Starting a small orchard/ berry hobby farm from scratch when you are already 60 years old makes one an optimist. Doing it organically simply adds to the challenge. None-the-less, that was my plan to stay busy during retirement and what eventually brought me to the Cheshire County Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Walpole. Now, through their guidance and 4 growing seasons, we are starting to enjoy the “fruit” of our labor.
Prior to visiting Walpole, I read Michael Phillips, The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way, a brilliant approach to combining soil health with organic foliar sprays to maximize a tree’s natural ability to defend against numerous pests without hard pesticides. While this gave me the plan for above ground, it also showed me my real problem was going to be my soil.
While building our barn, a 1/3acre of forest was cleared where I would plant my 15 fruit trees. Unfortunately, what I ended up with was a planting zone of rock and clay –so hard, it was almost impossible to dig by hand. All of the pre-existing topsoil was gone and the entire area looked like a rocky, stripped, hillside. That’s when I went to visit Amanda Littleton, District Manager of the CCCD. She completely understood my concerns and suggested I meet with Steve Pytlik, the Cheshire County NRCS District Manager, to discuss several programs she thought would help me improve our soil quality. She also told me about the opportunity to purchase varieties of apple trees during the Spring Plant Sale sponsored by the Conservation District. She was spot on with both suggestions!
Meeting at my orchard, Steve and I discussed how, by combining our 10-acre homestead in Westmoreland with our 40-acres of pasture and forestland in Sullivan, my wife and I could benefit both properties via the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Through EQIP, farmers and foresters receive financial and technical help with conservation practices on agricultural and forest land. While the grant assists with many of the costs of improving the soil and water conservation aspects of both properties, the real benefit to us was the technical assistance that suddenly was brought to bear on the dirt equivalent of concrete that was now our orchard.
As I had already planted the trees and enhanced the planting holes with compost plus a variety of organic soil amendments, NRCS staff focused their attention on the remaining orchard “floor”, collecting soil samples and performing compaction tests. The results were not pretty but a plan was implemented which we still follow today, including pH management, use of daikon radish to reduce soil compaction, the addition of compost, enhancing the mycorrhizal zone and basically making the orchard floor into a pollinator habitat that not only feeds my apiary, it also attracts beneficial insects that help pollinate our organic strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, veggies, apple, peach, plum, pear and cherry trees and helps keep pests in check. Every year I see improvement in the flora and fauna in the orchard–this year having to be careful not to disturb the beneficials as I harvested our first crop of peaches plus the first couple of dozen apples produced by the apple trees we purchased through the plant sale.
While I may have done the work, the technical assistance and guidance of the CCCD, NRCS and Michael Phillips is what got us here. We now have an orchard environment that not only is producing more fruit than we can eat, it has increased our honey harvest, improved our veggie garden and is beautiful to see. All due to a short drive out to Walpole…