Fighting an apple pest with a hungry pig

Rachel Henderson and Anton Ptak.
Rachel Henderson and Anton Ptak.

Rachel Henderson and Anton Ptak are the owners of Mary Dirty Face Farm, a favorite for raspberries, currants, plums and apples at the Fulton Farmers Market. Their unique approach to pest management and soil fertility provides a wonderful example of how to create diverse farming practices that promote both plant and human health.

Their passion for sustainable living has been a guiding force through the evolution of their farm. In 2009, after volunteering on organic farms in South America through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms organization, Henderson and Ptak returned to the Midwest to begin their own farming practice. Through the Farm Beginnings Program, they sought to promote undervalued fruit varieties, such as tart cherries and black currants, on their farm near Menomonie, Wisconsin.

What started out as a dream of the homesteading lifestyle has become the backbone of their farming practice. “Our home and outbuildings are built primarily from locally sourced or reclaimed building materials and powered by renewable resources — collected rainwater, solar energy, wood heating,” Henderson said.

After deciding to live on their farm full time in spring 2014, Henderson and Ptak began exploring other avenues to promote ecological diversity, and the introduction of livestock to their farm was next on their list. “We’ve been researching and planning for ways for the animals to bring other biological benefits to the farm,” Henderson said. “Fertility is one benefit — the animals spend a short time in the orchard, but contribute to overall soil health through their droppings, as well as some weed control and groundcover management.”

Chickens at Mary Dirty Face Farm in Menomonie, Wisconsin.
Chickens at Mary Dirty Face Farm in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Submitted photos

The biggest benefit they hope to see through the integration of livestock is pest control. One of the largest problems affecting apples and plums is a pest called plum curculio. This beetle lays eggs on apples and plums, and the larvae later hatch from undeveloped fruit dropped from trees. Through the use of pigs and chickens, Henderson and Ptak bested a tricky pest. “Plum curculio can’t survive in a pig’s digestive system, so by running pigs through the orchard at strategic times, we can break the life cycle and reduce their numbers in the orchard,” Henderson said.

In early summer, chickens will also graze under the orchard trees, catching and eating adult plum curculio before they lay their first eggs. “A lot of this depends on good timing to be effective, and we’re still working that out, but I believe that it’s having a positive impact,” Henderson said. “Of course, it results in delicious meat and happy animals.”

In addition to the fruit grown in the orchard, the pastured livestock provide another source of revenue that allows them to invest in the farming practices they believe in. As of July 2016, the orchard is certified organic. “We’ve been following these standards since the beginning, but we are very glad to be part of the organic farming movement.”

You can find Mary Dirty Face Farm at the Fulton Farmers Market every Saturday through October.

Katherine Huber is a registered dietitian, nutritionist and board member of Neighborhood Roots, the organization that runs the Fulton, Kingfield and Nokomis farmers markets.