Our farm consists of 40 acres of apples, 15 acres of mixed vegetables, and 15 acres of summer fruits and berries, over 400 pasture-raised laying chickens. Our largest crop is apples—we grow 15 varieties of apples, like McIntosh and Golden Delicious. Soon we will have varieties like Pink Lady, Cameo and Honeycrisp, and some unique heirlooms like Cox's Orange Pippin and Esopus Spitzenberg. We also grow a wide range of vegetables, from heirloom tomatoes and multicolored peppers to miniature eggplants, spicy greens, and sweet japanese turnips. All our annual crops are rotated seasonally with cover crops to keep the soil healthy.
Ecological Farming is about sustainability in an all-encompassing sense—food production that gives enough back enough to the land so it remains healthy. If done responsibly, farming helps cleanse the land, water and air we need to survive. And it is the increasing lack of these resources that motivates us to grow our crops the way we do. Our vegetables and berries to standards that go beyond organic-- we usually do not spray them at all. They are certified by NOFA's "Farmer's Pledge" program.
Apples and orchard fruit are another story. From the day the blossom sets to the moment the apples mature over 100 days later, they are beset by a host of gnarly insect pests and devastating fungal diseases. Organic New York Apples? Hard yes, but impossible, no. If consumers are willing to give up some of the cosmetic perfection in exchange for local, chemical free fruit, organic orchard fruit is possible in New York. We are already managing 5 acres of our orchard organically, and plan to expand as we experiment with new organic techniques to maintain the quality of our fruit.
On the other side of the orchard we are making similar strides of ecological balance. Committed organic NY apple growers often acknowledge the advantages of a modern day, low-spray IPM approach. Some synthetic materials are from all indications less disruptive to ecosystems than organic equivalents. A well-planned IPM approach requires less spraying per pounds of fruit produced. "Integrated Pest Management" is farming that uses careful crop monitoring and awareness of pest life cycles to greatly reduce the use of pesticides. In other words, if you know what pest poses a threat to your crop, and when it is going to show up for dinner, you can greatly reduce the amount of spray you use. Through IPM, we reduce our spraying to only when it is absolutely necessary to protect our crop. And whenever an effective organic control exists, we use it over the conventional alternatives, even when they're cheaper.
For example, we use mowing and mulching instead of herbicides in all our orchards. This represents more expense because of the labor involved. An organic kaolin clay called "Surround" replaces many of the insecticides for many of the insect problems we have. With this approach, we feel we have been successful in growing local, low-spray apples that are more sustainable than organic apples from the Washington or Chile. Many people do not realize that large organic farms often spray twice as much as conventional farms, and as the copper and sulfur regularly used in organic farming build up, they create environmental problems too.
Over the past few years, we have begun incorporating animals into our farm. Our laying hens roam freely during the day, eating the grass and insects that make their egg yolks a deep, dark yellow. At night, they sleep in mobile coops, which we periodically move to different parts of the farm. Recently, we have begun grazing them under the trees in our orchard. Our hens find some of the insects that attack our apples, and we have already seen a reduction in insect damage where they have been. There is also evidence that their manure below the tree helps break the cycle of some of the worst apple diseases by hastening the decomposition of the leaves in which they overwinter.