It was the summer of 2004 when I first read about a young woman running for the title of National Cherry Queen while battling an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The young woman’s story inspired me to research lymphoma, and since I was an NMC student at the time, I entered non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma into the online medical journals and discovered immediately NHL is the cancer most often associated with agricultural regions.
That winter, after learning the young woman had passed away, I began to research further the increased incidence of NHL and the use of organophosphates and organochlorines in the orchards. My paper, More than Cherries was published later that year and examined specifically how increasing toxicity over time affects the children of residents and workers living in and around orchards. A year following the publication of my paper, I was diagnosed with the very same form of lymphoma as the young cherry queen contestant.
Like many life-long residents of the Grand Traverse region, I grew up living next door to the growing expanse of apple and cherry orchards and while in college, I spent a few years living on a conventional cherry farm. I love farming and consider it a noble profession – one that impacts and supports our community for the better, but after my own diagnosis, I became increasingly aware of the dangers inherent in spraying large expanses of land near homes, schools and businesses with chemicals designed to kill biological organisms.
After talking with several farmers at length about the chemicals sprayed in the orchards, I am equally aware of the difficulties in moving from conventional methods into alternative methods that are less effective. With costs rising and profits falling, the industry is under attack by economic forces beyond our control. That said, it is still important and vital we begin a discussion about changing farming practices over time to account for healthier soil, better quality produce, higher profits and most importantly, the health and well-being of our community.
Not long after my cancer went into remission, I began a new mission in my life inspired by my experience with ‘the pesticide cancer.‘ I began Healing Tree Farm in my own backyard, employing the principles of permaculture to grow fruit-trees without chemicals. Permaculture is a “do no harm” approach to farming that seeks to mimic a mature eco-system relying less each year on the farmer for water and nutrients and becoming increasingly a biologically diverse habitat while also supplying food for the community.
It’s a simple concept: Grow food the way nature intended it to be grown. Fruit trees in the wild are not in neat, clean rows that stretch out for miles. They appear in the midst of layers of vegetation all with individual and vital functions for the overall environment. In the permaculture orchard, trees are grown in guilds, or groupings separated by hedge-rows and surrounded individually by edible bulbs, nutrient-rich deep-rooted plants that may be composted in place, and a few plants that take in nutrients at different intervals than the tree, but serve to attract beneficial insects.
That’s right, in the permaculture-orchard, insects and birds are welcomed guests. Since 90% of insects found in the untreated orchard are either beneficial (meaning they eat the “bad bugs”) or benign, encouraging bugs like predatory wasps and lady bugs to thrive in your edible forest garden will significantly and naturally offset aphid populations. Growing extra fruits to encourage birds like the cedar waxwing -the bird known affectionately to farmers as “cankerbird” – will reduce cankerworm populations. And encouraging healthy bacteria in the soil will help offset the types of fungus that often overwhelm fruit trees.
It’s not an exact science, but it is a forgiving practice. Nature is always striving for balance, so when we farmers miss a step, nature will fill in the gap. The end result is a landscape that is beautiful, healthy, vibrant and bountiful.
Still, I’m not so naive as to imagine conventional famers will immediately invest in practices so foreign to them. I hope farmers will continue to phase out harsher chemicals and I hope for the sake of our community this will not be an issue overlooked any longer, but examined closely and discussed openly- Not in the my-side-against-your-side fashion, but as an exercise in building on the success of our community with future generations in mind.
Let us not abandon our farmers who continue to struggle and who allow us to preserve an age-old way of living even in glum economic times. At the same time, Farmers, let us not forget the community who support and engage you in change.
We are the Cherry Capital of the World, but those of us who have lived our lives in Traverse City and outlying areas know we are so much more than the fruit we’re famous for. Our region is rich with ideas for more sustainable practices in agriculture and beyond. We may be the world’s largest producer of sour cherries, but more than that we are a close-knit community known for thinking outside the box; known for our pioneering spirit and dedication to our people and our wild spaces. And for this home-sick girl miles from any orchards, Traverse City will always be one of the most beautiful places on earth.