Community Orchardist 2006

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Are we ready for another growing season filled with lessons and harvests beyond our deepest imaginings? That literal barn-floor-full? You betcha!


Delving into Black Spot

One interesting observation that came out of an ongoing conversation with an Australian apple growing couple (Chris & Michelle McColl, Kalangadoo Organics) about apple scab – otherwise known as the infamous “black spot” to those from DownUnder – is the ramification of scab conidia overwintering on bud scales. This becomes relevant the warmer the growing zone in which you grow apples. Many of us familiar with the work of Bill MacHardy at the University of New Hampshire regard potential ascospore dose (on fallen leaves from the year before) to define the subsequent risk of scab infection early on in the growing season. This “northern perspective” allows many a grower to forego early season protectant sprays prior to tight cluster provided orchard sanitation is up to snuff. Apparently an organic grower in warmer climes facing a drawn-out spring should be savvy to the potential of fungal infection coming from somewhere other than the orchard floor.


As always, understanding local conditions is paramount to being successful at growing apples at the place where you be on this precious planet.

The Fungal Curve

Recognizing the biological correspondence of our management choices in the orchard understory truly brings to light L. H. Bailey’s maxim that if the grower know why, he or she will teach themselves how.


So it is with the fungal curve. The rhythm of fungal happenings in the orchard very much ties into the cycles of feeder root growth of the apple tree. A few of us have tried over the years to give a visual sense of this to no avail. But then we never reckoned on having such an excellent illustrator as Elayne Sears for The Apple Grower. Nor did I realize previously just what extra touches a computer can achieve. The results can be seen in an article posted on my web site called Honoring the Orchard Ecosystem. I very much want to hear your thoughts on everything that these drawings suggest.  We are getting ever that much closer to understanding holistic realties that for too long went unheralded in the orchard. Tree health depends on an array of beneficial allies that demand our full support. We are now riding the edge of an exciting wave that will carry us all into a saner and more home-based tomorrow.


Fish Hydrosylate

Nuance is critical in doing things right. I’ve thought of fish fertilizer as, well, fish fertilizer for years. That kind of thinking provides a source of nitrogen – useful in the orchard, for instance, at pink for extending the viability of pollen grains – but not necessarily much more. Now, finally, I understand about fish hydrosylate.

The enzymes in fish oil have great merit as a ground spray prior to fruit set and again at harvest to prime microorganisms into action just when nutrient uptake is ever so critical. Similarly, “living fish” can be soaked into a compost pile prior to fall application. A premium liquid fish fertilizer is different from “fish emulsion” in two respects: it consists of genuine fish parts and not just squeezed run-off, and, most importantly, it has not been pasteurized. Heat destroys the fatty acids in fish oil that in turn act as biostimulants to the soil food web.


The Source Conundrum

Figuring out which supplier offers the best deal takes up mucho time every winter. Nor is the “business of sprays” a simple thing to compare, as chemical companies favor bigger distributors from the get-go and different states receive varied product registrations. Here I compare four bioregional suppliers of organic soil amendments and pest control products. Yes, there are others filling certain niches, and yes, you should tell me about them. But right now we’re going to chat about these particular good folks and their wares.


AgEcology (aka Integrated Fertility Management), Washington


FEDCO Organic Grower’s Supply, Maine


Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, California


Seven Springs Farm Supply, Virginia


Dipel DF (Bacillus thuringiensis) probably passes through all of our spray tanks at one point in the season. Here’s how prices stack up amongst these four for a one-pound bag:

IFM          $13.95            also offers a 5# bag for $57.95

FEDCO    $25.00

PVFS        $17.85

7SFS         $16.50


Clearly, AgEcology (IFM) has the fairest price out of the starting gate. But FEDCO, being a growers’ co-operative, offers volume discounts that should be both reckoned and celebrated. Let’s take a look at incredibly expensive spinosad, sold by DowAgroScience under the brand name Entrust. These prices are also for a one pound bag (separated into ¼# packets):

IFM          $375

FEDCO    $400               drops to $320 as part of a $1200 collective order

PVFS        $499


It’s actually not that hard to reach FEDCO’s 20% volume discount level when  ordering with other small growers, or simply having a diversified farm operation (requiring soil amendments, cover crop seed, sprays, tools, and good books).


Now let’s take a gander at Surround, the refined kaolin clay, sold in 25# bags:

FEDCO    $32.50            $30 each 10 or more bags, which drops to $24 each

 with the volume discount described above

PVFS        $27.95

7SFS         $26.75            $23.75 each 10 or more bags


The better prices here undoubtedly compete with the chemical supply houses in fruit-growing regions that offer limited organic products. We all have to add shipping and/or pick-up costs into our individual cost equations.


Lastly, growers looking for a fair-trade price on pure neem oil should contact my friend Usha at A five gallon container of quality-pressed neem sells for $225 plus shipping from Minnesota.


Thoughts on Grassroots Research

I was recently asked at the Midwest Organic Farming Conference for my thoughts on the kinds of research growers should be undertaking on their own initiative. Comparison trials amongst growers targeting similar apple varieties on soil-focused orchard sites could be very insightful to us all.

Useful research will always depend on the integration of several factors. Tree health counts, air drainage counts, birds count, microbes count, beneficial insects count, and when it comes to inputs, synergy counts. The organic context is best seen as a holistic integration of everything we do. Nor will an organic solution necessarily seem worthy if we insist on the standards of chemical perfection to be our flag bearer. A "95% packout" ties into a cheap food system that requires large-scale growers, mega-packing houses, and Wal-Greed super stores to set out the syrupy and insipid results of the harvest. A sensible and viable local economy is one of the factors integral to the methods we seek to understand. We always need to think "integration" in our research approaches even though combined effects are much harder to discern.

Brian Caldwell in New York chimes in here: “It is a bit tricky to use typical apple research methods with organic approaches, as Michael says, because these often have gentler effects that are more pronounced when used on a whole-orchard basis, and in concert with other controls.  For instance, spraying individual tree replicates with a repellant may not look good, if overall pressure from untreated (control) trees is high. Whereas, if the whole orchard was treated, results would be better.  Strong chemicals like Guthion can produce good results even on individual trees in high-pressure situations.  So isolated larger blocks would provide the best info on effectiveness of organic materials; but I think also that even ‘weaker’ performances by organic materials in normal trials may be promising.”

Ideas abound when we start considering insect balance, timing of sprays, synergy, holistic disease management approaches like compost tea, and especially living soil systems. Bioregional groups have the best opportunity to “loosely coordinate” the cutting edge ideas of its participating growers. Spring (now!) is the time to step to the plate to do this. Communicating through this newsletter is one way we can share our results. An assortment of trial possibilities can be found on the Research portal page of my web site.

Two tools in particular intrigue me for “putting numbers” on our methods that we can begin to compare. BRIX readings have great relevance as to soil methods, observable pest resistance, and fruit nutritional content. Ergo, we all need to invest in refractometers! Soil Food Web testing produces a biological profile of individual orchard soils that says way more than any nutrient soil test reveals. Bioassays are more costly but if we really want to explore which living soils approaches have the greatest health merit, we, the growers, need to do this. Both (living soils) and (composts and compost teas) are reputable labs that offer vital knowledge.


Apple Medicine

When an apple grower gets hold of an apple remedy for a particular affliction of his own – and one apparently shared by more than a few of us in middle age – then look out! It turns out that the bark of the apple tree possesses astringent properties that make it useful for treating hyperacidity and heartburn. This information comes from Appalachian herbalist Tommie Bass, who used a tea or syrup from the bark of apple to settle the stomach. We in turn learned more from Jim McDonald in Michigan: “Apple bark is an ideal remedy in treating this malady, as it not only acts as an antacid, but its astringency also restores strength and tone to the sphincter that separates the harsh stomach acids from the esophagus, thereby acting in a curative, as well as palliative, manner.”

     Just imagine! We’re going to be patiently peeling bark from our orchard prunings this year to try this old time remedy out further.


Apple Grower Networking

What follows are a listing of avenues open to for holistic apple growers to connect with one another. Hopefully a number of you will be inspired to become more active communicators, eh?


Applenet Discussion Group  

Jim Gallot in Vermont set up a place to discuss alternative methods of commercial apple production on the Web. This discussion is not restricted to organic, biodynamic, ecological, IPM or any other production method or philosophy. All are welcome to join and share in-depth ideas: .


Revised and Expanded Apple Grower

Michael Phillips spent the last two years interviewing, fact checking, and rewriting The Apple Grower to reflect holistic principles. The result is a full-color volume featuring seventy more pages of additional information. As one reviewer said, this book is the “gold standard” for anyone who wants to grow apples wisely and naturally.


Bioregional Meetings and Organizations

Our annual Berkshire Roundtable Meeting is held every March for those growers in the New England vicinity. The Upper Midwest Organic Tree Fruit Network has been organizing field days in orchards where growers can discuss alternative approaches to growing apples in season. If others are doing anything like this in other regions, please let Michael know so we can spread the word.


Organic Apple Symposium  2007

Mark your calendars for March 2 and 3 of next year. Michigan will be hosting this symposium which brings together researchers and growers with insights on organic orchard management. Yes, much of the focus will be on “bigger is better” operations but we community orchardists are invited to chime in too!    

A running summary of grower input as well as links to important discoveries are posted at the Research Page of Michael’s organic orcharding site. The kind of sharing sought here does not need to be limited to a reductionist scientific approach (as useful as some of those results are) as much as reflect inquisitive thinking from a systems point of view. The articles posted on the Orchardist Portal of the H&A site suggest numerous possibilities of inquiry.

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