Currant Affairs

Feature Stories Fall 2012 Issue

Currant Affairs

By Erin Schneider | Photos By Jim Klousia 0

What are the factors that influence a future food tradition? How might we expand the production of fruit in our region? How do we expand the fruit possibilities available to our region’s eaters?

My husband and I are exploring these questions currently with, well, currants.

Erin Schneider, co-owner of Hilltop Community FarmWe co-own Hilltop Community Farm, a small-scale diversified community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprise in La Valle, where we have begun to specialize in unique varieties of fruits.

We’ve always been sustainability-minded and we realized that perennial agriculture, with its minimal soil-disruption, needed to be an increasing part of our farm. We’d had good luck with apples, pears, raspberries and hardy kiwi and thought we’d set out to meet some new fruit neighbors.

In 2009 we expanded our perennial production with an orchard of fruits that would be well-adapted to our climate and soil, while suffering few diseases or insect pests. This would hopefully allow us to minimize inputs and ongoing care once the orchard was established. After some research, we set out to grow unusual yet marketable fruits such as aronia, quince, saskatoons, seaberries, elderberries, honeyberries, and currants. These can all be sustainablygrown from an ecological, economic and social standpoint, and they exhibit high nutraceutical content, sustaining our bodies as well.

The shift toward building long-lasting perennial food systems is not just in thinking about fruit, but thinking about function and how to grow fruits (and any perennial food) in relation to one another. By adopting the cultivation practice of “forest garden guilds” (Edible Forest Gardens, Jacke & Toenmeister, 2007), a number of unrelated species may be grown in proximity to one another in complementary ways so that they might best thrive in a natural ecosystem.

As an example of this forest structure mimicry, shade-loving fruits like currants can be grown successfully with large trees like quince if they are placed at the dripline where they will be well-watered. Seaberry grown uphill will continuously fix nitrogen in the soil, and an understory plant like comfrey will “mine” the subsoil for necessary trace-elements and drop them in the currant’s root-zone during annual leaf-fall. Such conscious, relational thinking can potentially transform farming into a much more ecological activity.

During a recent farm-sitting stint at Hilltop, Micah Hahn, UW-Madison Public Health Ph.D. candidate and recent discoverer of a white currant shrub in her backyard, observed, “Walking through Hilltop’s orchard, you immediately notice all the layers and lifeforms. It’s like a demonstration garden for all the sustainability practices that I have learned over the years: companion plantings, space for perennial fruit and flowers to attract pollinators and thick mulching. Sampling the currants from [Hilltop’s] quickly expanding fruit guilds was half the fun, but we also gleaned lots of information about insects, forest gardening, and fruit markets in the short time we spent [on the farm].”

Other diversified, complementary orchards are taking root on the farm scale as well as nationwide with community orchard projects popping up from Portland, Oregon’s Fruit Tree Project to Atlanta, Georgia’s Concrete Jungle, and closer to home with Madison Fruit and Nuts and the Farley Center’s Orchard Stewards Program.

While diversity and community are at the heart of these projects, I want to give autonomy to currants and share where they might fit into your own tastes and conversations.

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