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.

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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!*

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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!