Two Natural Cidermakers Share Their Approach to Sustainable Orcharding

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The welcome note to MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader below is written by Nicole Blum and Jonathan Carr, followed by a brief word on sustainable orcharding by Jonathan Carr.

Hello MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers! We’d like to introduce ourselves, tell you what we do, what we are thinking about, and how we do it. We have been farming since the late 1990s, starting this life together running a tiny market garden on family land in Ireland, serving the upscale Dublin market.

After moving back to the United States in 2001, we were fortunate to find an affordable, but overgrown orchard, in Western Massachusetts, where we have spent many a year clearing land, building our house and barns, rehabilitating fields, planting apple trees, pressing apple cider, and envisioning what makes ecological sense for this beautiful hillside.

We have been supporting ourselves running a modestly successful farm business for the past nine years, selling our natural hard cider and traditional cider-based products at farmers markets, at wholesale, and online. We are business people of sorts, which is strange to us, but which has given us a real world tutorial on the economics of food. And now, 16 years in, we are taking stock.

Sharing the Business of Natural Cidermaking with You

This space will serve as a reflecting pool for us to share our past successes and stumbles out in the orchard and back in the kitchen, but it’s also going to be a living lab to dig deeply into appropriate farming and orcharding practices in light of climate challenges.

Can we have a light footprint on the land and still get rewarding harvests? We are working to build a sturdy, resilient orchard and farm which is climate-adaptive, low-energy input, soil-regenerative, and follows the realorganic” standards.

We are expressly setting out to think both big and small, while living joyfully and fully. We plan on sharing delectable recipes and plenty of crafty goodness, as well as all of the skills we have gathered as orchardists, cidermakers, farmers, quasi-homesteaders, inventors, builders, and people staring at an uncertain future with great hope in their hearts.

Does all of this sound like a tall order? Maybe so, but is there really any other choice? Please come join us along the way as we strive to farm gently, eat well, and thrive in our place with our values intact.

Our Approach to Sustainable Orcharding

So let’s jump right in!

How do we practice sustainable orcharding here? The short answer is evolution – both personal and at the orchard level. I say personal because our growing approach is a palimpsest that has passed through many stages: first by-the-book “organic”, then (after a stint in grad school) reluctantly brainwashed to use chemical controls (didn’t last but a minute), and finally, embracing a Fukuokan, deep-orcharding, natural farming perspective. Sounds groovy — what does that even mean for our 1,800 apple trees?

Farming Principles of Masanobu Fukuoka Applied to an Orchard

We follow three main tenets: 1. No spraying. 2. Minimal intervention via pruning or mowing. 3. Feed the soil, not the tree. Now, you can probably guess that the orchard can look pretty bedraggled at times when only getting mowed once per year! However, the understory grows full of flowering plants that nurture beneficial insects for most of the season until we mow prior to harvest.

Cropping has largely slipped into a biennial pattern — good one year, poor the next — the trees’ clever strategy for making sure that pest levels can’t build up. We choose to live with that, although I understand why most apple growers do everything possible to achieve consistent annual bearing through thinning fruit — to have a consistent income, for example.

Incorporating Wild Apple Varieties

So, onward to orchard evolution: the big picture.

In standard orchard practice, well-loved apple cultivars are grafted onto rootstock, which is a sort of vegetative propagation. That’s how we maintain specific clones of named apples. However, apples are incredibly genetically diverse when allowed to sexually reproduce. Plant an apple seed and you never know what kind of a tree you will get!

An incredible diversity of tree forms, vigor, fruit size and color, leaf type, etc. is unleashed, including the ability to adapt and thrive in local circumstances. That’s why we’ve started collaborating on the process of collecting and evaluating promising wild apples, growing and bearing well without the benefit of human oversight.

We can’t cling to old varieties of fruit if they are not adapted to pest and disease pressures, needing to be sprayed with chemicals to stay healthy and make a decent crop of fruit. We need to keep planting new seeds, let the process of evolution keep unfolding, and follow where it takes us. Excelsior!

Silvopasture in an Apple Orchard

The final piece of our management system is one we are shifting over towards with our new plantings: Silvopasture.

In orchards of old (1800s and before), fruit trees were “high-headed”, i.e. scaffold branches were developed at 5 or 6 feet off the ground. Lollipop trees! This allowed passage of both cultivating/mowing implements and grazing animals.

Some apple orchards in Normandy are still maintained in this ancient way (les vergers haute-tige), with cows grazing contentedly below. Benefits include better air circulation to reduce foliar diseases, access for mowing near trunks (especially if you don’t maintain herbicide ‘control’ under the trees), animals mowing for you and eating fruit drops (helping to control pests), and ease of harvesting (if you shake the apples onto tarps). Drawbacks include southwest injury on the exposed lower trunks, less accessible canopy for pruning and hand harvesting, and a longer establishment period.

We don’t know anyone in the States who has an intentionally high-headed orchard. Do you? We’d love to connect.

Jonathan Carr and Nicole Blumco-ownCarr’s Ciderhouse, where they produce natural hard cider from sustainably-grown apples and other delicious, traditional cider products. Their goods have been featured by the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Yankee Magazine, Real Simple, Food and Wine, Town and Country, and Cidercraft. They are the authors of Ciderhouse Cookbook(Storey Publishing, 2018). Connect with Jonathan and Nicole onInstagramandFacebook.

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