By Adam Calder
Wheatsfield Produce Manager
We are excited to feature a new local apple orchard in our produce department: Hall’s Orchard in Madrid, Iowa.
The orchard was planted over 30 years ago by Rex and Pauline Hall. They sold their apples from a stand next to their house. Rex and Pauline recently decided to retire and turned over management of their orchard to Steve Carlson.
Carlson had been doing business with the Halls for a few years when they approached him about managing their orchard. “I live nearby, I’ve got my own little orchard,” Carlson said, “and it’s about an acre that’s not in production yet. I’d been coming out here to get seconds and windfalls to make cider with. Just in the last year they asked me if I was interested in taking over the main business. So this year is my first full year doing the whole start to finish, from pruning to mowing.”
Carlson manages Hall’s Orchard using integrated pest management practices, which involve minimal applications of sprays and more hand labor to maintain apple yields and tree vigor. “Bigger scale orchards will do chemical thinning where you spray lightly with some sort of chemical thinner and then the tree drops half its fruit and the fruit that’s left can size up bigger,” Carlson said. “But on this scale, it’s all done by hand. Some of the trees don’t need it, like these Jonagold. But we’ll see some of the Golden Delicious trees that are here are just loaded. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is pick these and throw them out. But it makes for bigger, better fruit.”
Codling moths are one of the biggest pests on the orchard, and Carlson uses small red plastic traps spread throughout the orchard to manage the insects. “At this scale, it’s easy enough to walk around and look for that. Something about this color attracts them. And this is a pheromone plug that releases a pheromone to try and draw them in.”
The trap has a sticky mat on its base, and when the moths land they cannot leave. Carlson then checks the traps for moths to decide if he needs to take action or not. “You just come out and mark and keep an eye on how much activity has been in there,” Carlson said.
Another orchard pest is fire blight, a major problem in Iowa apple orchards which can devastate an entire orchard in one growing season. “Fire blight is a fungal disease,” Carlson said. “You can use an anti-biotic spray, but the best thing to do is to cut off the limbs affected by fire blight during the dormant season and burn them because it will easily transfer to other trees. This year, we did an early spring spray to try and prevent fire blight. Once everything greened up and bloomed up you could see that fire blight was here. You can spray every couple weeks to try and contain it, but it’s expensive and it’s something I don’t want to put on my trees. I also don’t want fire blight to spread to the rest of the orchard. This winter I’m just going to cut out all the limbs that are affected and burn them.”
In addition to managing the Hall’s Orchard, Carlson has his own smaller orchard near Madrid, where he focuses on unique or heirloom apple varieties. “I’ve grafted about 70 apple trees and planted them,” Carlson said. “All of those cuttings I’ve taken from existing trees that I’ve found on other orchards. I basically just have a collection, I’m trying to hang on to a bunch of interesting rare stuff I’ve gotten through Seed Savers Exchange and through other growers. I’ve only been planting in the last two to three years so I’ve got a few fruits on some of the trees out there.”
Carlson gestured to a few rows of trees with leaves that look like they are made of green and brown lace, and explains how this is all that’s left of his Honeycrisp apple trees. “All of these are Honeycrisp, and the Japanese beetle just decimated them,” Carson said. His master’s research was in agricultural anthropology and he studied the effects of climate change on apple diversity in western North Carolina. He found that one of the biggest drivers for loss of diversity within apple species is consumer demand for Honeycrisp. Carlson said, “Honeycrisp apples take too much work, too many sprays, too many soil amendments. The nice thing about having the Honeycrisp trees though is that the Japanese beetles did come in but they did not really bother the rest of the trees. It’s like a trap crop, it takes all the pressure off the other trees.”
When asked about his future plans, Carlson said he wants to get Iowans in touch with the apple diversity heritage of this state, and to do so with commercial success. “Going back to the research I did on heirloom apple varieties and species diversity, I would like to get into the commercial production of rare and interesting fruit. That requires more education but that is what is fascinating to me. This apple might not be good for fresh eating, but it makes the best sauce you’ve ever had, and it was grown by this family in this region for this many years…I just love all those cultural connections between food and community.”
Carlson spent several years working at Seed Savers Exchange and has been gardening most of his life. He mentioned that a lot of his background with fruits and vegetables came from working at Hy-Vee during high school and college in the produce department. “That’s kind of what sparked an interest initially in fruits and vegetables, and specifically in apple varieties and is what finally led me down to study heirloom apple diversity and the changes from the effects of climate change on apple diversity,” he said. Carlson got his degree at the University of North Texas, one of the few programs in the U.S. that does agricultural anthropology, essentially the study of farmers.
“I feel very passionately about supporting local food production,” Carlson said. “I’m grateful for the chances that I get to put products in front of people that are an alternative, especially apples. Apple production in the Unites States is kind of a scary thing because it’s all done in Washington and Michigan and we get tons of apples from New Zealand, but Iowa used to be number 6 in the nation for apple production. Iowa has a history of apple growing and I’d love to connect with that apple growing heritage again. I’d like to bring it back to people and show them that local apple production is so possible in Iowa but it takes consumer support to get orchards like this to make it worth it.”