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Review of Michael Phillip’s The Holistic Orchard

I walked into Michael Phillips’ talk at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference without much interest in orcharding.  I knew we had one at school, but I hadn’t been very interested in it.  Phillips’ talk didn’t spur me to be interested in orcharding, but it did strike me as among the most wise and articulate expressions of my philosophy of sustainable agriculture: using healthy, diverse, and resilient ecosystems to produce food.
As I came into this summer as a SLUG intern, I had to pick my area of focus – I was interested in perennial polycultures and trees, so the orchard seemed like a natural fit.  The orchard manager gave me this book to introduce me to orcharding, and it has lived up to the expectations Phillips created in his presentation.
The book begins with a comforting analogy: a new orcharder is just like a newly transplanted fruit tree.  You grow slowly, gathering experiences and assimilating knowledge.  You can’t do it all at once – most of the book may not seem relevant or digestible yet.  But one day, the reader might be just like Phillips!
Phillips eschews technical bits until late in the book.  The first several chapters review orcharding basics like design and horticulture with an emphasis on ecology.  Fruit, the most luscious and sugar-dense products in agriculture, seem to be unusually attractive to a range of microbial and insect pests, and all orcharding literature seems disproportionately aimed at combating these.  Yet Phillips’ answer is conventional neither to chemical nor organic farming – he eschews both chemical and mineral biocides in favor of system health.  Biodiversity in the soil, the rhizosphere, on the bark, and on the leaves of trees keeps pests under the control of a rich web in which no part can become unacceptably dominant.  This is precisely how I think agriculture ought to be done – building ecological stability, rather than tearing it down.  Agriculture could easily represent a transition stage in a wild lands remediation program!
Yet Phillips’ practice is often still strangely hypocritical in one way: he constantly emphasizes solutions based on local resilience, which rely on a strong immune system and not strong medicines.  But he seems to use an undue amount of exogenous inputs to achieve that – from laboratory cultured “effective microbes” to pure neem oil from India or “liquid fish.”  These seem to get great results for Phillips, and they are certainly more benign than anything that must be drilled or mined, but they seem somehow out of step with his philosophy and I’d hope that future stages in the progression of organic orcharding can move beyond that (perhaps emphasizing aerated compost tea).
The central tenet of Phillips’ ecological thinking is soil.  The soil should mimic that of the adapted habitat of the apple – forest edges.  That implies a much higher fungal component than what most annual vegetables enjoy.  As an amateur mycologist and mycoculturer, I really appreciate this proper acknowledgement of fungi, and as someone interested in soil science, I appreciate the emphasis on dirt.
As a beginning orchardist, I’m a bit overwhelmed by the amount of treatments Phillips prescribes for the orchard – SLUG’s orchard has experienced a considerably more laissez-faire adolescence.  Yet his philosophy articulates a vision for all kinds of sustainable agriculture I really identify with, and the book will definitely be a key resource as I grow branches and, eventually, bear fruit, as an orchardist.
-Adam