Thinning fruit was a difficult process for me to get behind. For some reason, we have to cut fruit off of our trees? It seems like a waste, if you ask me. We only have so many, so shouldn’t we be trying to milk them for all they’ve got? Had we just left them alone, every peach you see on the ground there could have been food…right?
Not exactly. It turns out, this way of thinking is a mistake. The reality is, the tree simply can’t support that many fruits. If we tried to maximize yield, not only would the tree suffer, but the fruit quality would drastically decrease. The question is, why?
The first reason is somewhat obvious: fruit can be heavy. If we were to leave every fruit in the orchard, the poor trees would be losing branches left and right. They simply couldn’t support the weight, and branches would bend and break under the stress. We want to make sure the trees make it to the end of season in one piece so they can stay healthy and keep bearing fruit for years to come. Not to mention those dropped fruits are far from wasted; they’re composted back into the soil where they can be used by the tree once again.
Second, each tree can only produce so much food. Its leaves are like little sugar factories, using the energy from the sun to make glucose, which is then used by the plant for energy. Much of that sugar and energy is funneled into the fruit to help it grow and mature. If there are too many fruits, the tree can only give a little bit to each one, and all this energy going to the fruits can weaken the tree itself. The simple act of removing some fruit means the tree can focus its efforts and save some of its energy. Those that remain will each get more attention and will grow into larger, more flavorful fruit while the tree remains healthier and more vigorous. The dropped fruits are not wasted, but composted back into the soil where they can be used by the tree once again.
It turns out that for many fruit trees, less is more. It’s not about maximizing the number of bushels per tree, but it’s about producing as many good quality fruits as possible while keeping the tree healthy and ready for the next season. If you have your own fruit trees, you could thin them and see the difference for yourself.
It strikes me that the story of thinning fruit is a good representation of what it means to farm sustainably. Just as it’s important not to load branches with too much fruit for the sake of the tree, it’s important not to over-farm for the sake of the land and the environment. While this may come at a cost in terms of gross yield, it vastly improves the quality of the food that is produced and allows it to keep feeding us in the future. A sustainable approach to growing food is vital to the future of agriculture and the future of humanity. Like a tree, we should treat farmland with care and respect. Unlike a tree, however, we should make sure not to spread it too thin.