Tell us about your growing philosophy
My growing philosophy is based on an awareness that all agricultural endeavors require reconciling two contrary realities. On the one hand natural cycles and variation in temperature and moisture control what soil and vegetation types will evolve and persist on my particular place on earth. On the other hand nearly all the plants I choose to grow are domesticated and require outside inputs and interventions to enable them to thrive. In reconciling this paradox my overarching goal is to minimize outside inputs and agricultural interventions while still growing flavorful and nutrient dense forage, grains, fruits and vegetables for myself, my livestock and my community. At the same time I try to pay at least a modicum of respect to all the resident and transient, vegetation, microbes, worms, birds, bugs, reptiles, rodents, herbivores and even those damn bears who insist on ‘their’ share of ‘my’ plants. They all have a role to play in the big picture.
Tell us about your place on Earth.
My 24 acre farm’s mountain river valley location lies between 2200’ and 2700’ in elevation and is, frustratingly, in a transition zone between USDA plant hardiness zones 4b and 5b. The agriculturally productive portion of the farm (approximately 8 acres) is located on an alluvial terrace of moderately deep (6 -12”) rich silt loam topsoils overlying well drained gravelly silt/loam/clay subsoils. Being in the semi-arid interior western United States means at least supplemental irrigation is necessary and my small, diversified farm and ranch operation would not be viable without it. A conscious concession to the desire to minimize outside inputs.
My ‘orchards’ consist of two irregularly shaped clusters of mixed fruit and nut trees/shrubs; each about one half acre in size. The oldest trees were established in 1985 and there are also three younger age classes established in that cluster. The younger cluster was established in 2005 and it currently has two younger age classes. Currently there are about 40 trees and shrubs consistently producing crops though fruit set is highly variable from year to year. The trees are roughly half on semi-dwarf root stock (mostly m111) and half on standard root stock (mostly Antnovka). My goal is to maintain 80-100 bearing trees or shrubs on about 1 acre.
What draws you to growing fruit?
My grandfather and uncle planted a small ‘homestead’ orchard of about a dozen fruit trees on the property they shared around the time of my birth. As a youngster I spent a fair amount of time in that orchard so I suppose that is where my lifelong desire to grow fruit took root.
innovation most rocks your boat?
Conventional modern agricultural has largely been a process that exploits carbon resources in the soil and elsewhere to produce food and, more recently, biofuels for human and livestock consumption. That contribution to creating an imbalance in carbon cycling in the earth’s biosphere is why holistic innovations that focus on rebuilding healthy, living soil and that sequester carbon deep in the soil profile are currently one of my top priorities.
How has an ecosystem approach changed your tree reality for the better?
If the astrophysicists have it right the universe is an entropic system; largely a process of the disintegration of matter and the dissipation of energy. Yet, on earth, lifeforms and natural ecosystems have evolved that store energy, recycle nutrients and remain stable for long periods of time. There is a lot of flux and complexity in a natural ecosystem but the more you can be in sync with or mimic natural cycles and ecological processes the more resilient your land and plants will be. At first taking such an ‘agroecology’ approach doesn’t seem to translate to a better economic return or ease the orchard workload but in the long term the payback in terms of healthier soils and plants and reduced inputs and interventions is significant.
Share an “aha moment” that made you a better grower.
My wife had worked in an orchard in Oregon where she had become fond of the Santa Rosa Plum. We knew that variety was marginal for our plant hardiness zone but decided to risk planting one. The tree was vigorous and healthy from the get go and was starting to produce significant crops of very tasty plums when, nine years after transplanting, a late fall drop in temperature to -26° Fahrenheit killed that stone fruit stone dead. I should have listened to my nurseryman Grandpa who told me once, “You can wish into one hand and spit into the other and see which one fills up first.”
What might you change if you could do one thing over again in your orchard?
There’s more than one thing I would do over again if I could but I can’t so the value in doing them was the opportunity to learn from the misstep. So far the biggest take home message for me has been: You have to learn how to think in terms of the cycles and life spans of your perennial plantings. Year to year variations in weather and pests may cause ripples in your production but thinking in terms of decades helps you achieve a manageable balance of healthy perennial plantings over time.
How do you go about marketing the good fruit?
Fruit grown on Pommes de Terre Acres surplus to my personal needs (fresh and preserved fruit and craft cider) is marketed by Anna Elbon and her partner, Matthew Whyatt who lease the farm and manage all annual crop and small livestock production. Anna markets under the title, Glacier Tilth Farm, and sells certified organic vegetables and fruit thru a small CSA program, intermittently at small farmer’s markets in nearby rural towns, wholesale to the Western Montana Growers Cooperative of which the farm is a founding member and via an online farm store listing of available produce which may be ordered online and picked up at the farm. An exception occurs in some years when I have surplus cider apples which I sell to a local cidery.