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GMO Apples for America

The USDA approved on this day, Feb 13, 2015, the first genetically modified apples for sale and growing in the United States. The two  varieties under the trademarked moniker ARCTIC, are variants of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious. The new apples, Arctic Granny tm, and Arctic Golden tm were created by the  Canadian company Okanagan Specialty Fruits.

The improvements to the cultivars, unfortunately, were not motivated by the need to improve nutritional quality (at least Golden Rice engineers can claim this), nor by aiding farmers (with pest and disease control). It was motivated by…you guessed it…aesthetics. The new and improved Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples will resist browning when sliced. That’s right, finally, an apple you can wait hours to eat after slicing. I know I for one, have been befuddled by chopping up my apple, then going for a quick XX ski, only to return to find my apple gone all brown. No more. Sure, I could have used a Cortland or one of the other apples already known to brown slowly (there are 498 varieties documented to naturally have this trait), but darn it, I wanted my Granny!

The fact of the matter is that a browning apple is not an indication of decay. Enzymes present in the apple (polyphenol oxidase)  oxidize its phenolic compounds, ending after a bit more chemistry into brown tissue in an event similar to the melanin reaction in your own epidermal cells. (Lemon juice or citric acid your mom uses to prevent browning works because they have a  low pH which denatures the polyphenol oxidase and cannot oxidize the phenolic compounds).

So, cut cells turn brown. It is brown, that’s all for the most part… some wavelengths absorbed, brown ones reflected. Is that it then, we don’t like brown food? Perhaps we should eschew coffee and chocolate  and hamburgers too. You know what may be more alarming than an apple that turns brown after you rupture its cells? One that doesn’t. Consider that apple that has been diced up and set in its container. How long has it been there anyway? If it is an apple from the new Arctic series, it may have been there for two weeks. That’s right, two weeks is the claim of the company. But we have an idea how long, since we or a family member dismembered it, right? This gets to the heart of the matter: An apple designed to be slow oxidizing (sluggish to brown) isn’t really all that useful to you and me. It is however, critical in use of prepared foods. Imagine fruit salads or pre-sliced bags of apples for preschoolers (these exist already). Containers sitting in a case for goodness knows how long.

These new cultivars (Fuji and Gala will also be released) have had their polyphenol oxidase gene turned off. There appears to be no agreement in the scientific community whether the enzyme serves a positive or negative function. Oxidation can lead to nutrient loss (as can exposed tissue regardless, as well as time). The entire process also triggers pathogen defense, so the apple’s browning may signify a suppression of decay.

This critique is not necessarily an attack on so called genetic modification of life forms. It is a critique on the priorities we set. If there is any case at all to proceed with caution in such a new undertaking, we should do so. Furthermore, if we are poised to utilize such a technology perhaps it should have a more useful or even benevolent outcome. It seems pristine apple slices are a far cry from those promises of suppressing disease and feeding the hungry.

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Sustainable Ag

Sustainable agriculture?

When you get right down to it, sustainability is something that a child can understand a whole lot more than I can most days. We complicate things, most often through rationalization. Many of us farm sustainably, but only when we look at it in a certain way, generally disregarding most of the inconsistencies in our philosophy. Sustainable means just that, it is capable of going on forever. Forever, though means different things to different people. It seems more often the case that it means “until I am dead”, or until I sell the depleted piece of earth for development because “it..is dead”.

At the birth of the organic growing movement of the 20th century, pioneers like Sir Albert Howard, looked to the east, and saw a vision of true sustainability. Enmeshed in their very lives was a cycling that led not just to great yields, and embodiment of culture, but a sustainability for countless generations. Not the current world method, but a purer one. The current method is “borrowing from our children the resources we have no intention of paying back”. Is this even remotely debatable?

So, what does this have to do with growing fruit? Nothing at all, really, unless you believe in such statements. Myself and my family’s approach to farming is to be sensitive to sustainability. This philosophy drives our day to day decisions in the nursery and orchard. A philosophy, like a religion, is hard to abide by and we err (even more so in our non-farm existence). But, for better or worse, this is the platform we try to filter things through. Same goes for species stewardship and healthy food production.

Let’s take fossil fuel use for instance. The big boogeyman in conversations is transportation, but it accounts for only 16% of the total US use in agriculture. Field machinery is 19% and inorganic fertilizer is 31%. The US has increased fossil fuel use 20 fold in 40 years, 17% directly attributed to agriculture. Enter here all arguments on how we cannot feed a starving world (deposit green revolution figures), how it is impossible to use hand labor or draft animals, and how farmers cannot make a living otherwise. My opinion is that it doesn’t make a lick of difference. In the short term, fossil fuel use will be so expensive and difficult to extract, we will be forced to farm differently.

The only real issue is where will effective models be? In a crusty old book…or in a pool of determined farmers in the present. The current trend is more non-sustainable practices, not less. We have tractors pulling prone workers planting strawberries, tractors unrolling plastic mulches, small fruit harvesters, mechanical pruners and other labor saving devices, at a time when our citizens are in need of basic employment. This is also in addition to the use of machinery in tillage, combining, elevators, etc. The point is that we can’t continue with these practices anyway, despite any arguments to their merits. No one wants to see people go hungry, or farmers work harder, but when the jig is up, it won’t matter. Future generation, likely our own grandchildren, may see a lack of modeling and infrastructure right at the moment that the bottle feeding of fossil fuels ends. That model may as well be you and me.

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Quality receives its accolades : The Jam Man is jamming

Congrats to Michael Fraley, owner and crafter behind the Green Jam Man label. Michael is a finalist for the prestigious Good Food Awards, from nearly 1500 applicants across the country. We are proud not just to have another Vermont foodie get their due, but also pleased in that Michael is both a friend and has been using our local organic fruit in his jams for years.

Please go to Michael’s website for more about his healthy, lower sugar jams…you can order jams directly through Michael at his website. Read more about the awards at Good Food Awards.

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Genetically Modified Apples: Arctic ™

And so, the genetically modified food developers have gotten around to introducing apples now. If you have any reservations about gm food, listen up. If you are one of the supporters of gm crops because it will aid in producing better fruit, you may want to keep reading also.

The soon to be released Arctic apple series (trademarked of course, though Arctic is also the name of a specific heirloom variety) has been designed to grow better without toxic pesticides, right? Nope. And although there are higher levels of vitamin C in the Arctic tm versions, it was not the main focus of the program. (Keep in mind also that there are plenty of non-gmo apples with much higher vitamin C, some superior to oranges).

The new and improved apples (like newly enhanced Granny Smith and Golden Delicious in the Arctic series) are worth genetic tinkering because….ready….the flesh doesn’t brown.

So, where we used to leave out a half eaten apple for a while, and watched to our horror that it turned tan colored, now we can pick it up again at the end of the day to finish eating it in all its white fleshed glory. Sure we could have engaged in the monumental act of eating a whole apple, but now we don’t have to. Though non-gmo apples like Cortland do not brown, they don’t have the wonderful benefit of royalties garnered from a trademarked product. So, it would seem that in the early stages of gm tree fruits, the approach is marketing appeal and cosmetics.

The following is part of  a letter from organic growers in Canada:

Fred Danenhower, President, Similkameen Okanagan Organic Treefruit Growers Association, Cawston, BC

July 2012

“I am writing this letter as president of the Similkameen Okanagan Organic Treefruit Growers Association regarding the CFIA application GD 743 and GS 784 – the request for approval of the sale/distribution of the Arctic tree/apple. We request that the following points be considered in evaluating it.

Loss of Organic Production

The inevitable measureable impact of the “Arctic” apple on the local economy will be a loss of at least $4,000,000 annually. Because of cross-pollination [bees fly as much as 4 miles from a hive], organic producers will not get certification. This will cost organic tree fruit growers in the Okanagan-Similkameen (based on 16,000 bins of apple production) $2,500,000 in revenue annually . The Cawston Cold Storage Packinghouse will close: they cannot remain open running just soft fruit, costing local jobs and eliminating a payroll approaching $1,500,000. Next to School District #53, CCS is the biggest employer in the Similkameen. It is unclear, whether the other two organic packing sheds, Harkers and Organics Plus can stay open but in any scenario the loss of organic apples will result in job cuts. The total impact on the economy, the loss to suppliers, wholesalers, retailers, truckers, local business, is hard to gauge but will be in the millions.”

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Wild Plants in the Orchard

Red Berried Elder in Flower at Walden Heights Nursery

More in the growing list of plants to keep in the landscape. Along with acting as nectaries for beneficial insects, native and other wild plants are crucial to the ecosystem due to their ability to accumulate and distribute a multitude of nutrients, improve soil structure, and distract pest species. They also add to the beauty of the surroundings, don’t they?

Baneberry flower at Walden Heights (actaea pachypoda, a. rubra)

Baneberry plants sport beautiful red or white berries later in the season which although toxic to humans, are enjoyed by many bird species.

Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum)

A native of the lily family, Trillium is also known as stinking  benjamin due to its faint carrion odor which attracts small flies (its pollinators). Seeds are enjoyed and dispersed by small mammals, ants, yellow jackets and others.  Plants need to reach an age of 15 years before they bloom. Plants can live for up to 30 years. They are indicators of rich moist soils.

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Bald Faced Hornet Observation Hive

bald faced hornet nest at Walden Heights

We were lucky enough to have a nest of bald faced hornets select the outside wall of our apple house as their site. We were also lucky enough to have zero stings. It survived all season, even after heavy rains damaged the hive with runoff, the wasps repairing the best they could. The hive was attached to a gutter and wood support. The insects were happy to have the plastic serve as wall on the viewing side, and seemed unfazed by human presence.

We have kept the hive to display in our future nature museum. (Wasps and hornets abandon summer hives before onset of winter, all except mated queens die off naturally).

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Pileated Woodpecker

pileated woodpecker at Walden Heights

The Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus)

At least one couple takes up residence here each year, likely due to their great fondness for grapes. We are happy to have them, despite their appetite, since they eat almost exclusively from this towering 25 foot pair of King of the North vines by the chicken coop. (They eat about one of the 3 or 4 bushels we get from these vines).

With a near 30 inch wingspan and flashy red white and black attire, who wouldn’t want them around. Their vocalizing is every bit as boisterous as the local crow population.

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Ants attack caterpillar – video

We shot a few minutes of footage of ants attacking (and eventually killing) a caterpillar many times their size. Ants are problematic in the orchard in many instances, from farming aphids to biting humans. They do occasionally shine, however, as is shown in this video dispatching a hungry caterpillar. Lepidopteran larvae can be a large orchard problem, and every little bit counts when it comes to keeping their numbers in check.

 

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Lecture and Discussion in Peacham

We held one of our workshops on the 25th of July (2013) at the Peacham Library here in Vt. “Growing Organic Fruit in the Northeast Kingdom” was the focus this time around. We had a nice turnout, and a lot of folks had some very good questions and insights. As is usual the information we give is welcomed but I always think people come to these things to get direct questions answered, since books don’t do that so well. I think fun was had by all, so we will certainly do it again.

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Holy Harvests

Big year this year for fruit. After months of berry picking the freezers are chockablock full, so folks can order frozen fruit directly. It never seems to end though (in a good way). Picking tree fruit and grapes now. Most of the apples we have decided to press to cider to sell this coming week (chime in if you want to order). Organic cider in these parts is generally nonexistent, so we are going this route. It is about satisfying a communities need, not just making a buck. So, the squeezings will all be ready for the event on the 5th and 6th.

Final picking of fruit will go right into the snows of next month, but then processing will begin. We hope to offer some boiled cider/apple molasses, jellies and some other goodies, along with putting up things for the homestead. Then with the cold weather we will see if we can write a bit about the things we did all summer…a period which leaves little time for writing.

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Bloomin' Snow

It was a beautiful sight Sunday morning, a dramatic display of white amid the apple trees. Blossoms galore, right Todd? Um, well yes, but they were barely discernible behind the blanket of snow. So on the eve of the 25th of May and a month of warm temps we received here in Walden just under 5 inches of snow.

It was pretty, no doubt about it when we woke up Sun am, pink and white blossoms, green lush leaves and a thick covering of wet snow. However, heavy wet snows and ample foliage do not mix, the result of which was broken limbs galore and many young trees in the nursery broken in half. There are a couple of lessons to be learned here. One, good tree structure (namely wide crotch angles) keeps those limbs from breaking under stress be it snow or crops. Secondly, young trees need to be staked for the first couple of years during the snowy months. The storm also did in another fleet of bud 9 dwarf trees we had in as a test (dwarf trees are awful for anyone needing a carefree existence).  Lastly I’d say that the weather has been weird, now it is getting weirder. Places in Vermont passed the record for the wettest May in recorded history. May also is becoming a thunderstorm month in the region, which is another in a long list of anomalies.

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A bloomin good scene in 2013

The first off the mark for apple blooms this year are the Selkirk crabs and the sister trees Norland and Parkland, all showing 100 percent bloom on the 18th of May. Selkirk is a gorgeous purple blossom, Norland and Parkland (part of the same Canadian breeding program) are huge white blossoms with a tinge of peach color. All three of these trees, oddly, bloom very early but are among the most cold hardy of any apple tree. The rest of the apples are just beginning their flower show, a magnificent one this year. Pears, having begun on the 11th are still strong, as are the sour cherries. American plums and hybrids are almost degraded/pollinated. Juneberry trees are done, but saskatoons still hanging in there. Gooseberry and currants all in bloom for the last week and still going. Lilacs still waiting.

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Scionwood 2013

We have collected scionwood for this spring’s dispersal. We will keep it available- in cold storage- for about a month. Be aware some varieties sell out quickly, the list will be updated on the scionwood and seed link as often as I can get to it. We are the only certified organic source in the country to our knowledge, and still the least expensive. Rootstock is available in limited amounts.

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Climatic Changes

Climatic change is becoming a large part of the discussion of fruit hardiness. I have been looking at records this week and found some interesting stuff. Here in Vermont we had the wettest year (2011), unprecedented periods of low snow cover (2011, 2012), average higher daytime and lower nighttime temps (2011), latest snow on record (2011), and record highs in mid November (2012). 2012 was the warmest year on record, while having lows in the mid 30’s below zero in 2011. Maple sugar season is now 3 weeks shorter than in the 1960’s. This year (2013) Vt. State legislative joint hearings are being held on the impacts of climate change on business (including but not exclusive to agriculture). The spring temperature swings in the last two years have been devastating to fruit growing in the northeast.

We will constantly remind growers that climatic change can lead to erratic local conditions in temperature, precipitation and other influencing factors on hardiness like snow cover and wind. Temperature swings and early thaws are normally far more damaging than noteworthy low (or high) temperatures.

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Farm Polyculture Imagery

Here is a Walden Heights Nursery and Orchard view from a couple of years back. Taken from a precarious position of the peak of our house roof, it does offer a decent example of mixed species. We are looking at apple trees, blueberry bushes, siberian pea shrub, sour cherry, american and european plums, grapes, hops, mixed herb garden, tilled garden beds, strawberry, all flanked by commercial nursery and mixed forest. Notice some of the light terracing on the right side, to add nutrient/moisture retention and easier workability in the garden and bushfruit areas.

Walden Heights. The Side Yard
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Weather anomolies 2

Ok it is Jan 10th (2012) and we are waiting for the bill chills. We saw about 15 below last week, but that was the roughest of the season. There is still time for the deep temperature plummets, but it is making me nervous, I’d hate to loose my bragging rights. The trend the last few years has been ,overall, milder despite snaps in the last few years near 40 below so we are still in the game. Apparently there have been revisions to the zone charting in the US, placing alot of formerly zone 3 regions at 4. But since snow cover has been poorer and riddled with warmer spells, the likely cold plunges could be disasterous to growers. The irony is the new zone 4’s could be worse off than zone 2’s as regards cold damage to plants. Complicated isn’t it.

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Apple Tasting 2012

This past October’s apple tasting was another success. At rough count we had around 200 guests, maybe more. At hand were 125 plus apple varieties to taste, 15 varieties of grapes, as well as a wide selection of single variety ciders to sample. We also had a small workshop on fall apple planting and plant care, and self guided tours of the orchards. A few folks left with some trees, plants or fruit, but mostly it was a family friendly party, even if it was accidentally educational. For those who spent the time with us, thanks for coming, for those who didn’t…where were you? We will have one again next fall, so keep your eye on the events link on the website.

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Weather Anomolies update

The premature growth on most species has led to some marginal damage. Following record breaking warm temps this spring, some freezing temperatures ruptured cells in new growth. Leaves damaged were on most species, but not all individual plants. Pear, apple, currants, gooseberries, cherries, plums, aronia, juneberry, and lilac all showed damage. Plants seem to have recovered, but the affected tissue has wilted and decayed or displayed “black tip”. Dissected flower buds on pear appear no worse for the wear, thankfully.

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First blooms of 2012

May 7th is the 2012 date for the first apple blossom, though on a single tree so far. The rest of the apples are still in wait. European Pears and American Plums have their first blooms out or are close. David Pear (ussuriensis cross) has been in flowere since April 24.

Others of note: Nanking cherries open on 4-23, native Juneberries the next day. Other phenological markers that week were violets, bluets, and were all preceded by coltsfoot. Dandelions made their debut about Mayday.

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Weather Anomolies

The unprecedented warm weather over the last two weeks has initiated premature budbreak in nearly all the fruit species here in Walden. Temperatures tonight of 6 degrees will spell trouble we fear. We have greentip on a fair amount of apples and pears, but the furthest advance is on black currant and gooseberry with leaf emergence (half inch green). We will post the results of this global warming experiment soon.

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An Apple Treehouse

Leo’s Treehouse

The nearly finished retreat is nestled between the arms of a volunteer apple tree. Here is a case where one of those multi-trunked mis-behaviors is put to good use. We sawed off a couple of the trunks, which now serve as a platform for the treehouse. The branches are being trained to envelop the house, in order to  make the whole sturdier (and safer) each succeeding year. We have also been grafting  new apple varieties on the tree, a few each year so guests to the aerial digs might enjoy perhaps a different dessert out every window. Yet another example of how some good old fashioned nonsense makes life worthwhile.

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Cultivar expansion at the Farm

This past fall’s planting (2011) puts our apple diversity at over 400 varieties to date. These are little guys and will take a few years to distinguish themselves, and to show us how tough they are. The new block is a tightly planted 250 or so standards, mainly for scion production, not fruit per se, except for research purposes. Formerly wooded with 2nd growth forest, the plot was planted by hand and shovel a week after clearing on a steep, if somewhat terraced hillside. No fertilizing was done (not recommended for fall planting), trees were set, wrapped with screen guards and tethered to small posts for the duration. We will keep folks posted on their progress.