Field Notes on Organic Fruit Growing

Last week I posted some pics from my organic fruit growers farm tours put on by OFGA. So now for some notes I acquired along the way. Hopefully you will find them as useful as I did!

Notes from Atoms to Apples Farm

A view from up the hill at Atoms to Apples farm on tour day, 2016.
A view from up the hill at Atoms to Apples farm on tour day, 2016.

Rami Aburomia is the owner and operator of Atoms to Apples farm in Mount Horeb, WI. Rami’s aim has been to grow and build a farm that can largely be operated by one person, with no or very little outside labor. Recently moving to this farm just a couple years ago he has successfully converted rundown hillside pasture into a fruitful (pun intended) organic orchard.

With an eight foot deer fence around the entire perimeter (about 5 acres?) he has planted mostly dwarf apple trees, followed in number by pears, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, grapes, and a few peaches. Peaches don’t generally do well in Wisconsin, but the trees will yield a decent crop about every three years. The dwarf fruit trees have been planted in a high density format on wire trellises with a drip irrigation system. Rami is working on securing organic certification in the next year or 2, so all practices and application must fall under the USDA NOP guidelines.

My field notes:

1) Foliar feed with fish emulsion, nettle tea, japanese knotweed tea.

2) Weed Badger for cultivating next to trees.

3) Discussion of the “Swiss sandwich” method for weed control in the orchard. (This is where a grassy strip is maintained between the trees and the ground cultivated on both sides to suppress excessive weed growth. Rami has thought about moving to this method as the trees grow more mature.)

4) Discussion of possibly using comfrey between trees; another person mentioned rhubarb.

5) Dutch white clover is a good weed competitor — can then mow it to a nice “carpet.”

6) Use of Codling Moth traps, other pest traps to monitor bugs. (Not really used to trapping insects en masse, but to get an idea what’s moving into the orchard.)

7) Keep the ground clean to help keep voles out.

8) You need either muscle or machinery [in planning for a one-person operation].

9) DATCP has weekly pest bulletin for farmers.

10) The pears are all on OHxF 87 or OHxF 97 (these are types of pear rootstocks that are fire blight resistant).

11) Peaches…

  • summer prune in drier weather
  • get a crop every 3 years
  • then die after about 12 years
  • prune in a “vase” shape: 4-5 stems at waist height, no leader

12) Very small number of cherry trees — just too labor intensive, competition from bird.

13) Apricots: trees fairly hardy in WI, but flower buds tend to come out too early (making them susceptible to frost killing).

Marmalated stink bugs.
Marmalated stink bugs.

14) Wild, unmanaged apples can be repository for disease (get rid of them if you can!).

15) Marmalated stink bugs are an emerging pest for fruits.

16) East facing slope is best (north is 2nd best). Getting morning sun is better than afternoon (warmer afternoon sun tends to bring trees out of dormancy too soon).

17) Thinned fruits should be removed from orchard (otherwise they can be food for pests). A cherry picking bucket works well.

18) Strawberries mowed in late fall & mulched for winter. New beds every 3 years.

19) Correct soil pH for blueberries: evenly green leaves.

20) Cottonseed meal good nitrogen source for acid loving plants (like blueberries).

21) Top dress blueberries with wood chips & sulphur about 5 pounds per 100ft row.

22) Prune raspberries to be like a thin wall — good light penetration and air flow.

23) Apple cider vinegar traps for Spotted Wing Drosophila.

24) Lilliston cultivator used sometimes — but doesn’t work in wet soil, or when grass is short.

25) Easy Lift helps to support a hand tool like a power pruner (saves shoulder stress).

26) Finger Lakes Trellis Supply for training wires in bulk.

27) Evans Manufacturing for tree clips in bulk.

28) CIAS (Center for Integrated Ag Services) has the Fruit & Nut Compass publication. (I tried searching for this on their website and couldn’t locate it. If anyone reads this and knows a link to this resource please drop me a line through the contact page. Thanks!)

Notes from Two Onion Farm

apple trees
Some of their more mature apple trees at Two Onions Farm.

On to Two Onion Farm, located in Belmont, WI now. Chris and Juli McGuire started a veg CSA over a decade ago and have recently added the apple orchard (about 4-5 years ago). They started with several other kinds of fruit, in addition to the apples, but decided that too much diversity in this area was too overwhelming for their farm business. They now concentrate on offering an additional “apple share” to their CSA subscription.

Like Atoms to Apples farm they’ve planted their dwarf apple trees in a high density, trellised, and irrigated system. I noticed there wasn’t a deer fence here, so their pressure from wildlife must be pretty minimal (which I find surprising, really). I didn’t spend too much time there as it was really starting to get hot. But, this is what I gleaned from about an hour’s visit…

1) They grow only scab resistant apples.

2) Some of their varieties: Crimson Crisp, Winecrisp, Sundance, Goldrush, Priscilla (I think I got those spellings right, I could be off a bit though).

3) They have a large and a small CSA apple share. (The large gets 20 pounds of apples over the course of the season, and the small gets 12 pounds.)

4) Much is hardwood bark from a sawmill. (This is the best kind of mulch for fruit trees, I’ve found out, as the slow fungal deterioration of the bark aids the roots health of the trees. Mulch made from smaller hardwood branches is also ideal; this is called “ramial wood chips“.)

5) Let wood mulch pile age at least 6 months to let walnut herbicide disintegrate. (This is advised if you have any hint there might possibly be even a small amount of black walnut wood in your mulch. Black walnut trees are notorious for producing a natural herbicide that kills many different species of plants.)

6) They feel their 10.5-foot rows between trees are too close.

7) They’ve planted mostly G41 rootstock.

8) Best Angle Tree Stakes of ten feet go 2.5 feet into the ground.

9) NO rubber tubing for training trees — tends to break branches in the wind.

10) Leader branch shouldn’t be much beyond top of stake (see #8 above).

11) PyGanic is a decent broad spectrum organic pesticide.

12) They use a 3-point air blast sprayer, usually 50 gallons at a time.

I think my biggest take-away from this day is that I have some more serious doubts about doing fruit trees on this scale for my own farm someday. It also looks like these high production setups produce more fruit than I’d know what to do with. Before plunging into this kind of commercial scale orchard I’ll have to do a lot more research. In the meantime I’ll be happy to play around with the few fruit trees I’ve put in so far, just babying the ones I have.

Thanks for tuning in and reading all my field notes! I learned a heck of a lot on this field day — a big thanks to OFGA, Atoms to Apples, and Two Onions Farm for putting this on!!

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