to be permanent trees, or trees that would be around for generations. The “fillers,” such as Yellow Transparent and Wealthy, produce much smaller trees in the same length of time and were far more precocious in bearing fruit. These trees were thought to be temporary, and were planted in between the “standards” to increase production in the early life of the orchard. An unfortunate modern day “filler” would be HoneyCrisp (diploid). Growing in my climate, it is better termed runtycrisp. Super low vigor, gets loads of diseases, precocious bearer, dies early. Sort of an orchard mercenary. This, to me, is a good way to think about vigor. If you’re growing for the long-term, you’ll want a truly vigorous cultivar that teems with youthful energy, and I believe that youth is heightened as a triploid. If you are growing in areas that are full of pest and disease, it is also not a bad idea to have an extra set of chromosomes to help with defense and stress. Relic trees standing tall in the South tend to be triploid and their presence speaks to their youth and defense: Arkansas black. Fallawater. King David. Leathercoat. Roxbury Russet. Stayman Winesap. 

    With all of this said, we have a lot of work ahead of us to start thinking about what our breeding programs would look like if we set our targets on low-input, no spray, multi-gene disease tolerance and more. I get it, HoneyCrisp can store for a calendar year in my crisper drawer, but that’s all it has going for it after a year in there.

    I am pulling for the expansion of ‘process’ industries such as hard cider, vinegar, juices, syrups, etc to become the targets of agroforestry planning and planting enterprises in the near future. Annual or livestock farmers don’t want to mess with sprays or inputs that are outside of their normal non-tree crops care. If they are going to receive incentives to plant trees on their farms, they will want the ones that need little care and have an economic outlet. This will require a new set of apple cultivars to choose from and they have to come from somewhere…

     

Here is an incomplete list of confirmed triploid apples. Many of these are from the UK and do so-so in my climate. The ones with asterisks are what I have seen as old relic trees in the Mid-Atlantic:
Arkansas Black*
Ashmeads Kernel*
Baldwin*
Belle De Boskoop
Blenheim Orange
Bramley’s Seedling
Buckingham*
Bulmers Norman
Canadian Reinette
Catshead
Close
Crimson Bramley
Crimson King
Crispin
Dula Beauty*
Fallawater*
Fall Pippin*
Frösåker
Genete Moyle
Golden Reinette von Blenheim
Gravenstein*
Hausmuetterchen
Hurlbut
Husmodersäpple
Jonagold
King David*
King of Tompkins County
Lady Finger
Leathercoat*
Margille
Morgan Sweet*
Mutsu
Orleans Reinette
Paragon
Red Bietigheimer (Roter Stettiner)
Rhode Island Greening*
Ribston Pippin*
Roter Eiserapfel (Has 47 chromosomes rather than 51)
Rossvik
Roxbury Russett*
Shoëner Von Boskoop
Spigold
Stäfner Rosenapfel( Has 48 chromosomes)
Stark
Stayman*
Stayman Winesap*
Summer Rambo*
Suntan
Tom Putt
Transcendent Crab
Transparente Blanche
Vilberie
Vixin Crab
White Astrachan
Winterzitronenapfel
Winter Pearmain
Washington Strawberry

Want to see more essays? My time can be compensated through the purchase of non-gmo, nitrate-free charcuterie at www.hogtree.com

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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!*

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

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

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

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

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

Good to Do:

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

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

Putting in my notice.

On my one year anniversary here, I put in my notice that I would be leaving by the end of the year.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to put in your notice, there’s a certain thrill when it comes to “what’s next.” At the same time, I’m in mourning. I had so much hope and energy to be here, had told myself that it was going to be a permanent move. I spent all of my savings on erecting a greenhouse and starting a nursery business, taking any security blanket away and throwing me into this crazy world. I have learned many things this year about myself, running a business and working with southern heirloom apple varieties. I had some really awesome days and some days where I felt so miserable that I wanted to just disappear. I have never been more stressed out, sleep deprived or lonely in my life, yet I still thought this was where I needed to be. I attribute this to my often ridiculous love for the trees, which blinds me at times.

When I worked with a very old man in Maine managing his 100 variety orchard, he had me spraying a fungicide on the trees with a wand sprayer as he drove the tractor up and down the rows. Having never sprayed this fungicide before, he assured me that wearing a rain coat was sufficient. I got so much of the fungicide on me that that my skin started to burn intensely and I felt physically ill (vomiting). I was confined to the bed for the remainder of the day and didn’t feel right until about a week later. The smell of this particular fungicide makes me ill to this day, much like certain hard alcohols make others feel after one bad night of overconsumption…you know, our body reminding us to stay the hell away.  I know that I was improperly clothed, but I vowed then and there never to be in a situation where I had to spray anything like that again. I also vowed to never be in a management position where I have someone spray those chemicals.

This is why I decided to head down the cider apple route. As an apple orchardist with an heirloom niche, it was a perfect transition for me to manage trees in a way that I thought would be more responsible for the farmer, the consumer, and the environment. It was a way to grow ugly apples and have them be valued for their flavors and nutritional content rather than their looks. Every tree is different and these old genetics have a thing or two to teach us, so I was excited to learn from the varietal collection here. Over the past year, I have learned a lot from the trees, some subtleties and some big picture items. Enough to have me convinced that I can grow within my own personal/environmental ideologies in order to produce a fantastic and all together healthy product if given the opportunity to keep working with the trees in what is nowadays seen as a careless, ignorant, and improper management approach.

At this time, “This is a business” is not a good enough excuse to get me to spray things I don’t believe are necessary given the goals and objectives. Especially when only 20% of apples in the cider are from the orchard (Aka: Why not use this opportunity to grow apples for cider, since the cider will still be made without them). I can’t concern myself with the now and turn a blind eye to what my impacts might be down the road on this landscape and other people.  That’s not responsible, I can’t let myself spray a tree with pesticides, fungicides, hormones and other chemicals without first knowing what the tree’s genetics and natural associations are capable of producing. Perhaps that is the definition of a radical these days.

Yesterday someone from a University came by the cider house and asked me what I had sprayed earlier that day. I hadn’t sprayed anything. She was smelling the residues left behind from the previous pressing of apples brought in from a conventional orchard. When I had walked past them last week, I could smell fungicide residue from 50 feet away.  Had there been any question, one could just go and look at the dusty film on the apples to confirm suspicions. Apparently this smell can linger 3 days in a parking lot, which is disturbing on a variety of levels.

I’ve been told that I should seek out this conventional dessert fruit orchardist’s advice, the one who delivered the above mentioned apples. I should have him look at my spray schedule in order to help me adjust it and make the right decisions, they said. Perhaps I’m just really naïve or ignorant, but it’s hard for me to believe that this person and I have anything in common other than the fact that we’re growing the same fruit that has more than 7000 known and genetically different varieties.

Eliza is very (might be tragically) wrong, but smart and innocent.”

That’s from an email haphazardly forwarded to me from a person concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing, so they sought out professional advice.

I will be the first person to tell you that I’ve only just begun to trust my gut when it says to go one way rather than another. This has no scientific backing without my ability to explain it in a scientific language, which I’ve only started to do.  I have an understanding of conventional horticulture, but I question many of the processes. I have no idea what is actually the right way to be doing things, given the broad scope of human-caused tragedies. But to be called “tragically wrong” when pushing the envelope… man, that makes me want to defend myself.

And I did. Without hesitation.  I called him up, read him what he wrote, and asked for him to please describe what he meant when he said those things. “You weren’t meant to read that,” he said. I grilled him on what he knew about the soils, the cultivars, the humid temperate rainforest climate in this area… “How could you say those things about me without walking in these shoes, knowing this soil, growing these cultivars? You have never experienced these conditions. In your statements, are you implying that all is universal?” He was upset that I was sent that email. He appeased me, but later called me disrespectful. Which I was, because I stooped to his level. I regret stooping to his level.

After having that confrontational conversation, I made the decision to accept those who will always criticize me and doom me to failure. Hell, in time, I might also find room to love these people because they don’t understand. Maybe they are right. Maybe my work will never amount to anything. But I’m not giving up because these people think this way and have these opinions about me and my work. I’ve only just started and this is my life’s fire.

Deep down inside of me, there is an unexplained energy that propels me forward with all of this and gives me a voice. It’s the same feeling I had 6 years ago when I was up in the tree, learning how to prune for the first time. It’s a purpose, as if every cell in my body thinks I should be doing this. I will keep learning from the landscapes and people around me. I’ll keep following my gut and trying to decipher why it steered me in that particular direction. I’ll do more fruit exploring in order to learn from the trees and the people who planted them 100+ years ago. I’m going to continue to ask hard questions, be insatiably curious, look beyond the orchards for solutions, and convince people to eat cosmetically blemished fruit (#eatuglyapples).

I’m prepared to fail terribly in pursuit of potentially valuable/viable horticulture gains.  With that, I put in my notice.  Lookout, world.

(we set a record this year for harvest, 7 tons per produceable acre. It was a good production year, but that number I just gave you, 7 tons per acre, was the amount we pressed. )

virgin birthing

In a recent article written by National Geographic, a female python in captivity, Thelma, gave virgin birth to 6 (half-clone!) baby snakes in 2012. Only recently has the DNA confirmed that no male has ever been present in the making of these hatchlings. This phenomenon of virgin birthing in nature is called “parthenogenesis,” which basically means that these creatures were able to self-fertilize or reproduce asexually. (Harry Potter fans out there, I can’t get “parthel tongue” out of my head. Which is totally what Thelma the snake speaks, with a lisp.)

My introduction to the concept of “parthenogenesis” happened over a decade ago when I was writing a paper for a biology class. I had grown tired of writing the same old standard science papers, so I decided to turn in a paper that was half science, half sultry romance. At the time, Jerry Springer was a big name on television and the concept of parthenogenesis fit in quite well into a “who’s the daddy” type of drama.  I remember being handed back the graded paper and written in giant red across the top, it said: “Ms. Greenman- See me after class!!!”

I walked into the office after class and was commanded to SIT DOWN. So I did, thinking that I might be receiving an F-. It took me a while to look into her eyes and when I did, I saw a face beaming with entertainment. She looked at me for a few seconds and with a laugh, got up with chalk in hand and made me sit through a lecture on the juicy particulars I had missed in the Jerry Springer scenario and then told me re-write the paper to include what I had just learned.

She sent me that national geographic article this morning with a note: “Perhaps this will help contribute ideas towards the nature novel you need to write.”

What does this have to do with apples? Well, let me try to tie this all together (since this is an apple blog, after all).  In the horticultural world, we have a similar term called “Parthenocarpy,” which literally means “virgin fruit,” and refers to fruit which is developed in absence of fertilization. These fruits are naturally seedless and, basically, they are freaks in nature. Just like Thelma the python.

Lee Calhoun writes about an apple called Bloomless, Seedless, Coreless in his book, Old Southern Apples, but it turns out not to be seedless, and actually has two cores.  Still, TIME magazine wrote an article in 1941 about a discovered coreless apple:

“The first coreless, seedless apples known to science were discovered only last year. Weighing a plump quarter-pound each, they grow on a freak tree in Mrs. Libbie Wilcox’s backyard in Huntington Park, Calif.

This week the Department of Agriculture is working with the tree in the hope of making seedless apples as commonplace as seedless oranges. Since there are no seeds to plant, the new fruit must be propagated by grafts on normal apple trees.”

To the extent of my knowledge, this project was not successful (or else they are being kept where the fertile mules live). It makes sense for these apples to be quite rare, because it’s the apple tree’s #1 job to disperse seed. If an insect gets into an apple, it’s often headed straight for the seeds. Once those seeds are eaten, the tree notices that the apple can no longer do it’s job in growing future apple trees and (literally) lets it go. Apple trees don’t like free loaders, either.

So there, I’ve brought it back to apples. I’d love to find that apple written about in TIME magazine, though. Would be nice to add to the collection.

the over ambitious apple farmer: grafting

As greenhorns (beginning tradespeople), we often have no idea about what we are physically capable of getting done in an hour/day/week/month/season. If there’s a will, there’s a way….right? Let me talk about that for a bit.

I thought my business (Legacy Fruit Trees) would pre-sell 500 trees this year. I pre-sold 4000 instead. “Not a problem,” I told myself…”I’m capable and competent, I sooo have this covered. ”

And so I started grafting. Do you know how long it takes me to graft 250 trees? 8 hours. That’s almost 2 minutes per tree and what I consider to be fairly speedy rate. Here’s the process:

1.) Acquire rootstock (I bought rootstock from Treco, Cummins, Adams County and Cameron Nursery). Rootstock determines the size of your tree (in most cases) and how many years to fruiting. I accepted orders on everything from “standard” rootstock (30 foot tall tree taking 10 years to fruit) to “semi-dwarf” rootstock (down to 12 feet tall taking 2 years to fruit). In a later post, I’d like to review these companies and the quality of rootstock I received, but for now we’re sticking with the basics.

2.) Acquiring scionwood. Scionwood is the most recent year’s growth on an apple tree (any tree you find desireable, you can clone and it all starts with scionwood and rootstock). The time to collect it is in the late winter, when the tree has gone fully dormant (all the sap in the tree is now down in the roots).

3.) Grafting tool. For me, I used the Graftech Manual Grafter by Ragget Industries (review to come later). In the past I just used a victorinox grafting knife, but since I prune for 2 months straight before grafting, I have to give my wrists and carpel tunnel a rest and went with the foot powered machine.

graftech manual grafter4.) Cut scionwood. Cut Rootstock. Stick them together so the vascular cambium  from each are making as much contact as physically possible.

Harrison graft5.) Wrap and seal. I wrapped with a rubber band and sealed everything up using Doc Farwell’s graft sealer. This is the most time consuming of the process and is also the most important. You don’t want your graft union to dry out. Many people used parafilm which will wrap and seal all in one, but it’s not tight enough for my needs with this grafting tool. It will work with other methods, though.

6.) Stick in moist sawdust/peat moss in a cool place and wait for bud swell.

Ok, that’s the quick rundown. Now, 2 minutes per tree…4000 trees…that’s 8000 minutes! 8000 minutes of doing the exact same thing over and over and over again.  At first this was a  lot of fun because grafting is really cool. It’s like putting frankenstein together, only less scary and ultimately ending in delicious fruit. This fun didn’t last very long, though. I started day-drinking beer around the time when my cuticles started to bleed (probably day 6-or-2880 minutes).  It was also really cold and as you can see from the picture below, my grafting shed was (it’s now remodeled) a bit breezy.

Grafting ShedSo I hired someone to help me. The guy showed up and showed real promise and I made the rookie mistake of paying him after 2 day’s worth of help. He never came back.

Then I hired a 14 year old. To all of you out there: NEVER HIRE A 14 YEAR OLD! I had these aspirations of taking him on under my wing and turning him into an orchardist…until I had to re-graft every single one of his trees…which was about 500 of them. Really, if you are going to hire a 14 year old, you have to watch their every move and don’t trust that they understand anything. I wasn’t able to do this because I needed to graft alongside him (you know, to get more done).

A month passed and I hadn’t finished grafting. My fingers and wrists ached, all my clothes were covered in grafting sealer, and my loathing of the activity soared to new heights. This was compounded with the death of my 3 month-old puppy (FedEx ran her over while I was on my way out to the grafting shed) and I was absolutely miserable with 1500 trees to go.

I shared my drama with an apple mentor and he suggested that I stop grafting, plant the rootstocks, and do some bud grafting in the summer. Of course! There was a way out! Budding 1500 trees this summer is doable (I think). If it’s not- I’ve located a professional bud grafter who will come and do all of my trees for me. Yesssssss.

Lesson learned: Discovering (through experience) how long a task will actually take you is called “Wisdom.”

Lesson #2: No matter how passionate you are about an activity, you can burn out. I didn’t think it was possible….

Lesson #3: Teach a bunch of friends how to graft well before the time comes for you to actually start grafting your trees. Have them practice over and over again. Then, hire them. Make sure your friends are over the age of 14.

 

 

 

Some press from the NYFC (I’m featured on their blog)

Introducing Eliza Greenman, Owner/Operator of Legacy Fruit Trees in Virginia:

Eliza in winter attire

Up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwestern Virginia, I am the owner of a small fruit tree company, Legacy Fruit Trees- where I specialize in custom grafting and growing hard cider apple varieties (for now). This year, my first year, I’ve pre-sold 4000 trees which I’ll graft, grow, dig and ship in the coming months. Two days a week, I manage Foggy Ridge Cider’s 18-year-old, 8 acre hard cider orchard which contains 40 varieties of apples noted by people like Thomas Jefferson for making the highest quality cider.

Every day of working in the orchards is a learning experience because each variety wants to grow differently. When I’m not grafting and growing trees for other people, I’m grafting and growing trees for my future fruit and nut orchards (4 acres this year, many acres to follow). I currently have a collection of 650 apple varieties and have plans to design and plant a commercial-scale fruit and nut forest using a diversity of apple genetics and native Appalachian species.

Last year I moved back to Virginia (my home state) to start my businesses and orchards after many years spent in Maine, where I developed my passion and purpose for growing fruit and nut trees. My interest started on a small apple-tree-covered island in Maine and expanded to include MOFGA’s Apprentice and Journeyperson programs, where I steeped myself in the culture of apples.

Foggy Ridge Orchards

After 6 years of immersion, incubation, management and experiments, I received an opportunity to move back to Virginia where I could pursue my life goals of unlocking the potential of old varieties and bringing heirloom fruits back to the general public.

Many of the fruits I associate myself with have genetic resistances and tolerances to diseases facing the East Coast (even the South) and they are also purposeful- contributing to the best fresh eating and value added products one could consume. Hard cider is a product I specialize in, but I can also recommend handfuls of varieties which will make the best apple pies, apple molasses, mince meat, apple sauce, dried apples, and many other products.

Future Orchard Site

In the next few years, my trees will start to produce and I look forward to having people try these exceptional varieties. Perhapsthey will like them so much that they will want a tree of that variety growing in their yard. And perhaps I can tell them how best that tree wants to be grown. Retelling history, preserving ancient genetics, producing high quality ingredients, and creating lasting relationships with our surroundings can all be brought about with an apple tree. And that’s why I love what I do.

via Introducing Eliza Greenman, Owner/Operator of Legacy Fruit Trees in Virginia : National Young Farmers Coalition.

how did this young apple farmer get “landed”

In my opinion, the single most important question a burgeoning young farmer should ask a “landed” farmer is: How are you on this piece of land? Of course, you could get a smattering of witty answers to this but what you should pursue is a conversation about money. How are these farmers affording the land? For how much? Dig deep and be ruthless in order to get these answers because they are important for you to know. Some farmers may own, others may have a lease or they might be in a creative arrangement. Regardless, this sort of thing is really important to know because it allows you, the prospective farmer, to find a model that makes farming feasible for you.

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As a perennial farmer, I searched high and low for a model which could work for me and I found nothing. The few young people with orchards of their own were either occupying family land or were given/loaned money from a family member to help buy their farm. There were no young perennial farmers leasing land and after looking into this myself, I began to learn why.

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Unlike annual farmers, perennial farmers have a long lasting (sometimes life-long) relationship with their crops. When I was looking to lease land, I needed a 10-year lease at the absolute minimum in order to plant my trees, grow them, and then get a few harvests. Now, let’s see a show of hands from people willing to give a 20-something a 10+ year lease. Not. Many.

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Alright, so maybe I found someone willing to enter into a 10+ year lease with me. What if the landowner decided not to renew my lease after those 10 years? I’d be out 10 years of investment, sweat equity and would be without my apple business. A solution to this, I felt, was to own all of the improvements that I made to land, whether that be a tree rooted in the ground or a building. I had decided the mature value of an orchard for the trees and the work I put in was $15,000 dollars an acre. My thinking was that if I was kicked off the land, the owner or the next occupant would need to purchase my orchards because they would basically be purchasing a business. Who was willing to do this? No one. I guess its not a big surprise that no one jumped on this leasing strategy, but it is all I could think of for finding a way to get on land without buying it.

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Enter the “creative arrangement.” For the perennial farmer, this land option is truly about who you know and involves some mutual exchange of needs and wants between the two parties. For me, it started when I apprenticed for Foggy Ridge Cider, where I got to know the owners and considered them friends. A couple of years later, after hearing about my sob stories of getting kicked off an orchard and breaking up with my boyfriend, the owners decided to let me know that I was welcome back at Foggy Ridge.

Eliza Greenman- Foggy Ridge Orchards

 

Foggy RIdge Orchards- Spring

A rising perennial farmer may look at this and say: This doesn’t help me! Where in the hell am I going to find an arrangement like this? Well, to be honest with you…I turned down several creative arrangements with other people before I took this one. When you are passionate about your profession and put yourself and your needs out there, people answer. Who you are connected with also matters. A colleague of my boss recently expressed that he wished he could have found me before she did. Another colleague expressed wishing he could find someone willing to enter into the same arrangement. I’ve also been offered a 50-50 partnership with a landowning couple wishing to transition their farm over to apples from livestock. Maybe it’s just apples, I don’t know…but there is a need out there for young people to get into this profession. Especially in the light of this ever-growing hard cider boom. There aren’t enough apples in North America to supply the future needs of the apple markets.

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Young farmer organizations (aside from the Greenhorns, for whom I am a blogger), seem to gloss over the need for perennial farmers. I’d be willing to bet the average age of an apple farmer is far higher than the annual farmer. The need for us to enter into this realm is huge.

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Interested in joining my network? Do you find your perennial self really needing to get on a piece of land? Please get in contact with me because I feel your pain and can maybe help you troubleshoot. Trees@foggyridgecider.com.