This past weekend, and part of last week, was the 2011 Farming for the Future conference at State College, PA, put on by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. It was, once again, a great conference with hundreds of teachers and thousands of farmers and gardeners. I took a pre-conference track on Thursday called Homesteading 101. This track focused on the basics of starting a small CSA farm and all the work that goes into preparing the land and growing crops for the first year. It also focused on seed saving, and preservation of your harvest for the winter months. Later during the week I focused on learning as much as I could about growing fruit trees. We have lots of trees at Garfield Community Farm now, but I don't really have the expertise to care for them properly. Each year we do an "alternative gift" campaign where people can donate specifically toward certain things for the farm. Each year people want to buy fruit trees. And all summer long, while we sell our vegetables, the kids in the neighborhood want to know where the apples are. So, we're working on it, the trees are growing, and now I have a lot more ability to care for all those young trees we have.
The gist of what I learned was that organic orcharding is hard, but it can be done. I also learned that most organic orchards in the US are not really doing it the best way. Most orchards focus on killing fungi and insects by using natural minerals like sulfur and copper. Problem is those kill all the fungi and the things they use to kill bugs also don't discriminate. While I learned that mineral applications are necessary, they should be a last resort and not an automatic thing every couple weeks. Instead, we learned, that orchards should be managed biologically, not chemically and not so much through minerals. Biology in the orchard creates the right atmosphere for a diverse and healthy ecosystem of plants, animals, insects, fungi and bacteria. All things things can be stewarded to create the best atmosphere for apples and other fruits to grow with minimal broad spectrum killers like sulfur or copper. Interesting stuff and very detailed. I still have a lot to learn! Hopefully we'll get a few good apples and pears this year!