A New Year for Apples

Many of you who have been following my weekly blog know that this fall I became quite discouraged about farming and the orchard and so much that I’ve poured myself into over the last ten years. In large part, my frustration was due to a fungal pathogen, Venturia inaequalis, better known as scab. But thanks to a persuasive mentor and the researchers at PRI, I’m finding the door is opening and there is light on the other side.

PRI refers not to Public Radio International, but to Purdie, Rutgers, and Illinois Universities, the name of the cooperative disease resistant apple breeding program that has patented apples such as Scarlett O'Hara, Sundance, Pixie Crunch, and CrimsonCrisp — all apples bred to be crunchy, attractive, tasty and most importantly, resistant to apple scab.

When I started growing apples in 2005, my mentor Denis Wagner’s first concern was what we were going to do about apple scab, one of the worst problems for organic orchardists in New England. Denis advised I spray micronized sulfur, a common material used in agriculture to fight fungal infections. It is a mined material and permitted under organic regulations. The Sumerians used sulfur 4,500 years ago to combat disease in their crops.

The scab fungus overwinters in the orchard floor. In the spring, after a warm, rainy period —  millions of spores float upwards into the tree like dust motes in sunlight. Landing on warm and wet, fresh green leaves, the scab shows up as innocuous-looking dark spots on the leaves. But gradually, these black cloudy patches grow darker and spread over the leaf surface. Unchecked, the fungus becomes rampant and jumps from leaf to fruit.

apple scab.jpg

The apples develop brown crusty scabs and eventually crack. Sulfur applied to the leaves changes the pH and makes them an inhospitable host. The problem is getting spray onto every leaf surface — next to impossible — and renewing the coverage after it rains. An organic orchardist might need to spray sulfur fifteen times or more.

Over next few years, I learned through my holistic apple grower’s network how to calculate the spore release and not spray at every threat of precipitation. I would spray only when there was a large percentage of inoculant. I found I could keep the virus in check, unless we have a bad year – meaning a very wet spring. Then it becomes impossible to control. Ten years ago was a ghastly season. The scab was so ugly on the Macintosh trees that I decided to take down every Mac that wasn’t in the first three rows. My thinking was that I could confine these scab-susceptible trees and control it better. Macintosh trees are notorious scab magnets.

This year was again a banner year for scab. We lost half our fruit. Scab jumped from the Macintosh to the Golden Delicious, and then to the Blushing Golden, varieties that are normally scab resistant. With the Macs in the front three rows of the orchard, it was not a welcoming site for those entering the orchard: for people coming to pick apples for the first time, it was alarming.

I consulted with Denis again. “Remove them,” he said. “The trees are old and very densely planted.”  I hemmed and hawed. I didn’t want to take down any trees. But I knew that even when I sprayed I got only about 50% coverage because of the tree size and density. I told Denis I would consider removing them and began my Macintosh cogitation.

What to do? Take down thirty-five beautiful trees? Take down only one row to start? I spoke with another apple grower and he suggested leaving a few Macs – because they make lovely early season cider.  ‘Ah, what a good idea,’ I thought. I mentioned this to Denis. 

            “Linda,” he said. “You made the decision to get rid of them, just get rid of them.”

 First Row of Macintosh Trees

First Row of Macintosh Trees

A phone call came in.

            “Don't hang up!” a gentleman said. “This isn’t a solicitation. I’m interested in organic apple wood.”

I would have hung up, but at that moment I was stewing in apple wood decisions. It would take considerable labor to cut down thirty-five full size trees, pile the branches, burn them, and stack the burnable logs. 

            “We’re looking for some organic apple wood to make charcoal,” the man said. “We think we can sell it to high end organic restaurants.”

He had my attention. He was in Arizona, but coming to New England and wanted to visit the farm, meet me, and see the trees. I explained that this year, I actually had a few large trees that I was planning to take down. We agreed to meet.

Len Kronman visited along with his business partner, Dave Santos. I don’t know how they are related, but Dave is younger and Len is older. Dave seems to be the on the ground man and Len is perhaps a financial backer. While we were walking through the orchard I told Len about my attempt at creating a wild orchard pointing out Valerian and Jerusalem artichokes growing between the trees.

            “My daughter-in-law had just published a book on wildflowers. Would you like a copy?” he asked.
            “Oh yes,” I replied.
            “Please send her a copy,” he directed Dave.

Len is also an art collector; he specializes in Native American art. But as he said a few times, he just loves to collect. We took a tour of sculpture on the farm, and he chose a piece of mine, a small figure sitting on a tall rock. All this from organic apple wood . . .

Dave and I chose a date when he would come with a few men, a chipper, and a truck. Then he called back, apologetically.

            “Would it be all right if we chipped and left the branches less than 2” in diameter? It will be too small for charcoal,” he explained. “If we take it away we will need to bring two trucks – one for the charcoal making wood and the other for the twig stuff.” 

Chipped wood from the smaller branches is called ramial wood chips. They have more nutrients than older wood. They’re hard to come by unless you have your own chipper.  We always burn our prunings in a huge bonfire and then spread the ashes around the trees.

 Bonfire of Apple Prunings

Bonfire of Apple Prunings

            ‘Nutrients for the trees,’ I thought. “I would love to have them!”

            Dave and his crew won’t be here until after Christmas, but I am feeling better about removing the Macintosh trees. I’ve already ordered replacements — two early season, scab resistant varieties from the PRI breeding program. In the front row will be Pristine, a hardy yellow apple, with crunch and sweetness, that I already grow. And for the second row, Redfree, another early season apple with skin color 90% red wash over yellow. The tree salesman also convinced me to put in an order for the new Evercrisp apple. He said, “You might have to wait a year or so, but you’ll love it!”  I’m looking forward to the ripening of the new year filled with things not yet known, not yet tasted, not yet seen. I hope you are, too! All best for the Holdiays!