It’s a rainy day in September. Not exactly the best weather to begin my internship on an apple farm, but here we are, driving through the countryside of Northern Germany. We, that’s my new boss and me. She is showing me the orchards and telling me a bit about the history if this large estate (I wrote more about this in my articles From Communist to Corporate and Havens of Biodiversity). And I’m indeed happy to be sitting right next to such an expert, able to ask her any and all questions that come to my mind as we make our way through the rain. Since my grandfather is a keen apple gardener, too, I already had a fascination for apples, but with as the conversation continues, my interest keeps growing and growing.
My boss tells me about the apple harvests of the previous years: last year, the harvest had been so exuberant that they had to employ additional workers to bring in all the apples. 3 800 tonnes were the proud yield of that year. The year before that, however, frost had befallen the plantations during the season of bloom. Since they didn’t have sprinklers to protect the orchards from the frost, much of the harvest had been lost in that year. To be precise, the harvest amounted to a meagre 550 tonnes of apples. That’s almost a 7-fold difference!
The apple trees are heavily loaded with fruits! Photo by Naomi Bosch
Yield loss and abundance
As I walk through the apple rows during the following days, I remember my boss’s words. The trees are poorly filled with apples, some rows being almost completely empty. After a year of abundant harvest, this year seems to be a very meagre one again. This is in part due to the frost that had severely damaged the apple blossoms in spring. But what we could already now conclude about the following harvest was that it would probably once again be a very plentiful one. A year of yield loss is usually always followed by a year of abundance.
And the explanation of my boss was astonishing to me. When an apple tree is hit by frost and suffers yield loss, the tree is able to get the necessary rest, so that it could produce above-average yield in the following year. A period of rest is followed by a period of fruitfulness.
This is also the reason why fruit trees need to be pruned in winter or spring. The tree cannot produce fruit in all of its branches equally, that would exhaust its energy. If you left a fruit tree unpruned, it would produce many, many tiny fruits. But when it is pruned, the tree can concentrate its energy to produce bigger, more nutritious fruit and yield more abundantly.
Discovering the principles of nature
And this simple principle proves true in nature in a broader sense. Rest is necessary. The dying leaves in autumn, the cutting back of branches, the ushering peace of winter, the times of restfulness: all of these are necessary to eventually come back to life again.
In agriculture, this is mirrored in the principle of leaving land fallow or unplanted. For a full year, the farmer doesn’t till the land and grows no crop on it. Because he knows that the soil needs to rest to be able to bring abundant harvest again! The crop of the previous has the time to fully decompose, earthworms and other microorganisms gently work the soil to produce rich, fertile humus. Many important processes take place in the soil during that year that eventually increase its fruitfulness.
Fallowland overgrown with wildflowers and grasses, allowing the land to rest. Photo by Naomi Bosch
The three-field system
All throughout the Middle Ages and early Modern Age, farmers in Europe used to practice a so-called three-field system. They would divide the arable land into three parts. Two were planted with different crops, and one was left fallow. On that fallow plot, animals could graze on the emerging weeds. The animals’ excrements would additionally fertilize the fallow plot. Crop assignments were rotated every year so that the land could rest in one out of three years. And, as Thomas Noble concludes in his book ‘The Foundations of Western Civilization’, the three-field system significantly increased economic prosperity at the time.
But as we know today, it not only ensured more economic prosperity for poor farmers, it was also good from an ecological viewpoint. The resting increased life under the earth’s crust, enhanced soil fertility and created a habitat for weeds and wild animals to thrive. We’ve only now come to understand what we have lost when we stopped practising the use of fallows in farming. We can already see the ecological consequences of this in our biodiversity and soil fertility loss. In fact, researchers have found that the dramatic biodiversity loss of birds and other animals in recent years is strongly associated to the loss of fallowland!
The principle of fallowland is so valuable that the European Union has started paying a premium to farmers who assign a portion of their land as a fallow.
But that’s not at all a new discovery! Even before the Middle Ages, the wisdom of rest and fallow was found in the ancient Jewish scriptures: the Torah. Here, it was called the Sabbath.
We can find it right from the beginning of the Torah. In the story of how God created the world, the Torah says that the Creator worked 6 days and then rested on the 7th day (to understand and apply this principle, the question of how and in what time period exactly God created the world is absolutely irrelevant, by the way). God prescribed such a day of rest and enjoyment to humans, as well. But even more than that, He instructed the Israelite people to let the land completely rest every 7th year.
“Once you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must celebrate a sabbath rest to the LORD. You will plant your fields for six years and prune your vineyards and gather their crops for six years. But in the seventh year the land will have a special sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the LORD: You must not plant your fields or prune your vineyards.” (1)
And with this instruction came the promise that the land would produce enough even during the year of sabbath, so that they could always eat their fill. Suppose they asked, “What will we eat in the seventh year if we don’t plant or gather our crops then?” God reassures them that He will send His blessing on them in the sixth year so that it will make enough produce for three years! (2)
With the instruction of sabbath comes the promise of a blessing. Photo from Unsplash
Oh, had we only followed these good and divine instructions! Many of our ecological, economic, and social problems would be non-existent today.
Teaser photo credit: Charlotte Noelle on unsplash.