Lessons from The Apple Trees

This year, the apple trees are offering a great abundance of fruit, so much is maturing on the branches, that the wood sags, bringing the crown into the mournful shape of a weeping willow. A few crutches have been placed under larger arms, but encouraging the ripening of all this fruit may not be the best choice for the long term health of an older orchard. To scale back massive stress on the trees in production, I’ve begun picking the less mature fruit off each overtaxed branch to lighten the load.

Last year I removed fruit from my 2 year old frost peach to help the branches put energy into growing more stem and leaf instead of all that nutrients draining into a few fruits that would then be picked and removed from the tree. This year, I still removed a little fruit, but also cut back some of the new branch growth to help keep the center of the tree open for good air circulation. It is crucial in wet environments like The Pacific Northwest, for good air flow through an orchard to prevent rot. Keeping an open canopy also prevents branches crossing and competing for light.

The apples are a little more complex compared to one young peach tree. Leafhopper Farm property started with mature apple trees grouped in two stands on the upper west fence line. All the land’s fruit trees had been neglected for what looked like a decade or more. This meant no pruning had been conducted to prevent branch crossing, suckers, and rot setting in. Because I’m learning pruning, I did not hack back all the trees at once. Instead, with the help of my arborist friend Mark, I learned from his example on the north most tree in the orchard. Trying my best to copy his cut styles and choice of branch removal, I started on the next tree standing beside my model.

Mark’s tree far right

Above you see the two stands of apple trees in the second spring on the farm. The foreground trees are pruned while the stand in the background left are unpruned. It is possible to identify individual branched of the two pruned trees, while the group in the background are quite bushy, making it hard to find single branches in the tangle of growth.  Mark’s tree has the most fruit on it right now of any in the orchard. The tree I pruned is also heavily fruited, but noticeably less than the arborist’s. I’ll continue to slowly shape my trees over the next few years, and by year five, things should look well under control.

Even with the pruning, the apple trees need help this year in culling the excess fruit. In some trees, there is a natural act of dropping the unwanted fruit during June or early July. Commercial growers have been trying to breed that habit out of the trees, opting for quantity, and using all manner of fertilizers and genetic manipulating to get a stronger tree. Many orchards don’t worry about the long term viability of their trees. Instead, they just pull out a whole stand every few years to make room for the newer cultivars. When trees are coaxed to put out more then they naturally would, for the sake of short term profit and human indulgence, the land becomes stressed too. It takes more water, more add ins to the soil from outside sources, more stripping of natural recourses, for more money in a very shortsighted time.

Fruit trees are a great way to see just how much slower the natural world works to build and sustain its self. An apple tree matures over a number of years, and will live past its production into a ripe old age if left to its own devices. If left undisturbed, microbes in soil will build up fertility, inviting the right plants and animals to grow and thrive there in a delicate balance. It takes generations to tear apart these systems too, after thousands of years where the elements dictated growth, now man has put a hand in, making amazing evolutionary steps to coax more from the earth, but the extra has to come from some where. There is no something from nothing, all economists can agree on that. You have to invest. Yet, when we manipulate the earth today, we’re not thinking about anything beyond tomorrow or maybe next year, or even ten or twenty years of return. Then what?

Well for the apple tree, it’s the end. Forced overproduction leads to early fatigue. Then the tree must be removed and another put in its place, but still, the soil is exhausted and you can’t take out the whole top soil crust to put in a new one. Instead, industry makes more money creating synthetic fillers. Commercial orchards pump unnatural chemicals into the ground to get another decade of use from the land. Pests are attracted to sick species. A stressed tree is vulnerable, and weak soil purposely calls in a host of  pathogens and insects to help regulate and repair. More chemicals are needed to keep the pests out of the orchard, but it’s bandaid to a hemorrhage.

Though the costs of commercial fillers are high, a large fruit count can still float the business, but profits will never reach what they were when the land was intact. Eventually, the entire orchard will fail. More likely, the company will sell to a development firm, which will then bulldoze the whole landscape, subdividing what was once a fruit forest into million dollar estates along The Colombia River. That river was damed to bring irrigation to all these orchards and farms. Now water rights are scarce, and adequate aquifers scarcer.

Yet, in California, when the drought of 2015 dried up wells all over the state, almond farmers began putting in massive new orchards of their water guzzling trees and digging new wells, knowing the price of nuts was going to go sky high. They could afford the water costs, because somehow, the nuts are more valuable. Any time something is worth more than a basic need, like fresh water, I have to ask myself, why? We cannot survival on almonds, or apples, or even clean soil alone. Water is life.

That’s why Leafhopper Farm does not try to push production on the land beyond the fertility going in already. The apple trees are fed by a grey water system, which has boosted fruit production, without the use of drinking water direct from the well. Some farmers in California, and other drought prone states, are incorporating this same practice on much higher scale. Reusing water, rather than pulling more from limited aquifers below, encourages a smaller footprint of consumption and puts fertility back in the soil for long term investment and initial returns.

apple processing work space

At Leafhopper Farm, long term investing starts with a holistic approach. The apple trees are a great example of this.Taking off some of the fruit now (it will still be processed and used in jellies, jams, and even sweet treats of the pigs) we save the tree’s energy to extend its health, inviting a balance in fruit production and fertility investment. I know other orchards are on similar paths of rejuvenation, but many others are not. As a consumer, you can help by choosing to buy local apples and other fruits from orchards and farms that practice holistic and organic management of their land. Better yet, find local orchards where you can go and pick yourself. It is always better to see the place your food is grown.

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