Inflections of Summertime & the Impending Harvest // Planning Orchards for the Future

Hello again my dear tree people,

It has been a very long time – I know. Since my last post, a lot has happened: pruning season has finished up, scion collection season came and went, grafting season too, and with the first summer apples coming off the trees, I greet you again. To start (I need to say this the loudest), I want to send out my gratitude to those who ordered scionwood and grafted Gnarly Pippins apple and pear varieties into their home orchards and their neighborhood trees, and their farms. All of you who supported this fledgling nursery operation have made a big impact on the ability that I have to continue this work, expand upon it, and build a nationwide community of apple growers focused on the future of apples in America. That means a lot. Thank you! I wish great success and prosperity to all your grafts. I have heard success stories already from some of you.

Topworking success of Thornton Brass on Porter’s Perfection. The British apples planted here have never been reliable producers for the growers. They asked me to topwork seedling varieties from the area local to Colrain, MA to trial them for Artifact Cider Project’s production. A cool new limb of Gnarly Pippins
Throwback to April in the Hudson Valley with Max from Rose Hill Farm, where we topworked 130 trees together to regionally suited cider varieties!

There are three new orchards spread between Western MA and the Hudson River Valley (Pine Hill Orchards in Colrain, MA, Twin Star Orchards in New Paltz, NY, and Rose Hill Farm in Red Hook, NY) that had Gnarly Pippins varieties grafted into their orchards this year. They will all be using these to make commercial cider when they eventually come into bearing in the years to come. This makes my heart flutter with excitement and gratitude! More action in the orchard and apple world: harvest is incoming with the ripening of cider apples galloping along, as the orchard sheep move around, gently trampling carbon, depositing nutrition and carbon underhoof. There are many projects, talks, events and shows coming! Look for this shade of blue and you will be sure that I’ve grafted there!

 

 

GNARLY PIPPINS EVENTS TO PUT IN YOUR CALENDAR:

August 16-18, 2019 MAINE APPLE CAMP: 

This biennial event will be taking place at Camp NEOFA in Liberty, ME from August 16-18, 2019. You have 5 days left from the date of this blog post before registration closes. I highly recommend coming to this event, to be surrounded by apples in all their forms, and viewpoints ranging from cider to trees, soil to sky, wild to heirloom, and a bunch of summer varieties of apples. I will be leading Saturday’s roundtable discussion on wild apple foraging.

September 20 – 22, 2019

COMMON GROUND FAIR  – The famous Common Ground Country Fair! I will delivering a talk entitled “Planning Orchards for the Future” with my dear friend and colleague Laura Sieger, manager of the Maine Heritage Orchard. We will be discussing all the points that you need to keep in mind when designing an orchard that you hope will outlive you, and last for generations to come in a world undergoing climate change. Don’t miss this *free* talk at the Hayloft tent! Find it on the soon-to-be-published schedule of events for the fair.

OCTOBER 31, 2019 

WILD APPLE POMOLOGICAL EXHIBITION – Announcing! The first annual pomological exhibition of wild and seedling apples ! This will be taking place on Halloween from 12 p.m. – 5 p.m. This event will showcase wild apples from all over the country for the public to see, taste, learn about, and remember! Foragers and fruit explorers from anywhere are encouraged to bring in specimens of their favorite wild apples and pears to the event, or mail specimens to me for entry in the exhibition if they cannot attend. We will not only be hosting an eclectic tasting of wild apples, but each and every one will be photographed, catalogued with credit to its finder, and documented in a compendium of new apple varieties that will be printed and formally introduced to the apple world. There will be more information coming about this event on social media, and in the Franklin County Cider Days website and schedule. This event takes place on the Thursday prior to the official beginning of Cider Days weekend, so this is a little pre-party gathering to get the mood set for a weekend that will surely be one for the books! Don’t miss this one people!

NOVEMBER 2, 2019

FRANKLIN COUNTY CIDER DAYS: CIDER ORCHARDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE – This year at Cider Days, you’ll be able to find me at the Memorial Theater in Shelburne Falls, MA. I’ll be the emcee for the talks taking place at that venue that day, introducing makers of fine ciders from around the world (including Tom Oliver and friends, the gurus of American orcharding and fruit exploring (John Bunker, Andy Brennan, Michael Phillips and friends), and finally, I will be giving a talk in the early afternoon on Cider Orcharding in a world that’s undergoing climate change. I am honored to be giving a talk on this topic. As a young orchardist coming up in a brave new world, I feel that this topic is not being talked about with enough frequency, urgency, or seriousness. It reflects the most pressing thing in my mind when I think about agriculture, and what I suspect is the most pressing thing on the minds of many others who engage with apple and fruit trees of any type. I wanted to begin this conversation before November when I give a full presentation on this, so here is a (somewhat lengthy) preview of what my thoughts on this are, and what you can expect me to dive deeper into this November.

CIDER ORCHARDING AND CLIMATE CHANGE

The focus of many contemporary orchardists growing apples for the production of hard cider have a lot in common. It is a largely populated field at this point, where little reference material has gained evidence of widespread success. We learn that certain “elite” cider cultivars are not suitable for production in every region from both the grower and the cidermakers’ perspectives. From this well of experiential learning, a separate school of thought among grower-producers has arisen: adopting notions of regionality and embracing diversity within the cider world is not only attractive, but necessary as we find ourselves exacerbated by challenges brought on by climate change.

Kazakh seedling apples in the test orchard ripening in late July. Almost there.
Red-fleshed Budagovsky 118 fruit gathered from the nurse limb of trees in the wild apple trial row at Carr’s Ciderhouse and Preservation Farm.

This is the impetus for a small but certain wave of folks such as myself, who scout, collect, forage, and propagate wild or feral specimens for trial and development in cultivated settings where environmental and climatic factors are relatively consistent with those of the mother tree. Trees like those that have been propagated in such trials have proven to their evaluators that they are more resilient, and suited for the local conditions and the irregularities which may be caused by climate change than “canonized” cider varieties which are prone to illness and malfunction in geographies that have renewed interest in the production of fine cider. Exposing seedling genetics (apple trees which have been proven by “natural selection” in unmanaged spaces such as roadsides, environs of old farms, livestock pastures, marginal greenspaces, etc.) may be the most simple and effective form of apple breeding and selection to suit local conditions that the typical apple grower has access to.  This has been the hypothesis that remains at the core of Gnarly Pippins for the last few years. I feel that it is a very virtuous standard to hold, and has resulted in what I feel is some truly good work. We must rally folks to interrogate the conventional orchard systems that are in place and come up with something original to address the issues we’re facing.

However, I have my own gripes with this “enlightened” mentality that that hypothesis frames the grower in. It puts the orchardist in a vulnerable position. It is by nature a reactionary position and mentality; prescriptions and changes to growing practice are made after the ill effects of the root problem have already been suffered. Growers are reacting to the problem at hand by trying something new. In my own case, and the case of many growers, the prescription and changes to growing practices have largely revolved around varietal and rootstock selection. This reactionary method is, on the one hand, the most logical and first thing to address. For example: Hewes Virginia Crab blooms early in New England and suffers increased risk of late Spring frost damage in organic applications than later varieties that do not have flowers open during critical temperature periods, and who also display resistance or immunity to winter bud kill. The prescription for a problem such as this is to, by way or replanting or topworking, replace the Hewes trees with something more aptly fit for the local conditions. This reaction to the problem shows that we have a grasp on what is working, and what isn’t working as cider varieties are grown more in North America.

What a time to be asking these questions! This is pivotal time in cider history. This is the second American cider boom. The production of cider apples has legitimated itself as a market for apple growers, which is reshaping orchards nationwide. And so too is the changing of our very growing conditions. In this time of great change, it seems that we have an opportunity to reflect upon what we’re doing. In the unbroken chain of perennial growing cycles that is the orchard calendar, we have a momentary break to invoke some change in what farm systems are going to be feeding this cultural shift. The hypothesis of growing place-based varieties is the beginning of movement in the right direction, but let’s not make any mistakes! The work doesn’t end with selecting different stock.

This is a bottle of our cider made from wild apples. This cider is a byproduct of the work of exploring for apple selections that suit our environment and its changing factors. We will continue making this cider until the tides are turned, the wheel is reinvented, and our apple region sings its very own song of cider that is not heard anywhere else.

That won’t solve any of our issues, it is a reaction to the symptoms of those issues. Adaptation and survival aren’t necessarily the same. Given that we have climatic differences emerging each year in more adverse and pronounced ways, the damage that common orchard heartbreaks can wreak, like late frosts, winter bud kill, increased pest and disease pressure, drought, flooding and the damages associated therein, are liable to worsen beyond the benefits that can be gained in the selection of hardier, place-based, local varieties and aptly fit rootstocks. I have been thinking about what actions, beyond seeking genetics that promise better production and local cultural relevance, cider growers might take to influence not only their ability to react to climatic challenges, but to respond to the root of the issue.

If we can all agree that CO2 emissions are the greatest contributor to climate change that we have the ability to influence, and that climate change promises to be the source of the greatest challenges for farmers, then we must also agree that we have a unique opportunity to sequester atmospheric carbon. Apple orchardists and growers of tree crops of all types are growing trees, for heaven’s sake. They can sequester more atmospheric CO2 than any other group of crops. Moreover, we have learned from research done by many institutions, including MA’s very own Harvard Forestry Department, “forest edge” tree systems sequester and store more carbon than forest systems. Row-planted orchard essentially mimics the forest edge. By having a look at the nuts and bolts of our farm systems and address the actions that are contributing to the problem, and replace them with an alternative that has a positive impact, we may be able to design a farm system that is a logical and active response to climate change.

Growing tree fruit, while one of the most spiritually satisfying ventures, is one that is very high in its embodied energy. It is a crop that requires nearly year-round maintenance by both fossil -fueled machinery and human labor, and returns a high value product which is very low in calories. It tends to keep the “productivity” of the land very low because of recognizing a single function for acreage planted in perennial crop. The processes which are happening in the orchard during the course of the season result with a lower output than other farm systems which while, in some cases, are more input intensive, are generally more productive. This keeps the Carbon sequestration potential stagnant, and as modern orchards go, rather low. These conditions are present in modern apple growing:

  • Recognition of one land function for acreage, negates other land uses / functions (grazing/hay growing, alley or intercropping) to the use of expensive and ecologically damaging substances.
  • High density growing relies on fast turnover of planting stock, and therefore the release of carbon captured by trees. Heavy pruning also pushes C sequestration back towards equilibrium, C storage potential is less with smaller trees.
  • Extensive frequency of bare soil in orchard rows, wasting potential soil carbon storage.
  • Chemical and fertility inputs in conventional orcharding are highly carbon intensive to produce.
  • Turnover of planting stock is often burned into volatile CO2.
  • Calories produced per acre extremely low, displacing burdens for food production to other agriculturally active land.

The picture that this summation of modern apple growing is pretty dour. Even so, a conventionally managed orchard sequesters a net total of about 20 tons of atmospheric Carbon per acre per year (Lakso, 2010). These management practices are indicative of the farmer’s economic bottom line. As the bottom line is adjusted based on current and future challenges that apple growers face, something that I believe we are all thinking about is the degree to which climate change is increasing the input costs in orchards just to maintain status quo, driving the profitability and productivity of the farms downward. In order to prevent climatic challenges from outpacing cultural developments in growing, each of these negative things should be replaced with one that has a positive impact. If we decide to realize the potential of orchards in storing Carbon, we can more than double the carbon that we store (really!) So, the ultimate question is reintroduced: what does an orchard system whose focus is Carbon sequestration look like? I want to introduce a couple of models for readers to consider.

Finn sheep ewes grazing through young chesnut orchard.
One of the most important steps to the management of livestock through pasture. Tree guards to ensure that they do not damage the trees. A very frequent activity for the silvopastoralist.

An integrated livestock and orchard system where a layout of large format or full sized, low planting density trees form the foundation. Trees are planted on 30 ft centers, with 30 feet between rows or similarly low density based on rootstock. (rootstocks producing trees 60% of full size and higher [M111, B118, G890, P18, Antonovka, etc.]) The orchard is intended to have animals grazing underneath the trees and in row middles to increase the productivity and carbon storage of the soil and photosynthetic potential. Forage plants are cultivated in the orchard understory and some aisleways and are managed with rotational grazing of livestock or reserved for haymaking. Varietal selection is calibrated to local wild apples selected for cider production, which minimize chemical and fertility inputs and livestock breed selection is calibrated for animals with little or no interest in feeding on bark or wood. The wide tree spacing maintains some open canopy for sunlight to penetrate, as well as makes aiselways effective paddocks). Trees establish branching no lower than 4.5 – 5 ft. so animals do not feed on leaves and fruit, and are allowed to grow to the rootstock’s maximum height before central leader pruning / height limitation. Prunings from the orchard are not burned, but are let to decompose naturally, with means as active as a flail mower or chipper, or by means as passive of brush pile. But by no means by way of burning unless volatile disease pressure reserves no other choice.

Springtime 2019 grafting of B118 to Redfield in a 35 x 40 planting of high headed trees that will be used as a silvopastoral orchard for our sheep and goat herd. The beginning of the new orchard framework. Regression to the future.

 

There are many ways that this framework can be expressed. After all, regions will differ and successes of any given orchard framework may be compatible with the climatic future of some geographies better than others. This message is meant to be an example that will inspire folks out there to ask similar questions, and come up with decisions that arrive from a space of adaptation and innovation, rather than reaction. There are many ways this can manifest. For example, encouraging wild apples to populate a forest or woodland model can provide a similar outcome, with less organization but also with less establishment energy. For more on this idea, see Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Ciderworks’ literature on the idea of the “forchard.” There aren’t necessarily right and wrong ways to go about this but many paths converging to a similar and enlightened end goal that we all share.

Interrogating the orchard frameworks is not going to be easy. It involves us having the humility to consider the carbon footprint of the orchard systems that we are already engaged in, admit that we can be doing better, and can be doing a better job for the sake of future generations of orchardists. This breakdown is very much a one-sided consideration. We are considering the nuts and bolts of the system. This isn’t going to address the market potential of such systems! It will take concerted effort on the parts of everybody including the consumers of cider, apples, and humanely raised meat to understand why the importance of redesigning the modern cider orchard is important.  Through orchard site planning and stock selection, decision making on the farm, as well as combining tree crops with animal husbandry, a great deal of carbon can be sequestered in orchard settings, beyond the basal photosynthetic carbon storage that is innate in the orchard. I believe that, as folks who are growing trees, there is a huge responsibility to pay attention to how the orchard systems we have in cultivation are interacting with the elephant in the room that is “climate change.” We can be clever. We can be adaptive. Our species might survive, or we might not, but hell, we are going to try, dammit! We might as well be drinking the finest, place-based cider while we put our best feet forward.

Overlooking pasture with rabbit tractors moving along, preparing soil for perennial fruit crop plantings, with fields of newly planted orchard, old apple trees, barn, and hills in the distance. My happy place.

 

 

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