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THE SCIENCE AND ART OF LOCAL ORGANIC APPLES

by Andy Gricevich, Newsletter Writer

What does it take to grow an amazing apple? That essence of the spring blossom and the summer’s ripening, sweetened by cooling nights and warm days as we drift into fall—how is that time gathered into the crisp, juicy, beautiful fruit we enjoy most this time of year? How does it happen here in the upper Midwest? What does it take to grow a local apple organically? 

Not too long ago, you’d likely get a laugh (or a sigh) if you asked a Wisconsin orchardist that last question. Our humid climate, with its unpredictable rains and late frosts, can be rough on fruit trees. Many attempts at commercial organic fruit production have been thwarted by scab (the most common fungal disease afflicting apples) and insect pests. Even most ecologically-minded growers (like Bob Wills of Ela Orchard, whose excellent apples have been on Willy Street Co-op shelves each season for a long while) choose to forgo organic certification; while they emphasize working with nature rather than aggressively managing it, they want to keep their options open to prevent crop loss in a case of emergency. 

Having witnessed some of the effects of these challenges during my years in Willy West’s Produce department, I was surprised and impressed by the quality of the apples we started receiving a couple of years back from two local organic orchards. We’d carried excellent Wisconsin-grown fruit before, but I’d never seen organic apples that looked as good as anything coming from Washington or Chile—and these tasted a lot better than any of them. How did the growers at Atoms to Apples and Two Onion Farm reach such high standards? I had the opportunity to find out when I visited both orchards on one of the hottest days of this summer. 

Atoms to Apples

Atoms to Apples sits on a slope leading down into Donald County Park near Mount Horeb on land tended since the mid-1800s by the Sweet family, whose name still adorns the old barn. Rami Aburomia moved there with his family in 2014. Working as a geneticist in and around the California agricultural industry had started him on the path toward growing food as a sole occupation, and, when he moved to Wisconsin, Aburomia got a job at Fitchburg’s Eplegaarden, which he subsequently managed for eight years. The prior manager, he says, was committed to growing apple varieties that ripened during different phases of the season, so that no fruit sold to be eaten out of hand would have spent time in storage. Aburomia has retained that emphasis on freshness and seasonality, and it fits elegantly into an overall practice of working with, rather than against, the complex systems of nature: “a farmer’s using a plant to gather atoms from the soil and the sun, and to arrange them into food” (an explanation of the orchard’s name as reminiscent of Lucretius’ poetry as of the laboratory). 

Two Onion farm

Chris and Juli, of Two Onion Farm, have a different story, but they’ve arrived at a similar place. They moved to their land in the countryside near Belmont in 2003 and started supplying organic vegetables through their community-supported agriculture operation a couple of years after that. They began planting fruit trees in 2012, with a similar focus on wide seasonal range, and the orchard has grown along with their family. Last year Chris and Juli decided to stop growing vegetables and focus exclusively on the orchard. 

“Apples are a pretty complicated crop on their own,” says Chris. In addition to the stress of trying to grow both fruits and vegetables, “the organic vegetable market has been tightening up, with a lot more good farms getting into it. We also depended on hired labor, and that’s been harder to find.” Shifting exclusively to orcharding also has ecological benefits; while Chris and Juli had already been exploring no-till methods of vegetable production, working with perennial crops like fruit trees has come to make more sense for our region, with its increasingly erratic weather. “We had two-and-a-half inches of rain the other night, and there’s no sign of soil erosion,” Chris points out. “If we had just planted fall carrots, it’d be pretty much impossible to keep a lot of that uncovered ground from washing away.” 

Land stewardship

Land stewardship is important in varied ways to both Aburomia and the McGuires, each of whose solar arrays are sufficient to power both home and farm. They’ve established patches of plants for pollinating insects (especially beneficial at Two Onion Farm, surrounded by biologically sterile corn and soy fields). While weed control has to play a role in their strategies, to minimize competition for water with the trees, they try to keep mowing to a minimum. That helps desirable insects, who—as Chris notes—need the flowers of weeds to feed on in the time before the apple trees blossom, and afterwards as well. Rami points out that the destructive Japanese beetle also has a hard time laying its eggs in taller grass, so minimal mowing discourages at least one important pest as well. The health of the orchards and their human tenders benefit from attention to their role in larger ecologies, and it shows in the beauty of both sites—in the willows planted on the road at Two Onion Farm, and the oak savanna spilling down to the rows of fruiting trees at Atoms to Apples. 

Ecological flexibility

Key to the ecological flexibility of both orchards is their choice of varieties to plant. With the exception of a small experimental plot in a hothouse, all the trees at Two Onion Farm have been bred for resistance to apple scab, and most of Aburomia’s apples are also scab-resistant. That solves the most widespread problem facing organic growers, and drastically reduces the need for the use of organically-approved sprays (some of which, while they don’t end up on or in the fruit, can be harmful to pollinating insects and other wildlife, as well as to growers during their application—and all of which cost money). 

Both McGuire and Aburomia also exclusively plant small trees at high densities. Atoms to Apples has 4,500 trees on four acres; Two Onion, while planting a little less closely, still grows many more trees per acre than any traditional orchard. Because these dwarf trees have shallow root systems to match, they need some support, so that they’re not blown over in big storms. Aburomia employs a trellising system (as with grapes), while McGuire ties the trees to individual posts. In both cases, the supports also encourage the growth of straight trees that are easy to harvest—one component that makes it efficient for each orchard to be managed essentially by one person. 

In addition, the trees at both orchards are kept well-pruned, and fruit gets thinned early in the season. Pruning keeps both fruit and leaf well-exposed to the air, reducing the wetness that promotes fungal blights and the number of hiding places for undesirable insects. Thinning encourages the trees to emphasize fruit production over vegetative growth; Rami points out that the seeds of apples actually send biochemical messages back to the plant, letting it know where its emphasis needs to fall in the next season. A thinned tree will also produce larger fruit, easier to harvest and more marketable than smaller apples from a dense, sprawling plant. 

Investment and payoff

Any fruit orchard requires a sizeable initial investment, and setups like McGuire’s and Aburomia’s take a little extra money to get going. The payoff, however, comes not only in the form of reduced need for pest and disease management, it also encourages earlier and larger yields. That makes it especially worthwhile, Aburomia points out, for someone like himself, starting their business in their forties. 

It also makes for a special experience of food production. “Another thing, in comparison with vegetables, is the long-term relationship you can have with a tree,” says McGuire. You watch it grow, see it at different times of year…I really love plants, and this is a deep relationship that’s really satisfying. It’s great year-round. Coming out in the winter and pruning, rather than just changing the oil in your tractor.” 

Shared knowledge

Growing fruit in the upper Midwest is a matter of a lot of learning and shared knowledge. Aburomia and McGuire work to keep abreast of, and contribute to, research and education on the best available methods for apple production. Aburomia serves as a grower educator for UW-Madison’s Beginning Apple Growers class, and he and the McGuires have given presentations and workshops together and separately. Employing every advantage available to organic growers, from planting strategies to wise use of technologies for measuring temperature and humidity and monitoring of insect populations, helps them to combine efficiency, flavor, ecological responsibility, and quality of life for their families, colleagues, and communities. 

It seems like a good time to get into organic orcharding here; local fruit is a niche waiting to be filled. Both Chris and Rami point out that central Washington, the source of most U.S.-grown organic apples, is basically a desert. Low rainfall there means that diseases and pests are much less of a problem. It also necessitates constant irrigation and makes for less diverse ecosystems both above ground and below, in the living soil. A more sterile environment is likely to affect both the flavor and nutrition of the fruit grown there. Local fruit can mean greater pleasure and sustainability. 

Competition with the big western growers in terms of production and distribution can feel like more of an energizing invitation than a serious problem for local orchardists, whose apples, after all, aren’t much more expensive than those grown in Washington. The greater challenge is probably consumer education. “The downside of growing these scab-resistant varieties is that most of them aren’t household names,” says McGuire. Customers often swoop into a produce department to grab a familiar Gala or Pink Lady for a snack or their kids’ lunches, and don’t pause to consider the options. They’re looking for a particular color, size and sheen. “There’s always a bit of a tradeoff between commercialism and taste,” Chris says. “There’s a variety we really love, called the Pixie Crunch, that we haven’t sold at the Co-op, because the fruit is so small.”

Take a chance on new varieties

With apple season in high gear, it’s definitely worth slowing down and taking a chance on these less familiar varieties. Through the season, they present a range of flavors likely to please any palate. Their freshness and visual appeal encourage the intimate act of biting right into a piece of fruit in your hand. 

Among the many varieties he grows, Aburomia particularly favors the Crimsoncrisp, with its perfect sweet/tart balance and dense fruit, as well as Sweet16, a breed developed (like Honeycrisp) at the University of Minnesota, with “a really unique taste, candy-like and rich.” McGuire loves the Winecrisp variety, and both orchardists are excited about GoldRush (as is the author of this article), a later apple that actually improves with a little storage time. 

This month, Two Onion Farm will likely be offering Pristine (spicy and golden), Sir Prize (rich and tart) and Initial (sweet and juicy) apples. Look for the mild and sweet Blondee, Honeycrisp, Sweet16, Liberty (a classic scab-free Mcintosh alternative) and Crimsoncrisp from Atoms to Apples. If you find Rami at a farmers’ market, you can also get his fresh farm-pressed cider. At the Co-op, you’ll find Juli’s line of applesauces and apple butters. 

Fall’s magic

A local organic apple is one of the best ways to take in the fall season’s magic. The next time you’re in the Co-op’s Produce department, take a moment to look at the upper shelves and the smaller baskets and bins. Take in the color and fragrance of these unfamiliar varieties, with their own delectable sweetness, tang, mellowness and spice. When you bring them home and taste them, think of the bees and butterflies, soil, rain, sun, and human care that went into them and enjoy their unique flavors.