At Hoch Orchard and Gardens we try to work with nature to produce organically grown foods for our community. Our primary products are fresh fruit and juices, but we also produce berries, preserves, and vegetables. Our latest venture is the integration of animals into our perennial fruit production.
No where in nature are plants growing in the absence of animal life. We are putting selected species of animals into the orchards and gardens to complete the natural cycling of nutrients. We are testing heritage and hardy breeds and rotating them through the orchards and gardens. We are trying to adapt a multispecies pasture stacking system that will fit with our perennial fruit production. The concept is to move animals quickly (flash grazing) through orchards. The flock or herd could spend as little as a half day or as long as a week or two in a specific block or garden. All the animals will not be in the same area at the same time. Specific species will be used at certain times for example: hogs will graze orchards during natural thinning in June, geese will weed the strawberry plants after harvest during the summer months, chickens will run in the strawberries during bloom to eat tarnished plant bugs, and hogs will clean apple drops after harvest.
We believe the link necessary to completing the natural nutrient cycle is to have animals in the farming system. In 2011 we started our first herd of hogs. We also raised chickens, ducks, and geese. All these animals were rotated, or flashed grazed through the orchards and berry beds. We plan to increase the numbers of animals on the farm over the next few years. The animals will help reduce the amount of organic pesticides and fertilizers that we have to purchase and apply to the farm. The diversity of species above ground will increase the diversity of microorganisms in the soil, making it stronger and more adaptable to changing conditions.
A strong and diverse population of organisms under ground will make the soil more productive and resilient in many ways. Soil is turned with worms and other larger organisms, making more passage ways for air and water. This makes the soil more drought resistant. A diversity of beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil compete with plant pests and pathogens and keep any pathogenic organism from getting established and out competing the others. This can include human pathogens. Organisms like E. coli prefer anaerobic conditions and are not very competitive with other soil organisms. Soil teaming with a diversity of micro organisms is going to be much less likely to allow any organism to over run the system, pathogenic or not. Adding animals to our system should reduce the risk of human pathogens getting established and spreading to the food we produce.
In contrast, adding animals to a production system that utilizes regular application of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers could be dangerous. Most organisms in the soil are very sensitive to synthetics. Regular applications of these products will reduce the diversity in the soil life and select for species that can tolerate the synthetics. The more synthetic products that are applied the more organisms that will be affected. Of course frequency of application will also affect the soil. Reduced life in the soil will also equate to more compaction and lower oxygen levels, making the soil conditions more conducive and less competitive to plant and human pathogens. In other words, adding animals to an organic system will improve the system and reduce the risk of human diseases, while adding animals to a conventional system with compaction and limited soil life could be a disaster waiting to happen. Sick domestic animals or infected wild life dropping their manure on weak soil under the right weather conditions could allow pathogens to get established and infect the food and the consumers.
We feel the integration of healthy organically raised animals into our orchards and gardens will make our soil stronger and our environment more resistant and less likely to harbor human pathogens. A strong diversified ecosystem that mimics natural systems will be more resistant to pathogens. We feel our consumers are at a lower risk to food born pathogens than they are from food produced in a conventional system.