Picture this: You have a degree in English literature and you are running a high-end janitorial service—so you’re already considerably off your career path. What would be the next illogical step? An organic apple farm, of course. “Yeah, I have a degree in English literature; so I always say, ‘Naturally that led to organic farming,’” laughed Tim Bates—owner of Philo Apple Farm (also known as simply “The Apple Farm”) in Philo, California—as he talked to Calmful Living.
It’s actually not that illogical when you hear a little more of the story. “I had a janitorial service for high-end restaurants in Napa Valley,” Bates explained. “But I’d been organic gardening everywhere we went—kind of an early hippy, reading organic-farming garden magazines and growing gardens wherever we were.”
Organic gardening being his passion, Bates naturally jumped at the chance to have his own farm. “It was getting kind of crowded in Napa Valley, where we were living,” he related. “We’d been through the Anderson Valley here a bunch of times and were considering trying to just get our hands on any piece of property. My wife Karen’s folks were vacationing here and were looking for real estate or a business to buy into, because they were pretty successful in what they were doing. They stumbled upon this farm, made an offer, and asked us if we wanted to switch jobs to farming apples. We said yes.”
The state of the property, though, was not great. “When we got the farm it had been pretty much abandoned for about four years,” Bates said. “The guy who owned it had several apple and pear orchards around the valley, another on the coast and even a place in another town. The price of apples didn’t keep going up and he got overextended. This place had been where his worker campsite was, so there were about 30 or 40 laborers living here, and they weren’t farming it because he was running out of money to farm. So it was kind of disease ridden but in place.”
Not having any clue as to where to even start, Bates found some help; he hired a neighbor to clean up the orchard and get it operational. But that brought new problems. “The sprays were just too smelly and strong,” Bates recalled. “We were living up in front, so I roped off an organic area around the house to start the organic program. My intent was to be organic at some point over the years.”
In 1989 Bates encountered renowned biodynamic consultant Alan York, who was engaged in another project in the area. York convinced Bates to “just try” biodynamics. Bates heeded the advice. “I was going to merely do two acres to see how it would go; but then I figured if I was doing two acres, why not do the whole farm?”
The secret, Bates discovered, was in nutrient-rich compost. “I started treating the compost piles and that was where we really saw the difference,” he continued. “The garden crew said they didn’t want any more of that store-bought stuff, only the stuff I treated with biodynamic preps. We had to still use some store-bought compost at the time because we didn’t have enough animals. We now have enough animals, so I’ve been making all the compost on the farm for about four years now—all that I need for 50 acres and the gardens.”
After instigating biodynamic practices, Bates also saw a difference in the apples themselves. “The apples already tasted really good, but when I switched to biodynamic methods the apples took another leap into flavorfulness,” Bates said.
Apples are particularly susceptible to a disease known as apple scab. Untreated, this disease results in black or brown spots on leaves, buds and—most importantly—the fruit. Retailers won’t purchase apples that have suffered from apple scab.
The normal treatment for the disease is chemical spraying, which Bates had decided to eliminate. He discovered a natural solution that has never failed him. “There are some pretty potent weapons out there to fight diseases, like sulfur and it works very well,” said Bates. “Even where chemicals are failing, sulfur has its own kind of magic to it that still works. There are no sulfur-resistant diseases—that I’ve ever heard about anyway.”
While sulfur is effective and natural, Bates is now looking beyond it. “After 25 years of spraying sulfur it’s bothering me more and more as I’m getting older, so I have a little goal in life to fight and cure these diseases without sulfur,” he said. “Right now I’m in a major experiment with neem oil, which comes from India. I need three years to say that it’s really going to do the job, but so far I’m quite pleased with the results. It seems as if its action is to almost eat the scab spores that are lying around waiting to reinfect your orchard.”
Apples and Beyond
Today, Philo Apple Farm is the source of a variety of products and activities. In addition to the apples themselves, Bates and his family produce apple juice, vinegar and syrup. They make and can their own jams, jellies and chutney. They are growing quinces, persimmons, peaches and plums. From the chickens, which are used to help the soil along, come eggs, and from the goats comes cheese.
Additionally, the farm regularly hosts cooking classes, vacation retreats, farm tours, and residential internships for learning farmers. As Bates, his wife, or either of their two daughters will tell you, there’s always something to do.
“To our delight we now have three generations working together in ever greater harmony with the land,” Bates concluded. “Our years of working the farm led us from conventional practices, through transition, and on to many years of being certified organic. We always want to continue to evolve. It is an endlessly fascinating endeavor, and we are all energized by the new and old ideas that we unearth.”
For more information, please visit www.philoapplefarm.com.