Which would you rather eat… A soft, bland dull-coloured apple or a crunchy, sweet, bright-skinned apple with light-up-your-tongue flavour?
Roger Curtis of Shiloh Orchards in Hastings knows how to produce the second type of apple and he’s convinced it all starts in the soil. He’s into his fifth season of using biological approaches to apple growing and after 30 years of orcharding experience he’s convinced he’s on to the secret to true fruit quality.
He relates how he started experimenting with a bit of this and that – some seaweed spray, a different spray for colour – but he says it wasn’t until he went to an Arden Andersen biological soils course that he was able to ‘connect the dots’ and then he was in boots and all.
For him that means an Abron microbe-active, composted calcium blend, biology-friendly phosphorous in the form of guano, sodium, sulphur and other key trace elements. He applies foliar nutrition sprays throughout the growing season to boost photosynthesis and nourish the important beneficial microbes on the leaf surfaces.
His fertiliser bill is half what it was before and his fruit quality is stunning.
He notes other changes as well. His orchard sward used to be rough ‘Tryffid’ weeds that climbed up into the fruit zone and needed double strength herbicide to control them. There were few worms and no sign of soil fungal activity. Four years on, he has lower growing, soft weeds and grasses, with practically no mallow.
When he stopped using glyphosate he stopped having signs of manganese deficiency in his apple leaves. “If you get your soil minerals in balance, especially good levels of calcium, the weeds change and aren’t really an issue. The biological activity in the soil goes way up when you stop herbicides.” Roger knows his orchard soils are doing a good job of nutrient recycling because his green drop apples disappear quickly and become food for the tree and the crop. He can go to a conventional orchard and still see tiny apples undigested on the surface for weeks.
Roger’s wife Rachel consistently samples throughout the season to chart the Brix levels in the apple leaves. Brix levels record the percentage of sugars and minerals in fruit or leaf sap and are powerful indicators of flavour as well. Rachel’s four years of sampling has resulted in a chart that documents how Brix levels at the beginning of the season have been higher each year. This means the trees are getting healthier and the leaves are better nourished from the balanced mineral applications and from contented soil microbes.
Why contented? Because they have the full range of minerals available to them for building their cells and for doing their job of making complex foods available to the tree. And because fewer ‘cides’ are being applied in the orchard, it helps to keep a productive soil microbe population going. Not just the microscopic critters are happy and abundant. Roger says in his 30 years of orcharding he has never before seen dragon flies stuck in the radiator of his tractor. He figures it’s a good sign for predators and orchard biodiversity.
In the last four seasons, Roger has seen two major apple myths busted through use of smart biological farming.
First myth is that you have to spray with lots of calcium to avoid bitter pip and second, that powdery mildew and fireblight will always be with us. Putting the calcium directly into the soil with complex humic acids and traces has resulted in good calcium levels in the fruit without the need for calcium sprays. Roger no longer has issues with powdery mildew or fireblight. He figures it’s because he has his soil minerals right and that helps support beneficial soil and leaf surface microbes that compete with the bad guys for food and space.
He acknowledges that he still has issues with black spot and uses fungicides to combat it, especially in times of high humidity or rain. His take on why black spot is still an issue for him is that the trees these days are less genetically resistant to spot and the fungus itself has gotten stronger. He is concerned that all the black spot fungicides are now developed to only affect the black spot fungus in one single way, which makes it easier for the black spot fungus to develop resistance. He has been using a foliar fertiliser product that prompts an immune system response from the plant when challenged with a disease. These hormone type sprays also help the tree combat fireblight and powdery mildew. He cites this flexibility to use chemical sprays, if necessary, as a big advantage to biological agriculture.
Most apple orchards put pretty much all of their fertiliser onto the tree leaf during the growing season. At Shiloh Orchards the approach is to spread 80% of the year’s fertiliser directly on soil with an emphasis on lime. The remaining 20% of fertiliser is sprayed onto the leaves. Roger has seen the advantages of setting up a good foundation of balanced soil mineralisation that drives full plant nutrition from the ground up. He sees the leaf sprays being more effective when the soil nutrition is right and he uses sprays only for tailoring or topping up during the season. He is pleased that there is a wide range of high-tech, effective biological sprays available to him.
The result of the emphasis on this 80% soil correctives is the great flavour, storability and eye appeal of his apples. His focus is on direct marketing to the increasing number of people who are concerned about health, flavour and full nutrition.
Producing highest quality fruit underpins all that Roger does in the orchard. He’s concerned that agriculture focuses so much on producing volume instead of producing quality … with the consumer losing out. He firmly believes that it is his duty to produce nutrient-dense food that nourishes people and restores health.
His advice to other growers? “Focus on quality. The science is there on this stuff and you need to hear the whole story of why and the basics of how so you can get started. It’s not a fairy tale. You don’t need all the answers at the beginning – just get the ABCs of the minerals right and look after your microbes. The complexity kicks in of its own accord then and you’re away.”