What’s the big deal about organic?
Our region deals growers a challenging mix of disease-fostering wet conditions, as well as many different pest cycles. As organic producers, certain chemical tools are not available to us, and this translates to more labor-intensive growing practices: heavy fruit sets are hand-thinned to avoid small fruits (no “June drop” chemical thinning), weeds are mown (no herbicides in orchards, new plantings, or vegetable fields), and pest management includes placing high-density traps (to physically reduce pests, not merely check for thresh-holds as with IPM).
When problems arise, the solution is often found through our own experimentation– or we activate what’s known, technically speaking, as the Yankee tradition of “just dealing with it.” When it comes to organic apple production in rainy climates, there is no text book.
The Organic Commitment
The immense environmental challenges that face growers who raise perennial or orchard crops is why many choose to use “IPM” growing methods. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Read Miller employed many of these IPM strategies. “Organic” was just not something that was done in orchards, thanks to the average annual rainfall of 40+ inches and ensuing battles with fruit diseases.
Success with IPM, as measured by low chemical inputs and high harvest rates, led to a trip to China to consult about agricultural practices. Immersed in the worlds-different growing paradigm of rural farmers there, Read was impressed with the results he saw from pre-industrial orchard practices. He returned home with a radically changed perspective on fruit growing, orchard health, and what was possible. A childhood among apple trees and apple pickers is evident in Read’s early metaphor: “I thought becoming organic would be like adding one more rung to my ladder of skills… That was a very large mistake. I didn’t realize that becoming organic would be like starting off again on the ground and having to build a whole new ladder.” Trouble shooting is constant and one must keep building on knowledge, whether it be a new rung or new ladder. It’s also “like a marriage.” One must commit, and hang in there.
From the beginning of the organic experiment, we’ve funded our own on-farm research. Our program has consisted of both planned experiments and lots of trial-and-error. Orchard management incorporates lessons learned with everything from organic spray materials to control disease and manager pests, critical timing and methods of spraying, labor-intensive techniques to manage pests (placing hundreds of traps, as mentioned above), orchard nutrition, and prayer (farmer’s translation: “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Also: “Diversify.”)
Besides doing what we do in the orchard, success in the organic apple-growing business has depended on our ability to leverage our assets: let no farm resource remain untapped (maple pun™).
Value-Added: Sweet Cider and Apple Cider Vinegar
It’s September. We’ve sweated and labored over the apple crop all year, and when harvest rolls around, the name of the game, besides getting the crop in!, is -literally- squeezing every drop we can from it. Our organic apples range from the big, beautiful fancy grade (the “flawless”) to the small, the scabby, and the aesthetically-challenged (the “straight to vinegar”).
Orchard-run fruit is hand-sorted, so that nice apples are sent to fans and their lunchboxes, and the rest meet their fates at our cider mill, where transformation by grinding machinery and high pressure allows their delicious inner-beauty to shine.
Varietal mixes lend an expert balance of sweet and acid to our fresh sweet cider, which is available to customers and is also sold to local wineries to be made into fruit wines and hard cider. Our unpasteurized apple cider vinegar is made from this juice as well. It’s pumped into tanks on the farm, blended for flavor, and is left to ferment for a year or longer. All our vinegar is quality-tested and bottled on farm under our Vermont Farm Organic label, and is lightly-filtered, alive and unpasteurized, and good for what ails you. The cider mill does so much of the heavy lifting in the ‘organic apples’ equation– Read Miller, on being asked how the whole thing works: “If I didn’t have the cider mill, I would quit organic yesterday.”