Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Thoughts On: The Birth of an Orchard

An occasional feature here at GoodStuffNW is "Thoughts On" various topics by Yamhill farmer Chrissie Zaerpoor of Kookoolan Farms. This essay talks about how a farm evolves and changes over time and circumstance.

Our orchard was born out of a storm. The great snowstorm of December 2008 crushed our 30 foot by 100 foot greenhouses under the weight of more than a foot of heavy wet snow. Because it was the second greenhouse we'd lost to winter storms, we decided that Mother Nature must be trying to tell us something. So rather than rebuild the greenhouse, we decided to put in fruit trees, and to put in a gray water recycling system. Without the failure of the greenhouse, we wouldn't have an orchard.

Our orchard was born out of the decision to give up our dairy goats. In late autumn 2008, we decided to focus our raw dairy only on cows' milk and no longer on goats' milk. Some of it was due to the incompatibility of goats with cows, and goats with meat chickens, and some of it was due to our absolute inability to plant crops of any kind due to the presence of the goats, who seem to exist purely for the purpose of continually challenging fences and continually eating trees, flowers, bushes, lettuces, and vegetables of all kinds. Without quitting goats, we wouldn't have an orchard.

Our orchard was born out of the decision to raise fewer Cornish Cross hybrid meat chickens and more heritage breed meat chickens, and to reduce the overall number of meat chickens we produce every year. In 2008 we had too many animals and not enough plants growing on our land, resulting in too much soil fertility (i.e., too much manure) and not enough crops to absorb it. We needed to plant trees and vegetables to keep our land in balance with its animals.

As the trees grow, they will provide shade on the pasture they share with the chickens. Chickens strongly prefer shady pasture over full sun, and they feel more secure having cover overhead to protect them from hawks and owls and other sky-borne predators. The trees will also provide some windfall fruits, which will add vitamins and sugars to the chickens' diet. By eating the windfall fruits, the chickens also protect the trees by acting as fungicides, eating the fruits before they rot, and preventing fruit funguses from taking over the trees. By eating the windfall fruit they also gobble up tree fruit pests that spend their larval stage in the ground, interrupting the pests' life cycle and preventing large-scale infestation.

The chickens benefit from the higher protein in their diet and the presence of the bugs encourages the chickens in their natural behavior of "scratching," which cultivates and aerates the soil, further benefiting the trees. The chickens eat the weeds and mow the grass, reducing the need for tractors and equipment in the orchard, and evenly spreading their own manure all over the orchard, which means that we don't have to come into the orchard on tractors to bring in any additional fertilizers.

We planted 120 fruit trees in spring 2009. About one third of these tree seedlings were pomegranates; the other two-thirds were a wide variety of mostly heirloom variety fruits, including apples (both eating apples and cider apples), pears, plums, peaches, pears, nectarines, cherries, figs, mulberries, pawpaw, olives and many others. After a couple more years, the orchard will contribute fruit to our CSA vegetable subscription program, as well as providing a bountiful source of fermentable fruits for our new winery and meadery. We're also looking forward a few years from now to having fruitwood prunings to use for smoking our own bacon, poultry, and cheeses.

One of the things we are most proud of on our little farm is that we recycle and compost virtually all wastes produced on our farm. All of our animal manures and solid wastes are composted, and the compost is used in our CSA garden. We have never bought any fertilizer or compost. And we are thrilled with our gray water recycling program, which takes our used process water from slaughterhouse, milking parlor, and winery and pumps it up to be recycled as fertilizer for our orchard, arborvitae perimeter trees and pasture.


cathy said...

This is very inspiring to read. I always love to hear how people solve problems or fine-tune their approach in creative and business projects.

Kathleen Bauer said...

As engineers, Chrissie and her husband Koorosh are always analyzing and tweaking their business plan, and aren't afraid to adapt to changing circumstances. It makes them fascinating to watch as they grow!

RV Goddess said...

Love it! Love your chickens too. Makes this Oregonian proud.