From Soil to City

Fruit production is EPIC.

AROO. Mud. Dust. Obstacles. Sun-baked hillsides. Throwing a spear into a bale of straw. OK–maybe not throwing a spear, but a Spartan Race IS a pretty good metaphor for tree fruit production, though. “That’s crazy. They’re nothing alike,” most people would say.

But they are. Like training for a race, growing tree fruit is a long-term commitment. That’s not to say that growing vegetables isn’t. Serious veg growers, who want to have large-scale, commercial viability absolutely MUST invest in equipment, land, seed, permits, certifications, marketing, etc., etc. And, these things are the minimum requirement to grow and sell produce. In a recent Local Roots blog, Wen-Jay described how CSA growers are putting up hoop houses…which are a rapidly growing trend in horticulture. In terms of vegetable production, it doesn’t get much more “long-term” than hoop houses: sinking footers into the ground for a 5,000 square foot plastic building to grow plants year-round.

On the other hand, seasonal tomatoes, squash, root crops or cabbages are still harvested during specific parts of the year. They get planted, grow for a few months, make something you can eat and/or sell, and then are recycled back to the earth.

So what does any of this have to do with fruit production?

Crop rotation, variety selection, seed-saving and building soil quality are all critical cultural aspects of long-term vegetable production and sustainability. For a fruit grower, the commitment to managing orchards from the beginning and maintaining proper practices is the critical aspect of growing fruit sustainably. A grower gets one opportunity to start an orchard correctly and a promise to growing sustainably begins right as he or she puts the first tree in the ground.

local roots nyc nic ellis apple treeOnce trees are planted, lots of things can’t be changed. For the first couple of years, there is very little expectation for fruit, because a young tree needs to grow considerably before it can bear a decent cropload. But, during that time, the grower MUST prune the tree to “train”, or shape, it in a way that will be fruitful years later. Plus, with each passing year, growers have to manage increasing insect and disease pressure. The bottom line? Planting trees properly WILL cost more than they are worth initially. Although it may take a few seasons to achieve, properly-pruned apple trees like this one will be very profitable in the long-term.

That satisfaction of a healthy fruit tree is an intangible benefit for a large portion of the season  until it comes time to harvest and there are buckets, boxes and crates filled with high-quality fruit. Similar to that satisfaction of finishing a Spartan Race after months of training, a long term dedication to your orchard will bring you bounties of benefits. There’s much more to talk about, but let’s speak more in May at The Good Festival at the Following the Growth of a Peach Tree workshop.

Nic Ellis is an agriculture consultant and crop advisor based in PA. Ellis is the owner of Norden Agriculture, where he diagnoses potential problems in commercial fruit and vegetable crops resulting from pathogens, arthropods, or nutrient levels. He has spoken on sustainable fruit growing at various conferences and has a doctorate in philosophy of entomology.