RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Apples and Earth

The Washington State organic apple study has popped up everywhere -- first in the magazine Nature, and then in newspapers as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and our local and almost independent Fulton Sun. In the Washington State study, scientists proved that organic orchards can make money and that organic methods help the soil.

Well, duh.

Way back in 1966, the Rodale Press issued its first edition of The Organic Way to Plant Protection, gathering together wisdom of old-timers and modern farm observers. "Hundreds of thousands of gardeners in this country have made up their minds to grow fruits and vegetables, flowers and lawns, without using pesticides and weedkillers," says the Introduction, "They realize the danger of poison spray residues ... more serious to mankind than fallout."

Those were the heady days of the Green Revolution, when farmers were dumping petrochemicals on hybrid plants and claiming huge yields. In contrast to those loud industrial voices, Rodale's wisdom was pretty simple, and quite contrary. Basically, organic gardening began with the soil. Was it healthy? Could the farmer make it better by treating it kindly?

When it came to weeds and insects in the garden, Rodale said they weren't all bad. Knowledge of their habits made it possible to decide which hurt plants, like aphids, and which were good, like ladybugs. Spraying with petroleum chemicals knocks out the good and the bad, destroying balance.

For the gardener with bad insects, there were choices. Could you squish the offenders? Spray them with water and knock them to the ground? Bring in predators like toads or chickens? Mix up a natural spray -- maybe using pepper or garlic, or something else they didn't like? Plant a neighboring plant to lure them away? Trap them on something sticky? Plant enough for both you and the critter to enjoy?

Organic Way to Plant Protection is a treasure of a book. There are chapters about how to lure toads and birds to the garden, how to select plant varieties for your climate, how to feed your plants and how to prune trees. Alphabetical listings for each crop go into specifics. For apples, there are seven pages of specific instructions for preventions and time-honored cures going back to Adam and Eve.

Some of the problems are, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder. The blemishes, like rust, that appear on organic apples might gross out consumers accustomed to apples that look (and taste) like plastic, but the blemishes mean that the apples haven't been sprayed or treated with chemical baths.

Industrial apples, in contrast, look perfect. Picked green, they keep for months. But, over time, Green Revolution techniques have caused unsuspected problems ranging from massive amounts of erosion to pollution to poverty in the countryside. In contrast, organic methods were the stock-in-trade for traditional farmers who had worked their land and survived for thousands of years all over the world. Rodale's work -- the Rodales also published the amazing journal Organic Gardening and Farming -- saved much of that traditional knowledge that would have been lost.

Since Rodale's pioneering work, other scientists have re-discovered the wisdom of the ages. Rotational grazing, claimed by many American herdsmen, is a system developed in mountainous regions where erosion meant disaster. By moving herds regularly, rotational grazing improves the soil as the animals graze, depositing manure and urine, and leaving parasites behind.

The goal is to achieve a balance in the things you can see -- the flora and fauna -- which are indicators of what's going on under the surface. Chemical balance, and the health of molds and microbes, all contribute to the pastures. The most ancient nomadic herdsmen depended almost entirely on their animals; they knew that the soil needed rest and it was time to move by the taste of the milk.

On our farm, we know it's time to move the animals because they stand at the fence and look longingly into the next pasture. And, after using rotational grazing for six years on land we purchased in a completely depleted state, there's a remarkable difference in both the flora and our animals. Pastures that once sustained only goldenrod are now luxuriant with clover, timothy, and dotted with black-eyed susans and butterfly weeds. My neighbor who raises vegetables organically says it takes four to five years to achieve a balance on over-farmed land, and I'd say that's right on the mark.

The oldest methods have always produced food and income for farm families. Back in the 1950s, on my grandpa's farm, there was a hay field in front of the house. In the fall, after the hay was cut, the hog farrowing huts were dragged out on that field so the mother hogs could make their nests and have their babies in a location convenient for the farmers. Fertilizing the fields, the hogs also made a large patch of waste ground that was rich with nutrients.

In spring, the farrowing huts were put away and the babies sold or separated into another building for finishing. The waste ground was planted with melons and the hay field came back into hay. By autumn, the cycle began again.

Most of the homestead was used in a similarly traditional way. The chickens ran around in the orchard, feasting on bugs and lazing under the trees, providing a good source of nitrogen. The cattle moved from one part of pasture to another, taking along a couple of morose horses that we kids chased into submission every weekend, then rode for hours. It's been said that horses are never wormy if they run with cattle, and I imagine that's true.

The old-timers never would have called themselves "organic." They were exuberant about science and innovation, the promise of the Green Revolution that brought such huge yields to the grain belt. It was our family's summer ritual to ride along the roads reading the signs that marked hybrids. My grandfather and father would stop when they saw a good field, get out of the car and measure the ears against the length of their arms. But, those dense fields of soybeans and corn were the earliest monocultures, requiring synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

As the neighborhood became more industrialized, and the farms became larger, traditional methods disappeared. Then homesteads disappeared. Which brings us back to the Washington State apple orchards.

A year ago, the USDA approved national organic standards. With that validation, industry is moving forward with organic initiatives. The fact that the organic apple orchard has made it to the media has more to do with industrial foods than with the value of the methods.

In fact, organic methods in the hands of industry could be dangerous to the planet. While organic standards approve methods and the nutrients used on farms, the certifiers do not judge the sources of the "inputs." Fish emulsion, for example, used on many organic farms, is a by-product of fish processors and often come from fish farms, which use wild fish for feed. With 70% of the world's fisheries depleted, industrial fishing is dangerous to the planet's health.

In my neighborhood, family farms that were certified organic for years are dropping their certification because they feel it will soon become meaningless. Opting for "relationship" farming, such as CSAs and Farmer's Markets, these operations have always used soil-building methods, and learned to live co-operatively with nature.

And, in the process, they raise the most valuable crops of all: Farm kids, and healthy foods.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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