Field Day at an Organic Orchard, Northern Wisconsin

Organic apples ripening at Mary Dirty Face Farm
Organic apples ripening at Mary Dirty Face Farm

A couple weeks ago I attended an Organic Field Day in western Wisconsin at Mary Dirty Face Farm: Beginning Orchards and Small Fruits. During their half-day seminar/workshop/field day I learned a lot about things to consider in starting out a small, mixed orchard and fruit production operation. It is apparent that Rachel and Anton have really done their homework in what it takes to gets things started right. They bought their land about 6 years ago and do many incremental improvements every year.

My thanks to them and to MOSES for hosting this field day (and thanks for arranging the beautiful weather)!

This field day wasn’t designed to be a comprehensive rundown of what it takes to start an organic orchard, but an overview of what one farm has done to get started over a several-year period. Walking through the orchard was a great education – far more so than any book learning I’ve done so far. That said they did highly recommend The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips. I ordered it as soon as I got home.

Some of the notes I took along the way:

  • Put up the deer-proof fence first – before any plant material goes in. Fruit trees are like candy to deer. (See pic below of their 6-strand, high tensile, solar electric fence.) Anton and Rachel enclosed 3 acres before planting anything.
  • Place your order for bare root stock at least 6 months ahead of spring planting. 10 months would be better. That’s the best way to ensure getting the varieties you want the next spring.
  • Stake ALL trees. In the first few years they’re just too spindly to risk getting snapped off by high winds.
  • Set traps for codling moths (and other insects). This is a good way to monitor what’s starting to emerge in your orchard.
  • Hinnomaki Red is a good variety of gooseberry to start with. Red Lake is not a good currant (can’t remember their reason on that one).
  • Used burlap coffee bags make good berry mulch.
  • It’s a good idea to have a wide variety of blooming plants in an orchard to keep pollinators around. (You’ll see in the pics there’s a lot of clover and perennial grasses planted among the orchard.)
  • Keeping grapes pruned in summer of vegetative growth (excessive new vines) is important to maintain good flavor. Letting the grapes vine out too much leads to grapes with bland flavor.
  • “The Holistic Orchard” is a good book to check out.
  • Check your soils’ calcium first. Add amendments before planting. Really need good calcium in the soil for fruit growing.
  • Research the Midwest Invasive Plant Network. Good resource to keep notified of trending and emerging weed plants.

Pics From the Field Day

The field day was well attended!
The field day was well attended!
Getting right out into the orchard was very educational. Their house, barn, and an in-progress shed are in the background. Rachel is in the aqua blue shirt with the microphone on the left.
Getting right out into the orchard was very educational. Their house, barn, and an in-progress shed are in the background. Rachel is in the aqua blue shirt with the microphone on the left.
The 6-strand, solar electric, high tensile, deer proof fence. Organic regulation prohibit treated wood fence posts, so they've used untreated wood for the corners.
The 6-strand, solar electric, high tensile, deer proof fence. Organic regulation prohibit treated wood fence posts, so they’ve used untreated wood for the corners.
This is a pear tree that had its branches staked down a little too far. They experimented with tying the branches to the ground, but ended up with too horizontal of a growth pattern. These horizontal branches then tend to send out "water sprouts" (vigorous vertical growth) that tends to send a message to the tree to reduce flower production - which decreases fruit production.
This is a pear tree that had its branches staked down a little too far. They experimented with tying the branches to the ground, but ended up with too horizontal of a growth pattern. These horizontal branches then tend to send out “water sprouts” (vigorous vertical growth) that tends to send a message to the tree to reduce flower production – which decreases fruit production.
An apple tree with wedges between the branches. This angled growth is better for the tree so air flows more freely and the right hormone signals tell the tree to make more fruit and less vegetative growth. More air flow means reduced risk of fungal and other disease problems.
An apple tree with wedges between the branches. This angled growth is better for the tree so air flows more freely and the right hormone signals tell the tree to make more fruit and less vegetative growth. More air flow means reduced risk of fungal and other disease problems.
Currants and gooseberries are very closely related - and I can't remember which kind this one is. They have a very interesting tart flavor that would make great jam. These plants have some wicked looking thorns, though.
Currants and gooseberries are very closely related – and I can’t remember which kind this one is. They have a very interesting tart flavor that would make great jam. These plants have some wicked looking thorns, though.
A different variety of gooseberry (or maybe it's a currant?).
A different variety of gooseberry (or maybe it’s a currant?).
Abundant young grapes. Anton and Rachel are growing varieties that are suitable for table grapes. They wanted to avoid wine grapes.
Abundant young grapes. Anton and Rachel are growing varieties that are suitable for table grapes. They wanted to avoid wine grapes.
There are several water tanks to collect rain water. They have decided to not drill a well here as it would be extremely expensive, with no guarantee of clean water (groundwater contamination from ag runoff is not uncommon in rural areas). They also harvest rain water for the house. The gutters on the barn and shed are removed in the winter to avoid damage from heavy snow.
There are several water tanks to collect rain water. They have decided to not drill a well here as it would be extremely expensive, with no guarantee of clean water (groundwater contamination from ag runoff is not uncommon in rural areas). They also harvest rain water for the house. The gutters on the barn and shed are removed in the winter to avoid damage from heavy snow.
I wanted to get a shot of one of the barn doors to study the framing. Notice another water tank (green) on the far left.
I wanted to get a shot of one of the barn doors to study the framing. Notice another water tank (green) on the far left.
More studying of the framing inside the barn.
More studying of the framing inside the barn.
Another look at the framing inside.
Another look at the framing inside.

Videos of Mary Dirty Face Farm

If you want to find out a little more about Rachel and Anton’s farm here are a couple videos. The first, from Matt Binetti at Vimeo, is absolutely beautiful!

 

Resources for Starting Farm Fruits

Michael Phillips Seasonal Checklist for the Holistic Orchard.

The Holistic Orchard Network.

If you’re interested in attending a field day like this check out the listing at MOSES Organic Field Days. Most are in Wisconsin, but they are all generally in the upper Midwest – and most are free.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s