The Dilemma of Standards and Half-Standards

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Switzerland once had over 15 million standard trees. Today, Swiss fruit is grown on half-standard trees or bush trees. And only a small percentage is organically grown. But what does all this mean exactly? We spoke to two producers to find out.

One of Hanspeter Hediger's standard orchards. Pictured here: the orchard in Hedingen.

One of Hanspeter Hediger's standard orchards. Pictured here: the orchard in Hedingen.

Swiss cherries grown on standard trees. Sounds sophisticated and sustainable, right? Cherries like these and other fruit such as plums and apples are rare.

That wasn't always the case. According to the Hochstamm Suisse association, Switzerland once had over 15 million standard trees (the association doesn't specify exactly how long ago). Today, there are only 2.3 million. Why have we stopped cultivating these trees?

The answer is complicated and dates back to the 1950s. As Franco Ruault recounts in his book Baummord (Tree Murder), at that time and due to circumstances almost incomprehensible in today's world, more than 11 million standard trees were felled, often using explosives.

But putting this tragic tale aside, there are also rational reasons why Swiss fruit is hardly ever grown on standard trees anymore. As Christian Guyer explains: "With standard trees, the yield is lower, the harvest is less efficient and the risk of accidents is incredibly high." Guyer is a farmer based in Seegräben in the canton of Zurich. He grows cherries, berries, apples and vegetables.

Half-standard trees grow to around half the size of standard trees. In other words, these trees are restricted in terms of their height and width, as Guyer puts it. "Less growth often also means that they bear better fruit."

Guyer runs his farm together with Christian Etter. The duo follows a strictly organic and extensive approach. They farm part of their land using an agroforestry system that combines standard trees, cropland and areas that serve as a refuge for animals – piles of stones and branches and unmown sections of meadow.

But the organic cherries they grow and deliver to gebana's customers aren't grown in this extensive area. Instead, they're grown in an enclosed area under a protective cover. The rain cover shields the fruit from rain, preventing ripe cherries from bursting or going mouldy shortly before harvest. Nets around the perimeter of the orchard help keep out all kinds of pests, especially the dreaded spotted wing drosophila, formerly known as the cherry vinegar fly, which has been plaguing Switzerland since 2011.

Because trees in a half-standard orchard rarely grow taller than two or three metres, harvesting the fruit is easier than with standard trees. There's no need to climb ladders to pick the fruit at dizzying heights, and caring for the trees is less time consuming because almost all the work can be done from the ground.

But the rain cover and protective netting also affect biodiversity within the enclosure. "The netting used in half-standard orchards not only prevents pests from getting in, but beneficial insects as well," explains Guyer. "Many beneficial insects migrate to and from the orchards because they have a different habitat in winter than in summer."

As a result, this migration is prevented, leading to an imbalance in the half-standard orchards which, on Guyer and Etter's farm, has resulted in a larger population of aphids. "There are also aphids on standard trees. But it's not an issue because there are so many beneficial insects that eat the aphids. You don't have to worry about it at all," says Guyer.

Guyer and Etter use neem oil to control the aphids in their half-standard orchards, applying it up to three times. The oil, which is extracted from the tree of the same name, is harmless to humans and is approved for use as an organic pesticide. "Aphids are generally the only pest problem I have when it comes to the half-standard trees."

Hanspeter Hediger from Affoltern am Albis can't help but smile when he hears stories like this. But his orchards are also more akin to wildlife sanctuaries, like something you'd see preserved in a museum. Each tree is a different heirloom variety and almost all of them are standard trees. The meadow between the trees is mown in sections so that insects and animals have time to migrate. In every tree, there is a small bug hotel for earwigs – a natural enemy of aphids – and other insects.

A can or an upside-down flowerpot filled with wood shavings or straw

A can or an upside-down flowerpot filled with wood shavings or straw hangs in every tree in Hanspeter Hediger's standard orchards. These serve as little habitats for beneficial insects like earwigs, which feed on aphids.

"Mice are the only issue I have in my gardens," explains Hediger, who isn't actually a farmer. Following a 30-year career at EWZ, he turned his hobby into a profession and has since been designing orchards for private individuals and farmers and restoring and maintaining biotopes. He also serves as a nature conservation officer and manages a number of orchards, like the one in Hedingen, through which he proudly led us.

Mice eat the bark off the roots of the trees. The roots die, which means that the tree is no longer able to take up nutrients. Eventually the tree will also become unstable. Hediger controls the mice by feeding CO2 into the mouse holes. He hasn't yet been able to find another solution. "For a long time, people in America have been trying to cultivate a root system that mice don't like. Unfortunately without any success," says Hediger.

He is able to identify every one of the trees in his garden just by looking at it. And he has a story to tell about each one. "Standard trees shape the landscape, standard trees mean that heirloom varieties are being preserved," Hediger explains as we walk through the garden. "But not all standard trees are created equal, just like organic products aren't all the same. You have to be committed, put your heart and soul into it. Everything has to be done right, as a whole."

Still, Hediger believes that half-standard orchards have their place. He even occasionally plants a half-standard tree himself. As Hediger explains: "By the time the standard trees have grown to take up their space in the garden, a half-standard tree planted between them has already had its day."

Hanspeter Hediger mows the meadows under his trees in sections. This gives insects and small animals time to move between the mown and unmown sections.

Hanspeter Hediger mows the meadows under his trees in sections. This gives insects and small animals time to move between the mown and unmown sections.

A standard tree needs at least 10 years to produce a harvest. Hediger calls this the nursery phase. By contrast, a half-standard tree or a bush tree, depending on the variety, bears its first fruit as early as the year of planting, but no later than the following year. But after 10 to 15 years, that's it.

Hediger also believes that standard trees represent a niche market. "It has to be fun, you have to enjoy the trees and the additional work," he explains. "The way I run this, it wouldn't work as a main source of income."

The dominance of half-standard trees can also be attributed to market prices. Hediger explains that if he were to bring 100 kilos of standard apples to the cidery, he would be left with no more than 15 Swiss francs in the end. In no way does this reflect the amount of work involved. Hediger's solution is to do everything himself. But that's not really an option for most other farms.

Certification should make Standard Trees Cultivation more attractive

The Hochstamm Suisse association wants to change the low prices being paid for fruit from standard orchards. Producers certified by the association can sell their fruit under the association's label and earn an additional two Swiss francs per 100 kilos of fruit. This way, producers of special cider fruit can earn 35 Swiss francs per kilo.

But when it comes to cherries, Hediger's outlook is less optimistic. "For me, growing cherries on standard trees is over. We're under too much pressure with the weather. Wet, hot, cool. These fluctuations and then all the pests. It doesn't work."

Guyer shares this view. "A few years ago we planted a whole row of heirloom cherry varieties. But I doubt it'll ever pay off," he says. "Nearly every season so far, we've lost the few cherries that hang on the trees to pests and birds."

But when it comes to apples, Guyer actively works to preserve different varieties. He and Etter have planted many different heirloom varieties in the agroforestry fields in particular. Some are for consumption while others are cider fruit. "To me, it's a satisfying part of the job, it's good for the soul." Since the conservation of varieties is financed by the Swiss government, Guyer's focus isn't really on production. As he puts it, variety conservation is essentially a good deed that brings him pleasure.

In Switzerland, producers like Guyer and Etter are the exception rather than the rule. And pioneers like Hediger seem to be rarer still. Or at least that's what government statistics and those of the Schweizer Obstverband (Swiss Fruit Association) suggest.

Most of the 200,000 tonnes of fruit harvested in Switzerland each year is grown using conventional farming methods. And while organic cultivation is steadily growing, it accounts for just 18 per cent or 1,126 hectares of total production (as of 2021). The Swiss government doesn't publish any precise figures on the share of produce from standard orchards.

Choosing the right Variety

As is so often the case, this situation is exacerbated by retailers. "Supermarkets want fruit that's all the same size and all looks the same," Hediger explains. "You can't cultivate those varieties the way I do it here. You can only do that with intensive cultivation." The fruits sold in supermarkets are varieties that have been specially researched and bred for intensive cultivation. They are designed to be grown using artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

Many supermarket varieties – like the Gala apple, for example – are not really suitable for organic cultivation. "Gala is absolutely not an organic variety," says Guyer. "Even when you grow them conventionally, you have to spray Gala 20 times a season. So an organic farmer would probably have to drive out to spray them 40 times because the organic pesticides are much less effective." More trips mean more work, more diesel, more soil compaction. "Organic isn't necessarily always better than non-organic," Guyer adds.

He believes that if retailers were to focus on alternative varieties now, consumers would follow suit. And we think so too. That's why we work with producers like Christian Guyer, Christian Etter and Hanspeter Hediger.


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