Prune Lesson

by Gary Kline


“Organic”, what is it actually?  The more appropriate question is what should the term “organic” mean?  This may seem a silly question and you might think that by now nearly everyone knows what organic means.  The full answer to the full meaning, however, is instructive and crucial to understanding how to grow the most healthful vegetables and fruits with bonuses of best flavor, keeping quality and least disease and pest problems.  The ramifications are momentous.

In this article I am going to illustrate all the principles involved through telling (actually repeating) a true story about a prune farmer and his son and what it means to miss one vital factor in the growing of a quality fruit for market.  This is a story that takes place in western Oregon in the 1920s and ‘30s.  It is told on pages 6 and 7 of The New Organic Manifesto, written in 1986 by Lee Fryer; a crusty, but kindly, old fertilizer pioneer who had a knack for laying down valuable insight and accurate information few others knew in a clear, concise and entertaining way.  I met Lee Fryer back in 1986 on his swing through Olympia.  I’ve gotten a number of lessons from reading his several books.  The prune lesson is the one that, paradoxically, changed his life course and launched his investigative career into understanding fertilization and its connection to health.  Lee Fryer was the guy behind creation of Alaska fish fertilizer.

First, I need to do a little set-up piece about two BLO customers and their recent experiences in growing plums, but without pointing out the subtle distinction between prunes and plums.  In one case (reported in our July Newsletter); item:  “Plum Crazy”, a lady customer related:  “The tree stuff [BLOOM No. 7] used with fertile mulching gave enormous improvements in my fruit trees, especially plums.”  In the second case (see my “Plum Crazy, Still” article), a man told of fertilizing a plum tree with BLOOM, liquid fish, liquid crab, and foliar sprays of Sea-Crop ocean mineral extract, and getting over 200 plums setting after three years of practically no production.  This was without doing the full fertile mulching procedure, which you can find on this website.

Here are pertinent excerpts from The New Organic Manifesto.  Remember, this was written in 1986.

“During America’s long slumbering good food era, from 1620 to 1940 [GK birth year], we were organic without even knowing it.  There was no other example for comparison [not entirely correct].  We used organic fertilizers [manure, mainly] because petrochemical fertilizers were not invented yet.  We used ‘natural’ pesticides because the petro-based kinds were not even a gleam in a scientist’s test tubes.”

“The organic movement emerged during 1940-1960, under the leadership of J. I. Rodale, only after petrochemical-based agribusiness had invaded U.S. agriculture – fatally undermining the traditional organic food and farming system.  Most damaging of all, it destroyed organic farmers’ low cost on-the-farm and nearby fertilizer supplies and their access to major food markets.  Consequently, the organic movement requires new guides and improved technical principles if it is to earn, again, a major role in the U.S. food supply system.”

“It is my purpose to encourage such a rebirth of the inherently inefficient organic system which served our country so well prior to World War II.  I have credentials for this assignment since I was raised on an organic farm in Oregon.  Of course, we ate organic foods.”

“Sixty years ago [circa 1926, when Lee Fryer would have been 18], my father was an organic fruit grower, producing Italian prunes; the tart-sweet kind prized for certain ethnic people of New York, Philadelphia and other major cities.  However, he also grew walnuts, apples and pears, and had cows, horses and chickens.”

“These barnyard chickens walked around on God’s green earth like chickens are supposed to do, eating seeds, grain, grass, bugs, worms and grasshoppers.  With this mineral-rich diet [debatable], they grew healthy tissues that tasted superb at Sunday dinner, or any time.”

“Of course, we had insect pests and troublesome fungus diseases in our fruit orchard.  We controlled these with non-pollutant sprays because the petrochemical kinds had not been invented yet; so we were unconsciously organic in our pest controls.  No one eating our prunes ever got too much mercury, DDT or sevin in his liver.  However, a shortage of potassium in our organic fertilizer system almost made us bankrupt.”

“It takes a lot of minerals [where lacking in soils], annually, to grow normal prunes with their big stoney pits.  Our natural/organic system failed to supply these minerals, especially potash [K2O].  So, the prunes got smaller and smaller, as the years went by, and eventually the harvest was inadequate to pay the costs.  Had I known then, as I do now, I would not be writing this book describing bio-organic systems of food and farming.  I would still be a prune farmer.”  [End of quotes.]

Such is the way a few minerals can shape or direct peoples’ lives and the status of their health or infirmity over the course of their lives.  The key point here is that lack of one mineral (probably more) caused those prize prunes to get smaller and smaller, to the point that Fryer’s father probably had to get out of the prune growing business and Lee himself had to leave the farm and search for some other livelihood instead of inheriting his father’s once brisk business. 

Today, we have more sophisticated soil testing capabilities and understanding of full fertility requirements, which is not to say that Fryer didn’t eventually come to understand most of that and convey it.

But the point I want to come back to is what this story says about what conventionally understood organics is and is not, but needs to be considered and needs to be reconstituted in understanding and in practice.  Organics needs to be made over to be mineral-augmented organics and renamed.  Instead of being called organiculture, I suggest the new and more appropriate name of nutriculture.

There are several passages in Fryer’s prune story that will enable me to explain the change in mind-set around “organic” that needs to occur so that we can go forward in a more complete and coherent approach to our gardening and farming, and improvement of our foods or diet with consequent greater health and much lower doctor bills and physical degeneration.  Bear with me.

1. The most common understanding, or misunderstanding, is that “organic” means simply growing a plant or crop without the use of artificial chemical fertilizers and toxic (synthetic) chemical pesticides.  Besides not being comprehensive, not doing something bad doesn’t enhance your crop or food beyond being ordinary and unremarkable.  Doing nothing is not a positive action or improvement.  Not using chemicals is only one part of the correct definition of organic, in my view.

2.  Despite his later sophistication, in the book Fryer continued to see his father’s farm as a “natural/organic system”.  Although they used no petrochemical fertilizers or pesticides (because they did not exist?), that system failed.  It failed from malnourishment; namely, the lack of a natural mineral (or minerals) or the exhaustion of certain soil minerals due to repeated harvest and removal of a necessary plant nutrient.  This is the most significant lesson from Fryer’s prune farm story.  It is about the missing mineral message that characterizes public and conventional organic grower knowledge about what it takes to grow quality, nutritious food.

3.  Simply because one farmed or gardened before the advent of synthetic chemicals did not make one an organic practitioner by default.  Organic growing is, or certainly should be, more than doing nothing or choosing not to do something that is harmful to the soil, the environment or to people and animals that eat the food crops grown on untreated soils.  Fryer’s family was not "organic without knowing it" or simply because they only used manures and other locally available natural materials to fertilize their orchard and home garden.  This is not an adequate definition of organic unless we accept the organic method as a half-measure toward full and correct fertilization thereby resulting in crops and livestock not being fully nourished.

4.  Fryer states that “Of course, we had insect pests and troublesome fungus diseases in our fruit orchard.”  He doesn’t say what kinds of “non-pollutant” sprays they used.  However, Fryer was one of the earlier advocates of nutritional pest control, or feeding plants correctly to build immunity and resistance to pests and diseases.  Pests are not inevitable.  They can largely be prevented from doing damage by growing crops using proper nutrition that includes all the necessary minerals (in place or added).

Had Fryer known all this back in the 1920s and applied the necessary fertilizers (plus mulching, ideally), the prunes would not have progressively shrunk in size and in quality and he could have saved the farm’s principal market crop.  This might seem expensive, but in the larger picture, and counting the health bonuses, it is well worth the effort and costs.  Not only that, but you achieve, by default, the original goal of not using synthetic pesticides and artificial fertilizers because they are not needed.  Check out the BLO Fertile Mulching System.  Try it and you too can go Plum Crazy.  

5.  I shall close this sermon by citing the true and full gospel according to Rodale, as written in 1956.

  • 1)    grown without pesticides,
  • 2)    grown without artificial fertilizers,
  • 3)    grown in soil whose humus content is increased by additions of organic matter,
  • 4)    grown in soil whose MINERAL content is increased with applications of natural mineral fertilizers,
  • 5)    has not been treated with preservatives, hormones, antibiotics or other synthetic additives.”

As a postscript, you can find a number of edifying quotes and information on this same theme or approach by going to BLO’s “South Sound Food Gardener’s Calendar”, now posted on this website.

© 2014 Gary L. Kline

All Rights Reserved

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