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Know Your Roots

Trumansburg, NY

Mike Biltonen

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Mike Biltonen
Tell us about your growing philosophy


The secret to healthy orchards begins with a deep, visceral understanding of biology and ecology. A healthy orchard is robust and alive with biodiversity and good food for all. The birds and the bees, the soil and the trees, insects, fungi, wind, water, and weeds -- they all matter. For 32 years I have worked with all facets of pomology and fruit production. Though I am currently a full-time consultant for passionate, tree fruit enthusiasts, the vast majority of those years I have been a grower. There is no doubt that the trials and tribulations of tree fruit growers everywhere (including myself) have broadened my mind's-eye to the realities of growing apples and other tree fruit in the northeast. I work with growers of all persuasions from larger, commercial-ly operations to smaller, innovative growers. I work with each individually to help them shape their practices to be more ecologically sensitive and to help them establish and implement avant-garde practices. I have expertise in insect and disease management, fertility, crop load management, pruning, orchard establishment. Through my consulting I try to push the envelope of current pomological thinking to tap into the full power of mother nature so that 'organic' and 'holistic' are fanciful terms we look back on fondly one day. There's something else lurking out there and I for one am itching to find out what it is.

 



Tell us about your place on Earth.


I have a small orchard in my backyard that is made up of old gnarly, but iconic apple trees. These are in the process of being revived with the hopes of producing truly holistic apples. I also plan on planting a small number of newer disease resistant varieties this spring. But mainly I spend my days managing a 600 acre orchard in Geneva, NY, where I grow apricots, sweet cherries, plums, prunes, peaches, pears, and apples -- among other things. But my place on Earth is where I am right now -- never too far from my wife, son, and a basket of good apples.



What draws you to growing fruit?


I've been doing it so long, I don't even know anymore. What I do know is that I was first drawn to it way back in 1984 and didn't even know it. I worked several summers at a very large apple and peach orchard in central Virginia back then doing pruning, thinning, running harvest crews. It must have been the long, hot, humid summers, or the peach-fuzz filled air, but I never looked back. I've farmed in Virginia, New York, Minnesota, California, and New York (again). Perhaps it is that no matter where I go that fruit growers are the most intriguing, intellectual, fascinating, affable, and hard working people I've ever met. Or maybe it's just that first apple of the fall. 



Share an “aha moment” that made you a better grower.


Last year (2016), actually, I was working with a close friend to help them better manage apple scab while reducing the amount of sulfur being sprayed. At that time, I had also started using an apple scab prediction model called RIMpro to help better monitor scab cycles and determine best treatments and timings. We used the model and only applied sulfur at times of greatest infection potentials. We did spray holistic sprays and in addition to using the model were able to limit sulfur sprays to twice. It really made me realize that technology has a place in holistic orcharding to help better managed issues like apple scab. On top of that we used a micronutrient spray that contained cobalt - a micro - that has been identified as having positive benefits on the development of amino acids -> proteins that affect the development of scab fungi. Really started me wondering what little details we're missing. 



What might you change if you could do one thing over again in your orchard?


Finding the perfect site for an orchard has always been a pipedream of mine. But of all the 'do overs' I'd like, the top of list is to only invest time and money I could afford to lose. Being cautiously optimistic may not get you where you want to go as quickly as you'd like, but at least you'll get there!



How do you go about marketing the good fruit?


I don't currently market any fruit. But one day, when my orchard comes into full bearing, I'll sell the fruit to local fruit aficionados, cidermakers, or I may just eat it all. 





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