The Apple-Shaped Earth

My last blog post was about the threat of one million square feet of warehouses being built not far from our orchard. With the concerned opposition of many citizens of Boxborough, we held back the tidal wave of development — at least for the moment. The planning board pulled their zoning articles from the upcoming town meeting warrant. There will be no vote on re-zoning until the fall. That change will give everyone time for regrouping and envisioning. The property at 1414 Massachusetts Avenue is still owned by Lincoln Properties, and warehouses are the most lucrative way for them to develop their land. The website of the Boxborough community group, Save Our Town Character says, “The potential for Zoning changes to allow warehouses as described below is still very high.” The need to protect the land and the character of the neighborhood is ongoing, but spring has officially arrived, and farm work has begun.

On our first day, Blase, Holly, our new farm worker, John, and I enjoyed the yearly ritual of burning the apple prunings. Ignited by a dry Christmas tree, crumbled newspaper, and kindling, the fire of prunings swayed in the wind. Sparks rose, and apple smoke filled a cloudless sky. Mallards, great blue herons, a woodpecker, and red-winged blackbirds chirped melodies.

I staked for the planting of fifty-three new trees from the apple rootstock we grafted one year ago. Blase attached the back hoe and has begun digging the holes. He is as much devoted to this farm and the orchard as I am.

It will be a marathon of planting. In each hole, the tap root will lead to the north. We’ll mix a little compost and our own bio-char from the burn, a great amendment for the soil, made by dousing the fire before it burns to ash. A cedar stake will go in each hole to support the tree as it grows, and we’ll back fill by hand, removing the large rocks, our most reliable crop. Trees will be watered, blessed, and mulched to suppress the competition with tough orchard grasses. We’d gladly welcome volunteers!

Next the airblast orchard sprayer needs to be tested and calibrated for the season. And oh, the hardest part for me, what are we going to spray? There are more options now for organic growers, and one tendency is to want to try everything. Another approach is to allow the trees to fend for themselves, building up their own immune system like a child must do who goes to preschool. I prefer the middle way, doing what we can to help build the immune system of the trees by improving the soil and spraying nutrients.

Last weekend we visited our grandchildren. Both girls had runny noses, and Blase came home with a nasty cold. As a friend remarked, “Young children are like Petri dishes.” Some might say apple leaves are similar. Every leaf is an incubator where good and bad bacteria and fungi duke it out, and the strongest wins and colonizes the leaf. We want to do what we can to encourage the good guys rather than spraying to get rid of the bad. And, once in a while, we will spray an organic pesticide for a particularly destructive pest, rather than lose the crop.

A mid-June apple hidden behind a leaf with spots of cedar apple rust.

A mid-June apple hidden behind a leaf with spots of cedar apple rust.

The next two months will be the most crucial for the orchard. Will we have blossoms? Pollinators? Fruit set? A crop? Today, with the added pressures brought on by climate change, these are real questions.  Orchards, like lands protected for conservation, keep us alive emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Our country was founded on the promises of agriculture, of self-sufficiency, of everyone growing food and fruit. The fruit orchard was a symbol of this belief in hard work, community, and opportunity for all.  We are now far from this ideal as we destroy forests, oceans, and even the air.

Sculpture LH

Sculpture LH

But the apple remains a fruitful inspiration, as it was in the nineteenth century when Walt Whitman wrote in A Song of Occupations, decades before space ship photographs,

The sun and the stars that float in open air,

the apple-shaped earth and we upon it,

surely the drift of them is something grand.

You Don’t Know What You Have Till It’s Gone

Our farmhouse is in Harvard, but many people don’t know that our apple orchard is in Boxborough. We were recently told by a neighbor about a proposed zoning overlay district in Boxborough that would change the zoning of our farm as well as adversely affect our neighbors in Harvard, Boxborough and surrounding towns.

The proposed overlay district comprises 371 acres and will enable the Lincoln Property Company to build four warehouses, 1,020,000 square feet. These four giant ‘cubes’ would cover twenty-three acres of formerly forested land within several thousand feet of our property.

Elizabeth Brook feeds the large wetlands area that flows around our orchard, and into the 500+ acres of Delaney Conservation area. In the last two weeks we have had two sightings of a bald eagle flying over the orchard and Elizabeth Brook wetlands. This proposed development would massively disturb this fragile ecosystem and threaten the aquifer that feeds our wells.

Great Blue Returned on the Spring Equinox

Great Blue Returned on the Spring Equinox

Many of you who have been reading my blog know of the struggle I have faced in growing organic apples over the last few years. Climate change is one factor, but I recently learned of another issue when I attended the Holistic Apple Grower’s Meeting in Western Massachusetts earlier this year. A new fungus, Marssonina Leaf Blotch, causes apple leaf defoliation in apples when a fungicide is not sprayed throughout the growing season. Arriving in this country from Asia, it first appeared in the western part of the country, defoliating thousands of acres of aspens in Utah, but is now in New England. Orchards spray fungicides for scab, the fungal disease most serious for apple growers in New England where the summer weather is often warm and wet. Organic growers have less choice in sprays to control this disease, so I made the hard decision a year ago to remove our Macintosh trees, known to growers as scab magnets. Right after the trees came down, friends joined me to graft one hundred rootstocks with scab resistant apples. These one-year-old saplings grew well in our hoop house for the year and are ready to be planted.

The disappearance of the gnarly Macintosh trees in the first few rows of the orchard caused neighbors to wonder if we were cutting down the entire orchard. I assured people we were not giving up. I have shared my lessons and strivings in growing organic apples, but none-the-less have continued to remain faithful to the trees and the land that have nourished me since I moved here in 2001.

Giving up on the earth, our government, or any issue that is challenging doesn’t solve anything. We have to do the work and stand by our convictions. Liberty Property Company’s build might take ten years, and who is to say that in twenty years, these warehouses won’t be obsolete as everything will be drop-shipped. Tax revenue is an important consideration for all of our communities, but in preserving our towns’ rural nature, its conservation lands, farmland, wildlife, clean water and night sky we make sure that our town remains a desirable place to live and that our property values stay high. Warehouses will not serve the local community, and in fact will cause a serious disruption to our way of life.

Tree Crotch.jpg

Many Boxborough residents heard for the first time about the proposed changes to their bylaw only recently. It seems that there has been a quiet, but legal effort to slip this bylaw change through Town Meeting by highlighting the ‘gifts’ to the town, but not mentioning the warehouses. If you know anyone in Boxborough, please make sure they know about this change in their bylaws coming up for a vote at Town Meeting in May.

I look at the wetlands and the orchard now with a new set of eyes. The runoff into the wetlands might mean we can no longer irrigate. Boxborough neighbors say that with the twenty-acre solar panel array, phase one of Liberty Realty’s development plans, they hear Route 495 in their homes even with the windows closed. More traffic sound reflecting off twenty-three acres of roofs will certainly eclipse the twangs of red-winged blackbirds, chirps of robins and bluebirds, honks of geese, and squawks of herons. And it will be impossible to hear the apple trees. “They can speak, trees . . .” says the 14th century poet, Hafiz in his poem, An Apple Tree Was Concerned.

An apple tree was concerned 
about a late frost and losing its gifts 
that would help feed a poor family close by. 

Can't the clouds be generous with what falls from them? 
Can't the sun ration itself with precision? 

They can speak, trees, 
they can say the sweetest things

but it takes special ears to hear them,
ears that have listened to people
with great care. 

My daughter, Ariel, picking Honey Crisp Apples in 2017

My daughter, Ariel, picking Honey Crisp Apples in 2017

We face choices everyday about how we use the earth’s limited resources.

Let us choose wisely.

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!