Hickory Nut Gap Farm — The family that owns and operates our farm has history on this land that dates back to the 19th century. A wealth of agricultural enterprises have been born here, including the Farmers Federation by James G.K. McClure in 1920. This land once hosted a dairy, and it was the long time home place of former North Carolina Senator James McClure Clarke, who worked passionately in his life to establish a number of orchards around his home. In it’s current state, Hickory Nut Gap Farm is a very diverse family farm that produces everything from grass-fed beef and pastured pork to a successful agri-tourism business, and most recently we have ventured into producing certified organic fruit such as blueberries, blackberries, and apples. Organic orchard management poses a great challenge, especially in the south where disease and insects are more prevalent than the northern climates particularly well known for growing apples. Organic orcharding has even been called “the last frontier in organic agriculture” by Michael Phillips, an experienced holistic apple grower out of New England.

In navigating the challenges that we face in managing our organic orchards, we also must circumvent concerns related to the family history of our farm. The oldest apples trees growing in our orchards are 60 years old, and some could even be older. The productive maturity of an apple tree is said to be upwards of 20 years, so the age of these oldest trees provides yet another road block to maintaining not only a healthy but also an economically viable organic orchard system. The problem though is that the oldest trees were planted and cared for by a beloved man, Senator Clarke. Family and community members alike have expressed misgivings about the removal of these old trees. In the first few years of organic management we incorporated the existing trees into our management plan. Though, with the best interest of our business in mind, we have decided to move forward at a slow pace, removing only the most unproductive trees. These will be replaced with newly planted young trees. In the coming years we’ll be able to get a good grip on the true value of the remaining old trees, while caring for new saplings that will be the future of the apple production on our farm. In this process we have come to another hurdle in orchard management.

An organic orchard system is very sensitive to cultural practices. One such example is the intensified need to remove all dead fruit, prunings, and dead wood from the orchard. Dead apple wood harbors insects and disease, so its removal is critical. One is presented with the opportunity to turn prunings into mulch and use them to your benefit on the orchard floor, but that is a conversation for another day. In addition, the volume of wood and size of the trees we are taking down in the orchards isn’t ideal for using in a wood chipper. We are now at the point where we have a bunch of trees lying on the ground, and although there is a lot of emotional attachment to them, they are of seemingly little worth. In other words, we’ll have to put a lot of labor into getting them out of the way, and they don’t provide much use value other than firewood that’s hard to split.

I am a budding permaculturist, so I often like to challenge the work that we are currently engaged in, hoping to increase efficiency or to decrease waste. If anything, those challenges sometimes lead to an interesting conversation. The permaculture mentality provides a framework for coming up with solutions that work harmoniously with the system in which they are employed. How can we better serve ourselves with the work we are doing to remove these old apple trees? So, just the other day I had a moment of inspiration when I realized that we could use the apple trees that we cut down as the hosts for our next round of mushroom log inoculation.

We happen to have a small side project growing mushrooms on logs under the canopy of a hemlock forest between two of our pastures. Early in 2011 we inoculated our first shiitake and oyster mushrooms on oak and poplar logs respectively. We spent countless hours cutting wood for the sole purpose of using it to propagate mushrooms. During that process our whole crew identified that we were spending a lot of time to get wood for a project that constitutes a negligible part of our operation. By using the currently available apple trees as our source of mushroom logs we are performing multiple tasks in one: cleaning the downed trees out of the orchard and cutting logs sized perfectly for use in growing mushrooms. Growing mushrooms is quickly gaining interest as an agricultural pursuit because it is so easy and inexpensive to begin. In addition to producing a great food, there is potential for amazing economic returns in this perennial system.

The satisfaction that came from our new focus on this project was visible. The work crew was feeding on the excitement of expanding our mushroom growing while performing what could have been viewed as a mundane task, cutting up old trees. Albeit a small one, this opportunity to instill a creative spark in our farm work proved invaluable. Also, we will be benefitting the bottom line of our business, diversifying our local food supply, and learning about the cultivation of different varieties of mushrooms using apple wood as the growing medium. Along the way we’ve come up with another way extend the use of the old apple trees in yet another dimension. I briefly spoke of organic and holistic orchard management, and this final side note is of that accord. The smallest branches from the apple trees that are too small for mushroom logs or firewood will still be put to use. We will have a lot of trim piles in the orchard that need to be dealt with. While we will remove most of this old dead wood, we aim to experiment with using some of these piles as a pest control measure. In the summer, when certain apple insect pests are at their height, we will have a number of small evening bonfires in the orchard, burning the old scraps. One of our most formidable orchard insect pests is the coddling moth. Like most moths, they are attracted to light when it’s dark outside. These bonfires should attract a large number of our resident coddling moths and eliminate at least some of them from our orchard when they reach the flames.

I relish the fact that this application of systems thinking comes from only a few days’ work on the farm. Each and every project that we undertake is yet another opportunity for creative diversification. Again, this mentality compounds the value of our labor. Specifically, the renovation of an old orchard should prove to be a boon to our business. Maybe even more importantly, it has provided an opportunity to reignite our passion for working as farmers of a new age.

Essay by Ryan Sitler