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Remembering holistic orchard specialist, Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips died unexpectedly at his home orchard in Northumberland, New Hampshire, on Sunday, February 27. Michael owned and operated Lost Nation Orchard and Heartsong Farm with his wife, herbalist Nancy Phillips.

The relatively small footprint of their farm belies the scope of their work in the world of restorative and perennial farming, and the impact Michael had on how fruit is grown. Together with Nancy he wrote The Herbalist’s Way in 2005. His catalog as a writer includes two volumes specifically on orchards (The Apple Grower, 1998, and The Holistic Orchard, 2011), and an immersive work on soil biological health in a perennial system (Mycorrhizal Planet, 2017). Besides these books, he maintained The Holistic Orchard Network online, and cultivated communities of fruit growers, both locally and around the country.

Farmers in the Midwest enjoyed a special connection with Michael Phillips. The Organic Fruit Growers Association worked with MOSES on two occasions to bring him to Wisconsin for workshops. As someone who was as committed to growing community as he was to growing healthy trees, Michael made a lasting impression on so many of us. His legacy can be seen in orchards (both home and commercial) all over the region.

Michael believed in a local food system and was committed to the Real Organic Project. He preferred to sell his apples directly to consumers because he believed in the importance of the farmer/consumer connection. He put it simply by saying, “It comes down to making local work.” His three-acre orchard boasted 120 apple varieties and influenced growers across the country. Here are memories of Michael shared by a few Midwestern organic fruit growers.

From Perry-O & David Sliwa, Decorah, Iowa:

“‘The Apple Grower’ by Michael Phillips, was published in 1998. An update and other books followed. During the 1990s we were searching for information on growing tree fruit organically, and then suddenly here was Michael’s book which pulled together, in his folksy style, ideas we could ponder and put into practice. Michael’s discussions on wood chip and ramial mulch, mycorrhizal fungi, along with Elaine Ingham’s focus on soil biology, became the foundation of our orchard management. We have been feeding the soil ever since then.

On a trip, sometime in the early 2000s, visiting family in New England, we ventured, unannounced, to Michael’s farm and orchard in Northern New Hampshire. He was not at home, nobody was there. Somewhat self-consciously we walked around a little, but mostly we sat and took in the scene, sensing the soul of the place, which alone inspired us. Without meeting him then, we felt we knew a bit about him seeing how he was working the land.

Subsequently we did meet in-person on two occasions when Michael presented at the MOSES Organic University and at other venues hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa and North American Fruit Explorers.

We’re grateful for Michael Phillips’s impact on our orcharding adventures.”

From Dan Kelly, Blue Heron Orchard, Canton, Missouri:

“Michael Phillips’ The Apple Grower, published in 1998 by Chelsea Green, was the first comprehensive book on apple growing that replaced the conventional ‘business as usual’ offering available, mostly through universities and extension. His non-linear approach to orcharding reimagined a model written by fruit-growing aficionados, such as Liberty Hyde Bailey’s 1897 book, The Principles of Fruit Growing. And then following much later, Ecological Fruit Production in the North by Bart Hall-Beyer and Jean Richard in 1983, and my early favorite, The Spray Savers Almanac by Stephen Page and Joseph Smillie, published in 1986, my sole guide to my first organic apple growing.
If Michael’s first book was the ‘bud’, the next two, The Holistic Orchard (2011) and Mycorrhizal Planet (2017) were his flower and then his fruit. He explored, exponentially, the possibility of achieving the goals he laid out in my signed copies, “Keep growing healthy trees and picking healthy fruit.” And “Do Fungal Things!”
The Season has truly changed.”

From Harry Hoch, Lacrescent, Wisconsin:

“Michael Phillips was a friend of mine. I don’t use that term lightly. I have gotten to know many people in the fruit industry over the years. I have had some great professional relationships, but Michael’s was special. We seemed to hit it off right away. We have presented together at conferences and been on panels together. He visited my farm and I always intended to visit his. We had some great conversations over the years. Although we did not see each other regularly or even email on any kind of schedule, we could always pick up where we left off.

I will always regret not finding the time to visit Michael, but I do have a nice memory of when he visited my place during a MOSES conference. There had been a thaw and the pigs were in the orchard and following us as we walked and talked. He said to me “Harry, you should write a book and title it Walking with Pigs.” I will miss our conversations and his knowledge, wit, and humor.

Michael was one of the best. He truly cared about fruit growers and always had the industry in mind. He shared what he learned and he helped others share. Our industry has lost one of our best. When the trees awaken this spring, I will pour a glass of organic apple brandy and take one last walk with pigs for my friend Michael.”

Michael’s obituary, in the Caledonian Record, offers this suggestion: “In lieu of flowers, the family invites you to plant a fruit tree in Michael’s memory, or help support the Holistic Orchard Network, an educational platform Michael created to share ideas, research, and resources on holistic orcharding and connect growers: groworganicapples.com”

Rachel Henderson is a farmer on the MOSES Organic Specialist team. She grows a variety of fruits on the 60-acre farm she owns with her husband, Anton.

Issue: May 2022
By: Rachel Henderson