Monday, June 25, 2012

ReThink London: ReThinking abandoned orchards

Abandoned fruit trees in southwest London.

I drive by the abandoned Cornell orchards quite often. They are on the south side of Southdale Road just west of Colonel Talbot Road.

The place I buy a shawarma with fries is located where the old Cornell retail outlet once stood. The store burned some years ago and was never rebuilt. There were rumors about the abandoned orchards, about the burning of the retail store. The gossipy stories were murky; facts hidden in a swirling fog of local myth.

Recently The London Free Press ran a picture of the "tapped-out orchard" where "weeds grow between what were once rows of fruit trees."

The description of the orchard in sidestepping local myth jarred me into giving some thought to those abandoned trees and wondering just why no one was interested in harvesting the apples. It could be there are some behind the scenes legal issues preventing these particular trees from being cared for. But what about other orchards? Why is it not uncommon to see abandoned orchards in southwestern Ontario? Or to read stories about orchards being bulldozed? (Today, the fall of 2016, the former Cornell orchard has been uprooted and the dead trees sit in a few large, piles in the cleared field.)

Apple growing in abandoned orchard.
With a little research I learned one should not be too quick to tear out orchards. Old fruit trees can sometimes be renovated and transformed both aesthetically and in terms of productivity. With some luck, a mature orchard can be encouraged to once again produce fruit. But this gets harder and harder to accomplish if the orchard is left untouched for too long. Diseases will get firmly established, destructive insects will flourish and time will take its inevitable toll. So, why are our older orchards not being cared for and replanted when necessary?

I learned that apple trees originated in the Tien Shan mountains in southern Kazakhstan. The last surviving wild apple forests are to be found in those mountains in Central Asia. Those forests are now threatened by urbanization and modern agricultural methods. Many wild apple species are facing extinction.

If one wants to breed an apple for resistance to disease and to drought, the malus sieversii is good apple to investigate. Thought to be the source species for almost all varieties of today's farm grown fruit, the malus sieversii is on the list of endangered apple species, along with 44 other tree species throughout Central Asia.

Over-exploitation and human encroachment are among the main threats to the forests of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. These forests are home to more than 300 wild fruit and nut species including apple, plum, cherry, apricot and walnut. These valuable, unique, heritage trees are under threat.

Wild genes carry resistance to diseases such as apple scab, a fungus that can devastate crops. As a lot of our domestic fruit supply comes from a very narrow genetic base, it is imperative that scientists be able to return to these heritage species and include them in fruit tree breeding programmes. In the future, this may not be possible. The source trees may have been allowed to disappear.

Sadly, the BBC reports these countries lack the resources to conserve their valuable trees. But there is nothing unique there. We don't seem to be able to protect our North American fruit tree species from the threat of extinction. The Gravenstein, a very old variety of apple first recorded in Denmark in 1607, was brought to the U.S. around 1826. Praised by Luther Burbank as the best variety due to its all purpose versatility, it is today in danger of extinction.

Luther Burbank, the man who developed the Russet potato, once said, "The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love." As twenty-first century folk have moved from the land to the city, maybe we are losing our love for plants, for farming, for the world that produces that which supports us, keeps us healthy.

London, sitting in the middle of some of the richest farmland in the world, is somewhat divorced from food production --- traditional food production. In fact, some food production today may actually be somewhat divorced from food. The Casco plant in London takes corn and after some fancy processing pumps out high fructose corn syrup. There are those who would argue that this sweet concoction from the lab is not food -- at least not good use of food, of corn.

Fruit is shipped to Canada from around the globe.
We no longer need Ontario fruit trees for fruit. Fresh pears can come from South America, and canned peaches from Greece. Apples come from lots of places except that in the future they may not come from Kazakhstan. Or from southwest London.

Read: The Toronto Star article, Ontario fruit growers losing ground

Many believe fruit growing operations are threatened in Southwest Ontario.

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