Local Farmers 29 Oct 2009 10:15 pm
Julia, who runs the weekend stands for Fishkill Farms at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall and Carroll Gardens greenmarkets, led me around to the back of Fishkill’s Farm Market to meet Josh Morgenthau. Josh and his girlfriend Hannah Geller (who sometimes writes for Serious Eats) talked with me for a long while in the farm’s small office before Josh took me on a tour of the farm. Josh, who has the scruffy, bearded look of an urbane, young back-to-the-land farmer, is about the age his grandfather was when he started the farm. He speaks deliberately, forming his thoughts carefully, with a knowledge of farming that’s surprising from someone who’s been at it only for a year. He’s a Yale-trained artist, and when he returned to Fishkill a couple of years ago (he’d visited here throughout his childhood) it was to paint, not to farm. However, it happened that the farm manager they’d hired didn’t work out, and they couldn’t find a qualified replacement, so Josh stepped in to run things. To prepare himself for the job he went for advice (and sometimes even for equipment) to other knowledgeable, environmentally conscientious growers like Steve Clark of Prospect Hill Orchards, and he read every book he could find about growing apples. Michael Phillips’ The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist stands out for him as a wealth of information on sustainable apple growing. For insight into conventional growing, Josh relied on Cornell University’s Pest Management Guidelines, and on Cornell’s Extension Service, whose agents visited the farm many times over the season.
By all accounts this was a pretty rough year to start in as farm manager. To begin with, tragically, the farm’s historic barn burned down early in the season – a devastating loss both of equipment and storage and of farm and family heritage. Then there was the prolonged rain and cool weather that dominated the early part of the season, and the much-reported tomato blight that, in Josh’s words, “clobbered” their tomatoes. Josh estimates that Fishkill produced probably only half of the vegetables of a normal season. But where some farms, particularly organic farms, lost their entire crop of tomatoes and plowed under many of their other crops besides, because of the tenacity of Julia and her crew the farm brought a steady flow of produce to the market, including a good number of tomatoes. And in the orchards they’re currently enjoying a good crop of apples as well.
Fishkill’s vegetable beds are fully organic, but the orchards, Josh says, are a “tough nut to crack” when it comes to growing organically. To begin with, half of the orchard’s 40 acres are given over to McIntosh or apples in the McIntosh family – a legacy of the orchard’s history of catering to the wholesale market. These varieties are popular favorites, but are also among the most dependant on conventional fungicides, as they’re particularly susceptible to apple scab, a common and pernicious fungal disease.
They’d like to transition these parts of the orchards over to newer varieties that are just as tasty as the McIntosh but less susceptible to disease. But there is typically a long waitlist for seedlings, which then require several years before becoming productive apple trees. Economically, it’s a very difficult decision to de-commission trees at their producing peak, and many of the McIntosh blocks of the orchard are at that stage. On top of that there is the mandatory three-year wait once an orchard begins using organic methods before it can gain full certification — during which time they’ll be farming with more expensive organic methods but still only able to charge conventional rates on the wholesale market.
And even those portions of the orchard that are run organically need to undergo considerable spraying, particularly in a wet year like this one. It’s a point that Josh takes pains to explain. “The prospect of a no-spray orchard in New York State is pretty much non-existent,” he says, since the wet, relatively cool climate is particularly hospitable to the fungus that causes scab. “Even the really devout ecological growers, intensely managing a couple of acres with compost or rotations of animals in the orchards will still spray at least several times a year.” At Fishkill, Josh sprays sulfur, the most commonly used organic fungicide, to combat scab. And he uses Surround, a spray made from a kaolin clay, to deter insects. The clay-based spray is completely non-toxic (it works by simply gunking-up the legs or mouth parts of insects that would otherwise damage the fruit), but it leaves a white reside that customers often mistake for a harmful chemical.
“It’s one of those funny things where there’s a gap between the reality of the farm and what people know,” says Josh. Closing that gap, communicating directly with customers about their growing practices, is an important goal at Fishkill, especially where they’re striving to use sustainable growing practices but don’t yet have — or may not be trying for – organic certification. Certification is always important, because it gives the customer an easy, recognizable way to know that the food was raised without synthetic inputs. But it also forces the farmer to adhere to an externally-determined set of practices that may or may not be best for his farm. Organic pesticides can, in fact, be more toxic than their conventional alternatives, and given the fact that organic growers often have to spray more frequently, they can be, cumulatively, more environmentally disruptive.
That said, in some blocks of the orchard a strictly organic regimen has seen promising results, and organics remain an important part of the strategy of sustainable growing at Fishill. But organic growing and organic certification are not the ultimate goals in Josh’s vision for Fishkill. “The key to being truly sustainable,” he says, “lies in replacing the trees with new varieties, and working over time to boost the immune response of the trees themselves, so that we can rely less on spraying, organic or otherwise.” This means encouraging populations of beneficial insects, and adopting techniques like pasturing sheep and chickens in the orchard, where their manure will not only fertilize the trees but will also help to decompose the fallen leaves, where the worst diseases overwinter.
Such practices are still fairly experimental. They aren’t required for organic certification but are guided instead by principles of Integrated Pest Management. IPM is grounded in ecological ideals, and aims to significantly reduce or completely eliminate the use of pesticides, but also allows the farmer the freedom to determine the pest control strategies that work best for his farm. Since IPM is less recognizable and less easily explainable than the familiar organic label, the ability to talk directly with customers about it, to describe exactly what Fishkill’s growing practices are, is crucial. It works well to do that with the pick-your-own traffic that provides much of the farm’s business, but it doesn’t help in the wholesale market, where much of their crop is still sold. Still, Josh is confident that his approach is best for Fishkill’s orchards and will in the end be better for the farm’s business. “Having certification is always important,” Josh says, “but it’s ideal if you can communicate with your customers directly. Then you’re not a victim of fads. Right now there’s an organic bubble and people are already saying it’s going to burst. But if you have that direct relationship, whatever happens in terms of the market isn’t going to damage you.”