My First Field Day
Nellie Robertson, OFGA Coordinator
My idea of growing fruit starts with a shovel and a sapling. I’m not even sure of the specifics of how and when and where to plant the sapling, but then this idea of minimal investment is immediately followed by the image of a hammock. You, the fruit grower, sit and read a book in your hammock, hung between two beautiful fruit trees that will provide you with all their bounty once a year. Sure, there’s harvesting, but that’s what my family always did for you, being avid u-pickers of plums and apricots that my parents turned into delicious jams for us to enjoy year-round in our city apartment. I always thought that fruit growers, especially tree-fruit growers, have the best job, with nothing to do all year.
This idea has been changing in the last few years as I was learning little tidbits helping at Blue Heron Orchard in Canton, Missouri. Then at Grandview Orchard in Antigo, Wisconsin, at my first OFGA Field Day last weekend, the last remnants of my hammock-idea of growing fruit were shattered. It turns out that growing fruit is much more like raising my kids to be bilingual than reading a novel in a hammock. Especially when you start from a disadvantage: the kids are growing up in an environment where all exposure to their minority language, Hungarian, comes from me alone. Lisa Rettinger, our host for the majority of the day, started with a disadvantage as well: her 15- acre orchard has been conventionally managed for many years before she completely turned around to implement an organic, holistic approach.
Next, I have to take consistent, daily steps to provide the kids with exposure to my language and the need for them to use it. We read classic and contemporary literature, use Skype to talk with Grandma and Grandpa, exchange notes (sometimes funny or inappropriate) on the bathroom marker-board, listen to Hungarian music and sing songs (often out of tune).
It turns out that the trees also benefit from consistent care that comes in many shapes and forms. For example, insect control can include free-range chickens in the spring, wren houses, mating disruption, and a bunch of other things I was not following because I’m just too new to the game.
One thing I couldn’t miss, however, was the ten-foot, woven-wire deer exclusion fence that surrounds Lisa’s trees. I’ve learned that material assistance from the DNR makes it more affordable to install a fence like this, and the abundance of fruit on the lower branches shows that the fence successfully kept the deer out. Jeff Utech, our late-afternoon host also talked about the regular care that his blueberry plants need, and showed us ways to keep large flocks of blackbirds away from the fields.
In my efforts to live a bilingual life with the kids, I’ve found that sometimes what I do is not enough to reach my goals, like when my son, at age five, was not speaking a word in Hungarian even though he understood everything. Other times I need to redirect energies to reach a better end result, or my great intentions have unintended (positive or negative) consequences, and I have to come up with creative solutions to unique problems almost daily. Lisa mentioned similar experiences when we talked about thinning, applying certain foliar sprays, or the wild raspberries that allow various fungi to overwinter and cause sooty blotch on the apples. Jeff also showed us some creative solutions and his hand-made machine for sorting berries.
Over the years, I’ve found great tools in unexpected places (like orchardists can find a cool fallen apple harvester in Austria), and I often learn some cutting-edge science from specialists. Our presenter, Nathan Harman from Advancing Eco Agriculture is one such specialist for fruit and vegetable growers. He talked about soil and general plant health with us, and I was grateful for his handouts that allow me to continue learning now. Those of you who couldn’t make it to Lisa’s missed out on information about sap analysis, the mineral holding capacity of plant cells, the synergistic interactions between cation and anion macronutrients, the cause of bitter-pit in Honeycrisp apples in particular, and why all this is important especially when you’re working with perennial crops.
Ultimately, Lisa and I have a similar goal: she would like to reduce her input on the orchard, reaching the top of the “plant health pyramid,” where the trees are able to produce plant secondary metabolites to guard themselves against ultraviolet radiation, disease and insect attack. I would like my kids to read, write, communicate with others in both of their languages successfully, so they could improve their language abilities on their own, without my consistent input. That hammock is waiting for both of us at the end of the road!
Until then, field days such as this one at Grandview Orchard will provide opportunities for learning, connecting with others, and reflecting on our own habits and practices. We’ve spent an information-filled day at Lisa’s, we could relate to her struggles, mistakes, and successes, and I’m looking forward to our next gathering.