My last post explained some of the reasons why we are taking up agriculture at this late stage in our lives. Here’s how we zeroed in on apples as our main crop. My next post details the tasks we accomplished in 2012.
Start where you are
The homestead parcel of Stray Arrow Ranch (not really a ranch, we know, although the term apple ranch was in use in 1911) was held by absentee owners for at least twenty years, perhaps forty or fifty. In that time it was mostly neglected, hayed occasionally, pastured neighbors’ livestock, and crisis repairs to irrigation canals were done on the cheap. It was, however, irrigated with regularity and supported a mixed crop of pasture grasses, dandelions and remnants of an alfalfa planting. On the windward, west side is a line of cottonwood trees that are reaching their natural end of life; two have fallen in the three years we have owned the property. In short, the land had been used hard, but as near as we can ascertain, sustained no permanent damage like pesticide or lead contamination.
What is possible here?
Our acreage wouldn’t be classified as the highly productive land on an urban interface because we are too high (6850′) and too far (150 miles) to markets, but can produce high value food crops if we think beyond the beef and sheep ranching tradition in our valley and think even harder to overcome the problems of our distance to market.
What we do have is water. Not a lot (no westerner will ever claim to have excess water) but enough to do something. For as long as we have been able to determine (at least 60 years) that something has been alfalfa, cattle and horses. We actually know the family who worked it as part of a 200 acre ranch in the 1950s. Now subdivided and redivided, we are at a scale where the costs of haying equipment will never pay.
On the other end of the spectrum, you can maximize dollars per acre and grow vegetables. You will also maximize your labor, and never have a Saturday off all summer if you try to go down the farmer’s market/CSA road. We don’t have the water supply (frequency rather than quantity is the problem), the length of season, or proximity to market to make that work, and I’m not too proud to admit I’m glad. I know how hard those market farmers work. I do want to hike sometime.
It wasn’t until after the second summer celebration of Torrey Apple Days that it dawned on me that apples must have been produced here at one point, and not just in the park. Once we started looking and asking around, we realized that apples had been grown here in our microclimate for decades. Fruit growing isn’t lazy farming, there’s plenty of work, but at a scale we can think we can manage.
Aesthetics count too. I’ll admit that another attraction to orcharding is deciding what you want to see out the kitchen window. Call me shallow, but I have to live here. Nothing is much prettier than the orchards in Capitol Reef National Park, rimmed by the walls of red rock and raining down pink petals in spring.
We still need to overcome the problem that has vexed Wayne County since the pioneers first settled here: distance to market. We are 200 miles to Salt Lake City, 50 miles to an interstate, I have no idea how far to a railhead. It never made sense to raise commodity crops here when the costs of transportation put the producer at such a disadvantage. It’s the reason why Wayne County was once the state’s second largest producer of cheese (after the famous Cache Valley). Concentrate the value of the grass from milk and fat to something that can store until you have enough of it to move efficiently. Growing the grocery store apple varieties didn’t pay 50 years ago in Wayne County. It still doesn’t pay, not growing for the Salt Lake farmers markets, when the orchards in Utah County are 150 miles closer. 300 miles is a lot of driving in the dark every week to sell something with that much extra gasoline in your overhead.
Stewardship, sustainability and sleeping at night and not going broke
Orcharding can be pretty gentle on the land. There isn’t the annual plowing that is such a risk for erosion, if you don’t adopt a scorched earth policy for managing the ground between the trees. Encouraging organic matter to build up instead of stripping the land bare will cure a multitude of sins. So will adding a diversity of plants to host pollinators and a complex soil microbial population. We are studying how grazing livestock in the alleyways could help cycle nutrients and reduce pest pressure.
We needed to find a specialty apple that is in demand and that we can grow here. We found it by looking outside the (Utah) fruit crate: apples for hard cider. It’s an American food product that is being rediscovered with tremendous potential for growth. We might even be able to make a value-added product out of it.
Another plus for raising cider fruit is that nobody cares if the apples aren’t pretty enough for a market display. Since a vast amount of pesticide spraying is done simply for cosmetic reasons, we eliminate that problem (and expense) from the start by our choice of market varieties. Even if we didn’t live fifty feet from our orchard, we are obliged to make ethical decisions about what chemicals we might introduce to our land and watershed. I never forget that our runoff eventually reaches the Colorado River. Our water is the water that my nieces drink next year in Los Angeles. We can do with minimal chemicals, maybe not to maximum efficiency, but well enough we think.
So we began our apple education. We harvested fruit in the park. We bothered our neighbors with questions. We went to Monticello to a tasting and to visit orchards. We tasted a bunch of good and bad apple cider. We ordered some cider apple trees. Near as we can tell, we haven’t yet made an unrectifiable error in the orchard. We think we can raise quality fruit here, preserve our farmland, learn some stuff, have some fun and eat well in the process.