Off-the-Wall Comments from an Ignorant Farmer

Hugh Williams is an orchardist I admire. When I read his email reply to my recent blog about our difficulties with the apple crop, I knew I wanted to share some of his insights. I wrote to ask if I could quote him. “Of course you can use my name. More off-the-wall comments from an ignorant farmer!” was his reply.

Hugh and his wife, Hannah Ball, and their two children grow fruits and vegetables and raise a small herd of cows at Threshold Farm in Duchess County, New York. Everything they do is touched by the biodynamic practices first introduced to the world in the early 1900s by the philosopher-farmer, Rudolph Steiner. Hugh started farming on his family’s farm in Australia in the early 1960s. He has learned through careful observation what his plants and animals need to flourish. 

Cows in Bhutan   ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

Cows in Bhutan ( Possibly the world's first organic country within the decade) Photo:LH

I first met Hugh at the annual Holistic Apple Growers meeting in western Massachusetts. At the beginning of each meeting, Michael Phillips, the organizer and champion of holistic apple growing, greets everyone and suggests we go around the room and introduce our orchards. The first year I attended, Bill McKintley from Potsdam, New York, then the owner but now retired, of St. Lawrence Nurseries, began. John Bunker, who runs Fedco trees in Maine spoke next. John lives in Palermo, Maine, and is passionate about Maine’s heirloom varieties. Brian Caldwell, a grower in New York, is an organic vegetable researcher at Cornell University. He has two small orchards near his home. I was intimidated when my turn approached.

“I recently moved to a farm with an abandoned apple orchard,” I said, “and I am trying to bring it back, using only organic materials. But I’m a sculptor, and I don’t know anything about apples. “

Everyone was polite; no one hinted I might be getting in over my head.

“How many trees do you have?” asked a handsome man with an Australian accent. That was Hugh Williams. When it was Hugh’s turn to speak, I remember he said he had been growing apples for forty years, and added coyly, “I’m waiting for the day I can be rid of my sprayer.”  I wrote that down.

Over the last decade, Hugh has attended every apple growers meeting. Hugh always brings something original to our gatherings, a new enthusiasm, some relationship he hadn’t noticed before, an insight as to how a plant or animal grows. His cows are grass fed, and the calves run with the herd. An interviewer wrote, “We even saw Hugh milking from one side of a cow while a calf was nursing from the other side.” 

Hugh knows about challenges. He and his family live solely off the profit from their farm. In a bad year, they have to be creative. Hugh wrote, “We have a very poor apple crop too, except on a few varieties. Enough for our fruit share members, and we have great plums, peaches and pears so we'll eke our way through another year.”

I had written that our crop failure was in part due to biennial production because we don’t thin the fruit from the mature trees. Hugh answered, “For us it was mostly poor pollination. There were no insects, even on the dandelions!” Hugh and Hannah think it's a “global phenomenon” and referred to a “thinning” of the insects. Hugh reminded me that when you stop at a gas station today, there is no longer the need to clean your windshield. It used to be de rigeur, so many squashed insects stuck to the glass. Where did these bugs go? I never clean my windshield anymore.

I think of the avalanche of toxic chemicals we have been releasing onto our planet every day since the end of World War II. The companies that made nerve gas and other toxic materials needed to change their product line in order to continue operating. Someone had the brilliant idea to manufacture chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for the farmer. The corporate world is concerned with the bottom line. Inside brick and steel buildings, workers lose all connection to the natural world, to the subtlety of light, to beauty, to the richness of the insect, plant, and animal worlds, to the future of our children. 

Two Girls in the Market  , Bhutan   Photo:LH

Two Girls in the Market, Bhutan   Photo:LH

There is an article in the July 25, 2014 issue of Science, Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Defaunation is a new word used to describe not only the disappearance of a species but the decline in numbers. Farmers like Hugh and Hannah Williams don’t need scientific studies. 

Hugh ended his note saying,

It raises the question of what actually is the function or purpose of agriculture, which certainly is not inherently tied to money, nor perhaps even to cropping! Our spiritual purpose becomes ever closer and more concrete. While yes, our farm is a temple precinct, we cannot avoid the conclusion it is also the very sensitive canary in the coal mine.

Hugh’s spirituality infuses his farm and all who know him, providing deep sustenance to all creatures. He shares his ideas easily, even when they are counter to how much of the world thinks. I admire Hugh because he cultivates the physical demands of being a farmer—the hard work, the selling, the making a living—all with dexterity and wit, and he attends equally to the spiritual, with passion and reverence. Perhaps he would say, these two realms are connected, or are in fact, one and the same. Maybe, that is why his farm is named Threshold, a place of connection between inner and outer, earth and sky, the physical and the spiritual, the material and the ethereal.

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan     Photo:LH

Turning a large Prayer Wheel, Bhutan  Photo:LH

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!




Natural Farming — Part 2 (continuation from last Sunday's blog)

The comfrey I planted throughout the orchard did not spread as I had been warned. We experienced our area’s driest summer in history. We don’t have clay soil like the Japanese farmer, Fukuoka, but quite the opposite; our orchard soil is classified as Hinckley, an exceedingly rocky, fast-draining soil. It is definitely not choice soil for an orchard. The young trees struggled just like the comfrey. Only the older trees, with deep roots, tapped into water. I realized that if I wanted to plant more herbs and wildflowers, and create a natural environment like Fukuoka, I would need to have some way of delivering water to all the trees.

We applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) for a grant to put in an irrigation system, and our grant was accepted. They knew that with our Hinckley soils, the apple trees would surely benefit from irrigation. We installed the system ourselves, pumping the water from the surrounding wetlands. Now I could plant all kinds of beneficial and medicinal plants in the orchard—plants that would be good for our soil, and that might help with pest management.

The beauty of the orchard delighted me as the summer progressed. Sunflowers, rudbeckia, mountain mint, asters, goldenrod, bee balm, and echinacea flowered and fed the pollinators. When Blase asked if he should mow in the orchard, I replied, “Not yet, no.” The Jerusalem artichoke flowers were six feet tall, and the valerian stalks were covered with delicate white flowers. A few weeks later, he said, “I really should mow the orchard.” Again, I said, “No mowing. Not yet.”

The orchard was beginning to feel like a natural woodland. The trees were loaded with fruit, and it seemed like an abundant crop. I finally asked Blase to mow between the apple tree rows to accommodate the pickers, but we left all the wildflowers and natural growth between and under the trees. We had a great harvest season, the farm quieted, and Blase and I turned to other pursuits.

Heavy snow fell during the month of January. The drifts were over three feet high, burying the lowest apple limbs. In early February, warmer temperatures brought a thaw, and I went for a walk among the trees. Snow melts first around the trunks, and my eye caught sight of gnawed wood close to the ground. It glowed a bright orange color. Shocked, I reached down and brushed more snow away. The gnawed wood went deeper.

Voles! They had scampered across the crust of the deep snow, climbed over the 18-inch high hardware cloth fence that encircles every trunk, and dropped down between the trunk and the protective screen. There they made soft, grassy nests, and ate and lived in the safety of their cozy burrows with a pantry of food close by. In tree after tree, especially in the back of the orchard, these rodents had eaten the bark, chewing their way around the base of the trees and down to the roots. Many trees were completely girdled. Girdling, when it is complete, kills the tree by cutting off the sap flow between the roots and the crown.  

Voles girdled this tree.

Voles girdled this tree.

Voles even ate the lower branches because of the height of the hard packed snow!

Voles even ate the lower branches because of the height of the hard packed snow!

I panicked and called in reinforcements. With a couple of friends, we started shoveling the snow away from every trunk.

Gabi White tirelessly shoveling snow.

Gabi White tirelessly shoveling snow.

It was exhausting work. There was no way we could remove that much snow from around every tree. When we were too tired to shovel, we stomped the snow down with snowshoes. It felt like a war zone. Our hats, coats, shirts, and gloves were scattered everywhere.

Gabi White — resting!

Gabi White — resting!

After a short break, we got back to work, shoveled more snow, heated up and stripped to tank tops, but it was too late. The damage was done.

Paige O’Brien, one of our farm workers, made a detailed map of all the injured trees and numbered them on a scale of one to four. One was one-quarter girdled, two was halfway, three was three-quarters, and four was completely girdled. We cut down the threes and fours, because they would either die or struggle mightily. A weak tree would attract more disease and pests. In all, fifty trees out of three hundred needed to be cut down. A saw blade to each trunk, and the task was done. Such quick work compared to years of cultivating growth.

Later, I learned it had been a bumper year for voles. Nature is like that—a bumper year for acorns, for apples, and now, for voles. Commercial growers knock down the vole population every fall with pellet poison. I had done the opposite. I had created a perfect vole habitat by growing delicious herbaceous perennials and cultivating long grasses and flowering plants. Following the irrigation drip lines, the voles had scampered freely from tree to tree.

So much for a wild orchard. I would have to rethink my approach and mow down all the perennials in the fall. Now, we mow several times throughout the season to dissuade the vole population from even considering making the orchard their home, but we leave patches of herbs and wildflowers growing between the trees. In preparation for winter, even these plants get mowed down to the ground. We also pull the drip lines away from the trees. In the spring, the hardy plants come back. I can already see the healing herbs like comfrey, valerian, and mountain mint unfolding their leaves. The orchard is not wild, but it’s not a monoculture either. We are trying to live peaceably with the other creatures who make their home nearby — definitely not offering them apples trees to chew — but encouraging a diversity and abundance of nature.

The challenge remains, however.  I check on trees that aren't growing as well as I would expect and discover they are partially girdled, and two days ago I cut down a Crimson Crisp, a three-year-old ready to take off, but completely eaten around the graft. I'm discouraged. Then I smile at a dove sitting on  a young tree as a blue heron flies by. I see pink buds on almost every branch of some eighty varieties of apples. I am blessed.