By Harrison Topp, Membership Director, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

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When people ask what I grow, my first response is usually trees. Really, I’m an orchardist who produces stone-fruits, predominantly cherries and plums. But I have the closest relationship with my trees and with the ecosystem around them. From the “understory,” to the canopy, to the nitrogen swirling around in the atmosphere above me, I’m perennially learning how to balance all the different relationships that go into a perennial system. How much can I reduce my inputs without opening the door to an economical loss and when is an ecological approach to an issue actually going to give me the same consistent result as an application of some product?

I should also mention I’m a first-generation farmer. This year marks my fourth year as an orchardist, which means I make a lot of mistakes. But I have learned a few things. Like looking down at what plants, insects, flowers, and organic debris covers the soil (and below that at the fungus, micro-organisms, and soil carbon) is equally important to looking up into the branches. I can say proudly that according to our soil tests, I’ve significantly increased soil organic matter in the past four years – an improvement expressed by the wild vigor of all things green in the spring. That soil organic matter equals increased carbon, carbon that comes off the trees, from understory biomass, and from root systems. I’m locking that carbon, which would otherwise be in the atmosphere, into the ground and using it to grow soil, trees, and fruit. And that carbon is also helping me retain more water, which is a precious resource here is the high desert of Colorado.

Though it’s just one piece of the puzzle which is commercial fruit production, it’s a fine success story to share on Earth Day. Now, if I can make it through the spring freezes, survive the twig bores, flies, and blight, and figure out how to find enough skilled labor for harvest… I might just get a crop.

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