Evidence for organics

If you’ve ever done our “5 Key Steps to Growing Great Fruit” webinar, you’ll know we’ve been following Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Pennsylvania for a long time.

Checking out the Farming Systems Trial at Rodale Institute
Checking out the Farming Systems Trial at Rodale Institute

We’re interested in their Farming Systems Trial – the longest-running study comparing organic with conventional agriculture in America, but we were also keen to see the apple orchard, vegetable trials and green roof trial.

Actually, we wanted to see everything!

The apple orchard at Rodale
The apple orchard at Rodale

Rodale was set up almost 70 years ago by the foresighted Rodale family for exactly this purpose – to measure organic techniques against conventional.

It was the time of the “green revolution” when cheap mass-produced fertilisers and chemicals were transforming agriculture to the big corporate machine it is today.

From very early on, JJ Rodale was aware of the risks that conventional agriculture posed, but he needed scientific data to back up his ideas.

Healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people

JJ Rodale

Research is still their focus today, but they also help conventional farmers make the transition to organics, as well as educating consumers.

A tour of Rodale’s farm was always going to be on our agenda when we did a study tour of the United States.

It was every bit as interesting as we anticipated!

Checking out the compost pile - of course!
Checking out the compost pile – of course!

In many ways the work they’re doing may seem obvious and unnecessary, particularly to those of us who are are already farming this way and know it works.

In other words, lots of small-scale regenerative farmers around the world are already demonstrating the benefits in real-time, so why bother doing the research?

Because, while it’s very easy to think this info is common knowledge, and everyone’s already doing it, nothing could be further from the truth.

The sad reality is that only a tiny fraction of the food we eat (less than 5%) is grown this way.

The huge majority of our food is still produced using farming practices that are damaging the soil, leading to a slow decline in human health and contributing to climate change.

The science behind how plants take carbon from the air and store it in the soil
The science behind how plants take carbon from the air and store it in the soil

What Rodale does is provide the hard evidence that organic methods have measurably better outcomes in terms of productivity, soil health, nutrient density, and – importantly – profitability.

It’s this sort of evidence that provides external credibility for training courses like Grow Great Fruit Without Chemicals, so you don’t just have to take our word for the fact it works.

We need to spread the word about organic and regenerative farming, and Rodale just might help us do it a little faster.

10 ways to make money from your fruit trees

Do you want to make money from growing fruit?

Berries for sale at a local market

It’s easier than you may think – and we’ve put together our top 10 tips to get you on the right track.

On our study tour of America we saw farm stands, farm stalls and farm shops everywhere. Farmers and passionate gardeners on every scale are putting up their shingles to take advantage of the passing trade.

A typical roadside stall in New England
A typical roadside stall in New England

Of course conditions in Australia are different with our much smaller population and more restrictive planning regulations (commerce seems to be allowed everywhere and anywhere in America), but much of what we saw fits nicely with our 20 years of experience selling fruit in Australia.

Making a living from fruit growing is a big commitment, but if you have a passion for growing and making, it’s not too much of a stretch to turn your hobby into what Scott Pape (author of the Barefoot Investor) calls a “side hustle” and earn some extra cash.

Toffee apples with variations!
Toffee apples with multiple variations!

And if you think you’re too small a grower, or the market for “local/organic/home-grown” is saturated, think again!

In Australia farmers markets are a rapidly growing and highly successful sector, but it still only supplies a tiny percentage of food to a small percentage of the community.

There’s a big and largely untapped market of consumers who are increasingly interested in buying locally produced food.

Quince vinegar for sale at a cheese farm shop
Quince vinegar for sale at a cheese farm shop

So, how do you turn your passion for fruit growing into a source of cash?

Here’s our top 10 tips:

  1. Feed yourself first (including preserving some of your summer crop for winter). The more of your own food you grow, the less income you need. Plus food you’ve grown yourself is more nutrient-dense and satisfying than any food you’ll ever buy.
  2. Focus on quality, both in your growing and your presentation. This is exactly what the Grow Great Fruit program focuses on, so if you’re serious about making some extra cash from your fruit trees, we definitely recommend you join the program.
  3. Offer choices to maximise your profitability. Different types of fruit or other produce, different varieties, different price points, different value-added products – all will help you sell more. We explain how to plan your trees for maximum variety and a long harvest in Grow a Year’s Supply of Fruit.
  4. Know your stuff – for example, the name of the variety you’re selling, or the technique you’re using to make cider. Become the expert.
  5. Be transparent – for example don’t make up BS excuses for why it’s “too hard” to grow organic. Just be honest about what you do and why.
  6. Find and know your market(s). There are SO many ways to connect with potential customers these days, and thanks to social media (see #7) many are free or low cost. Farm stands, online sales, Open Food Network, CSA, local school networks, farmers markets, weekend markets, deliveries – there’s a a lot of ways to manage the logistics of getting the food you grow to the people who want to eat it.
  7. Connect with your customers through social media, particularly Instagram (which devours food photos). Social media marketing is really simple – just tell your story of why you love growing food and how people can buy it. It just takes some care, time and dedication.
  8. Value-add. Aim to use everything you grow in some way, and particularly to turn your low-value produce into something delicious: jam, vinegar, cider, juice, baked goods, pickles, preserves, sweets, pies…the list is limited only by your imagination.
  9. Be creative – what do you have/grow/make that somebody wants to buy? Or what “waste” products could you source from other farmers and repurpose? Think outside the box, and don’t be scared to try something different.
  10. Set some goals and have a “can-do” attitude. While you’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress by staying within the relevant laws (eg, using a registered kitchen), there’s still many ways to legally and safely grow food for sale.

In a world where many people are completely disconnected from where their food comes from, micro-growers can play an important role.

Not only can you help feed your community with your excess produce, but you’ll also be setting a great example of how to grow your own food, as well as making some extra cash and proving that money really can grow on trees!

A small orchard stall selling peaches, maple syrup and maple walnuts - yum!
A small orchard stall selling peaches, maple syrup and maple walnuts – yum!

To mulch or not to mulch?

Our fruit growing study tour of the USA got us thinking about mulch, as we saw a number of different approaches to it in our travels.

An apple tree mulched with woodchips at the Maine Heritage Orchard
An apple tree mulched with woodchips at the Maine Heritage Orchard

Of course it wasn’t hard to find orchards where the weeds have been completely sprayed out with herbicide, and mulch isn’t needed because there’s no plants left.

Yuk! Don’t do that!

The chemicals are bad for your health, the weeds grow back and need spraying again ($ straight from your pocket to the chemical companies), but worst of all – it’s really bad for the soil and kills the natural fertility system that trees need to get their nutrients (more $ straight from your pocket to the fertiliser company).

So what to do? Should you just let the weeds grow? Won’t they compete with the trees?

For young trees this is somewhat true – it’s definitely helpful to keep the weeds (or you could call them precious understory biodiversity plants) down while the tree’s roots are getting established, and we saw this in action at the Maine Heritage Orchard in Unity, Maine.

This orchard was planted not that many years ago on the site of a disused gravel pit, so major soil building and remediation has been the order of the day.

Hardwood chips have been extensively used, not only to mulch the trees when they were planted, but also to build paths, build soil more generally, and as an ongoing weed suppression tool even as the trees mature.

A tree in Michael Phillips' orchard which was mulched with woodchips when planted and has since been allowed to revert to natural understory
A tree in Michael Phillips’ orchard which was mulched with woodchips when planted and has since been allowed to revert to natural understory

We saw a different approach in Michael Phillips’ orchard in New Hampshire.

He also uses woodchips on young trees, but welcomes a wide diversity of understory plants as the trees grow, using mulch in a more ad hoc way.

There is widespread agreement that if you are going to mulch, hardwood woodchips are preferable.

This is because fruit trees prefer a fungally dominant soil, as we explain in our Soil Biology and the Soil Food Web short course.

Understanding the amazing world of soil microbes that are key to the Natural Fertility System will change the way you think about soil, fertiliser and mulch forever.

So, to mulch, or not to mulch?

After everything we’ve seen, we’re still in favour of mulching while the trees are young, and then transitioning to either a natural or cultivated understory – a “living mulch”!