Every region in New Hampshire and throughout the world has their noted heirloom apple varieties. These are the fruits that thrived relatively well in a given location providing consistent yields, tolerance of pests and disease and, most importantly, a “taste niche” with respect to cider making, keeping and baking. The apple capital of New Hampshire might just be Groveton. Not for quantity of apples, but most certainly for quality. This little hamlet hides in the northern reaches of the state above the White Mountains with a population of just 1,000.
The area is tranquil and remote—a perfect haven for building a community-based business centered on the health of the land, the fruit it bears and a general respect for nature. Or so Michael Phillips and his wife and noted herbalist Nancy thought when they began Heartsong Farm and Lost Nation Orchard more than 20 years ago. Phillips claims his “retirement” began at age 23 when he left a career in civil engineering and the nerve-racking traffic of Washington, D.C. for the peace of New Hampshire.
The holistic apple
In many ways, Phillips is considered to be quite an unorthodox apple grower. He not only grows organically, but also focuses on permaculture principles. Cover cropping, native pollinators and incorporating biodiversity all have important roles at Lost Nation Orchard. The emphasis on holistic management is apparent in the more than 80 varieties grown in the 2.5 acres of orchard. At Lost Nation, insects create less trouble than they do in conventional orchards thanks, in large part, to the orchard’s biodiversity.
Lost Nation Orchard
Disease, on the other hand, can creep in beginning as an “unseen force of spores and bacteria” according to Phillips. His work with holistic herbal treatments has led him to use microbes, pure neem oil, liquid fish emulsion, refined kaolin clay and an extensive focus on foliar nutrition to provide a kind of preventative health program for the trees. Phillips makes nettle, comfrey and horsetail teas as foliar sprays by harvesting the herbs when certain levels of beneficial components are present. Silica, for example, boosts cuticle defense in the leaf thereby decreasing the ability of diseases to penetrate. “Holistic growers know that tree immune function and competitive colonization can be reinforced to defeat disease from within,” says Phillips.
In his book, The Holistic Orchard, Phillips provides information about the importance of understory planting of herbs and flowers, of which some are dynamic accumulator and beneficial accumulator plants. Dynamic accumulators include tap-rooted herbs like comfrey which draw minerals up from the subsoil to replenish the nutrient profile of the topsoil; a huge bonus for tree feeder roots. Beneficial accumulators are flowering plants that serve as adult habitat for beneficial insects such as the tiny parasitic wasps and syrphid flies whose larvae consume foliar pests. Plants like Sweet Cicely and Queen Anne’s Lace are nectar sources for the adults who are on hand to find moth larvae and aphids for their own young.
Getting materials ready to make herbal tea treatments.
It is also imperative for holistic growers to understand the importance of certain things being done at very prescribed times in the growing season. When key timing is paired with variable New England weather, dealing with disease can become a serious challenge meaning an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. “The spring applications straddle the primary infection period of many diseases and therefore are necessary universally,” says Phillips. “Dealing with summer rots and sooty blotch is where the fermented herbal teas fit in. The phytochemical immune response is much stronger in a robust fruit tree making it difficult for scab spores and blight bacteria to establish diseases.”
Phillips liberally uses terms like “competitive colonization,” “stirring the biological stew,” “fatty acid knockdown” and “fungal duff management” to help growers think in innovative ways. He explains that he’s “…putting full emphasis on the role of a healthy biology in the fruit orchard. Focusing on the needs of beneficial fungi and realizing just what a disease organism might be up against demands that we both think and speak biologically in order to be wise stewards.”
The community apple
This exceptional Groveton-based orchardist also understands the power of effective consumer education. Every person who enters the barn tastes several apple varieties. One of the first apples gracing trees in spring is Pristine followed later by Sweet Sixteen which is described as having a nutty flavor with the essence of bourbon. The much-sought-after Honeycrisp is grown as well as an intriguing Fireside, which displays an orange glow and great storage potential. “You don’t need some theoretical plug for heirlooms but rather sharing the exciting flavor of a tree-ripened apple, which speaks for itself,” says Phillips. “Telling the story of a particular apple’s history simply adds to the charm.”
"A community orchard represents
a perfect opportunity to come
together with mutual intent
to live rightly on the land."
~ Michael Phillips
Phillips’ philosophy is firmly rooted in community. He isn’t interested in government financing of local farming because he believes that growers build their own market base, which makes it possible for them to continue farming. Phillips’ own self-created market is Lost Nation’s Fruit CSA. Local customers purchase a 3-peck organic apple share ahead of harvest time making it possible for him to purchase soil amendments and natural spray materials for the trees. “We give too little heed these days to the cultural side of agriculture,” says Phillips. “Experts say soon most American orchards will be bankrupt and we'll be getting our fruit from China. A community orchard represents a perfect opportunity to come together with mutual intent to live rightly on the land.”
Building further on that idea of community is the Phillips’ vision of a cider mill at Lost Nation Orchard. Michael and Nancy would like to find a way to share the costs and the returns by establishing a mill under member ownership. A good apple year at Lost Nation Orchard will result in the availability of 1200 gallons of organic cider. Their goal is to find 100 investing shareholders to raise $20,000.
Weathering the weather
One continual challenge that holistic orchard management hasn’t been able to conquer is climate change and the associated early spring warming that often sets blossoms up for a freeze. Erratic weather such as hail can also be detrimental as was the case for Lost Nation Orchard this season when “…a shoot-stripping hail storm last summer resulted in very few fruit buds being formed for this year.” Although Lost Nation Orchard had no apple harvest to speak of this fall, Michael and Nancy take nature’s gifts in stride. Michael is putting his energy into various orchard consultations this fall as well as house and barn restoration work.
Our nation is at risk of losing much in the way of delicious heirlooms as well as the priceless knowledge associated with growing these beauties in an organic, ecosystem-based approach. Fortunately, Lost Nation Orchard is an outdoor database working to reclaim and share this understanding and its associated sweet tastes.
“Small farmers don't have all the answers, but I suspect that people who desire healthy food, great apple varieties, and rich cider can find ways to forge ahead locally,” says Phillips. “Lost Nation Orchard is one of many such attempts to keep food systems at hand.”
Renee Ciulla is a vegetable grower, teacher and writer based on the New Hampshire Seacoast. Besides growing and eating local food, she loves being in the mountains and finding mountain goats.