Episode-1415- Stefan Sobkowiak on the Permaculture Orchard

Stefan Sobkowiak  of Miracle Farms

Stefan Sobkowiak of Miracle Farms

Twenty years ago, Stefan Sobkowiak bought a commercial apple orchard with the intention of converting it to an organic orchard. He did just that, but eventually understood the limitations of the organic model originating from monoculture.

He then decided to tear out most of the trees and replant in a way that would maximize biodiversity and yield while minimizing the amount of maintenance required. Inspired by permaculture principles, the orchard now counts over 100 cultivars of apples, plums, pears, cherries, and countless other fruits and vegetables.

Today’s interview was like meeting a kindred spirit.  Stefan and I spoke for almost two hours and barely covered half of what I wanted to discuss with him.

Resources for today’s show…

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59 Responses to Episode-1415- Stefan Sobkowiak on the Permaculture Orchard

  1. Can’t wait to listen to this one!

  2. Awesome.

  3. Here’s an overview of Stefan’s orchard: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3riW_yiCN5E

  4. I purchased Stephan’s Permaculture Orchard video a few weeks back and can’t say enough good things about it. The production quality is great and the information he shares is incredible (the way he bends branches to influence fruit production was a revelation for me). Definitely worth the purchase price.

    • I was wondering if he spoke about how to bend the branches! Thanks. Does he talk about how he protects from mice and rabbits? How about protecting against the bitter cold he has? We are also above the 45th and put in fruit trees in the spring. So they are very tiny. We got over 300 inches of snow last year and the mice killed some of our bushes.

      • Richard Hauser

        He goes thru bending branches and actually mentions that some branches are bent low enough to feed rabbits. He also talks about frost protection techniques.
        Get the video, it is definitely worth it.

  5. He referred to “in the video” quite a few times in the interview. I’d like to see some more of what Stefan has done.

  6. If you’re interested in meeting with Stefan when he comes to NZ (Mar-Apr 2015), let me know here: http://www.signup.beyondorganicnztour.com. There’s a growing crew of people organising events up and down the country for this visit – from public talks to Master Classes!

  7. What a great interview! I have the Permaculture Orchard video and love it. I sure hope you have Stefan back on as a guest again in the not-too-distant future. Would love to hear more on the marketing angle.

  8. What was the name of the apple that was mentioned that is a true variety. Sounded like afkenhoffka.

    • Antonovka. Dern hardy rootstock. Great apples for those who like it tart.

    • Antonovka apple: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonovka

      I was going to submit a question for Mark Shepard about them, since he uses them for rootstock, but this podcast answered most of my questions.

      Does anyone know how far away I should plant my Antanovka apples away from other apple cultivars in order to preserve the integrity of the seed?

      I’ve got about fifty Antonovka seedlings started this year. I was thinking about having a wide variety of grafted apples in my zone 2 food forest, but having only Antonovkas in my zone 3 food/pannage forest (among other non-apple species).

      This was a great episode!

  9. Can’t wait to listen to this on my nightly route. Loved Permaculture Orchard… I am very interested in what he is doing.

    • …..and I was NOT disappointed! Wtg Jack. One of my favorite listens so far along with the food forests episodes.

  10. Joe Upper Bucks

    Hoping Jack will hit him up for a discount. Either way I’m ordering but he usually asks at the end for a break on price using MSB.

    This guy was awesome. Actually it was like Stephan and Jack were on my patio just hanging out. You really could tell the enthusiasm between them.

    I’m sure we will be hearing from Stephan again in the near future.

  11. Here’s the websites mentionned and a couple of videos that will help you understand some of what we are doing at Miracle Farms.
    http://www.permacultureorchard.com/en/ (film website)
    http://miracle.farm (Farm website)

    This one is subtitled from a French TV program.

    Kim the apple cultivar is called ‘Antanovka’

    • Do you cover how your protect your trees from the bitter cold in the video? Especially the young trees (we transplanted some in the spring). Also, rabbits and mice? We got over 300 inches of snow last year and the mice and rabbits killed a lot of trees/shrubs here. FYI, we also live above the 45th parallel but our coldest temp is usually around 10F). You said in the interview to transplant young trees in the fall, so should we prune then instead of Feb/march? You don’t have to answer this all but is it covered in the video? Thank you for an amazing interview. I was inspired!

  12. Stefan’s video is top notch, in value and production
    quality! Im glad to have helped in my own small way to promote it. Excellent podcast! Cheers, Stefan. 🙂

  13. WOW- I think this is my all time favorite TSP episode. Even better than when that financial guy is on (: Stefan’s description of “French” techniques sound exactly like what my Italian grandfather used. Even the practice of rotational grass mowing- as a kid, my grandfather had me do that in his vineyard & orchard and until listening to today’s episode, I never knew why. Looking forward to the next time Stefan is on.

  14. To kim,
    The name of the true to type cultivar that Stefan uses is named “Antonovka”. You can start it directly from seeds and it is scab resitant (but can be more susceptible to fireblight).

  15. Jason aka Chainsawguy

    Awesome episode, definitely one of the best episodes regarding orchard production. I hope he is able to come back on the podcast soon.

  16. Have him back. Excellent interview!

  17. Wow! I’ve listened all the way through twice. Great stuff. Have him back on again please!

  18. Also request more Stefan and more on training vs pruning! Great stuff!

  19. I agree, Id like to see more resources/discussion on the training aspect and how to do it specifically. Ive see festooning, but im not so sure its the same thing that he was talking about.

  20. Richard Hauser

    Great episode and love the video, but two questions: Stephan trains his apples to droop rather close to the ground, but many pruning instructions suggest clearing low branches to keep apple blight from propagating up to the apples. Is he getting away with this because of the plastic ground cover or for other reasons. The second question is that he mentioned that he already had drip lines and wires in for new trees. What are the wires for?

    • Typically apple orchards on smaller rootstocks like Stefan has used in the past are trellised, that’s what the wires are for. As I recall from reading other sources, Stefan has used M27 stock in the past, which is pretty dwarfing/fast to production but would require support. Google for spindle method, it will show some photos of what a trellis can do for an apple orchard, although I doubt that’s what Stefan is using. That isn’t to say that Stefan hasn’t shifted methods to a different rootstock or even seedlings, but I know of orchardists who trellis everything, even on semidwarf/full sized rootstock. It makes even more sense to put up a wire strand for training if you are already investing in a frost protection system that uses the same support structure.

  21. His video is really good, tons of information and a great example of what can be done!

  22. My god this interview was the bomb for me. I listened to it back to back 3 times. It lined up so many things I want to do on my land. Im downloading the movie as I type. PermaEthos and AgriTrue are even closer now.

    Thanks for this one Jack.

  23. rick in socal

    This interview was probably one of the very best. Ive got to see the video. Great job Jack!! Can’t wait for follow up show. Would be great if we could send in some questions.

  24. I have the video and love it.

    Just looked up the Antonovka apple tree and Amazon sells packs of these tree seeds! I may order some… just to see how they do in my region.

    We have fire blight issues here in VA and the web says that it is a little resistant to that.

  25. I’m buying the Antonovka apple seeds, since my HoneyCrisp was brought down by a few different diseases, hopefully this one will kick butt.

    Does anybody know when the best time of year would be to put seed in the ground; after stratification of 60 days. Would November be too late, would the spring be better for this?

    Thanks, awesome episode by the way!

    • Mr A,

      I would suggest if you are stratifying the seed to plant in the spring after danger of frost is past if you are direct seeding. Otherwise start the seedlings in tall pots or tree tubes like “conetainers”. You could start them in growout beds with 1′ deep wood duff, or good high organic content soil, then transplant the seedlings from there. If you elect for the growout beds, you will run less risk of damaging or inhibiting the taproot.
      Cold moist stratification for 1-4 months, the stratified seed should germinate in 30-60 days.
      In nursery practice, unstratified seed is sown in fall, stratified seed is sown in spring.
      Seeds will sprout once dormancy is broken, even at temps as low as 36F so be careful you don’t leave them in the fridge too long or else you will have sprouted seed and the rootlet will likely be damaged during transplantation.


    • Richard Hauser

      Nick, is that better than simply overseeding the actual area that the trees will ultimately reside and culling the losers? I only suggest this because I think Mark Shepard suggested it. He seemed to be against the idea of a nursery at all, though I may have misunderstood.

    • I would prefer to always overseed an area and allow the strongest, most adapted organisms to be the dominant ones in the system. So, yes overseeding a large area would produce a better pool of genetic diversity and vigor. But the listener may have a different situation. If we are talking small scale, 1-10 trees, well the chances of that happening in that size area are slim. It seems to me that you would likely have better results if you started a lot of seedlings using the method I suggested and then picking from those which ones are growing the best, transplanting them to their locations, and even possibly planting 3 per hole, then over the next year or 3, thin the weaker trees out from each hole until you have a single strong specimen.

      Really it all comes down to application. I don’t always use a 22 oz framing hammer, sometimes I need a 3# sledge, or a peening hammer. Some applications using the Shepard approach makes the most sense, but not everybody has 20-200 acres to plant apples in.

    • Richard Hauser

      Thank you for the reply and I think I understand. I certainly understand that any approach is application dependent, but what I am looking for is the pivotal features that guides the decision and my best guess is predation. i.e. If you plant 100 seeds in 100 cone-tainers, then you will probably get 95-100 root stocks that can be transplanted, but if you plant 100 seeds out in a field, you may get zero trees, and a fat squirrel. Besides predation there is also the advantage of ideal watering in a nursery system, better soil and less likelihood of physical damage to the exposed plant. On the flip side there is probably some advantage to not coddling all the seeds, so if some wouldn’t germinate in the wild then maybe we don’t want those anyway. Also seeding a field is way less labor intensive.
      Have I missed any main decision points?

    • Environmental – Are there environmental issues with the soil, pollution, spraying etc… Seedlings are much more susceptible to adverse growing conditions

      Predation – Can you protect the seedlings from mice, voles, moles, deer, squirrels, rabbits? Don’t scatter apple seeds when migratory birds are passing through that will descend on your field in the thousands and eat all the seed.

      Weather – Are you planting at a time of year that is conducive to growing the seedlings? If you want seedlings to get started in june, don’t plant seeds in the ground unless you have a few pounds that you don’t mind loosing.

      Temperatures – Can the seedlings survive the temperature shifts at the particular time you are planting? Will the seed germinate in the ground at the time of year you are wanting them to go in the ground?

      Space – Do you have enough land to utilize the method of broadscale overseeding of the tree species?

      Financial risk/reward – And it all comes down to the cost. Can you bear the cost of the seed? If you cannot bear the cost of loosing 50%-90% of the seed you plant, then use a different method.

      I know I listed a lot of reasons to not use this method, please understand that I think the genetic selection process that you put the population through is FAR superior to any other method. I wish I could afford to plant all fruit trees this way, but understand you could end up with staggeringly low numbers of highly productive individuals. You will end up with a far greater number of regionally adapted individuals. But you need to decide if you want regionally adapted mediocre producing trees, or not. It is a genetic roulette, and very complicated. I will tell you though, in the development of my farm, I am willing to spend the extra money to plant 1000 trees for the 1 that I will eventually keep for a lifetime. I would rather pick the best 0.10% of a gene pool to procreate on my land. There are so many variables at play that it is hard to encapsulate an answer in this format. But hopefully this has helped a little.

    • Richard Hauser

      Nick, thank you, for your fantastic answer. As with any Permaculture answer, it depends, but always nice to get a knowledgeable answer about what it depends on.

  26. Great show! That guy is a treat to listen to. The man seems to have knowledge coming out his pores. I would add him to a guy living or dead I would want to have a beer with.

  27. Please bring Stefan back for the marketing follow-on. This is an episode I may actually get DH to listen to! Stefan an inspiration for our permaculture design, fantastic to hear more details about his property. If only we could figure out how to run poultry in our orchard with the regulators breathing down our backs…we might actually see a profit soon.

  28. Good videos on Solaxe training a pruning here:


    I can’t wait to get into my orchard and train the branches down. 4 years in, and not a lot of fruit, but a lot of tree growth.

  29. One of the most enjoyable interviews on the show. That’s saying something! Thank you Jack

  30. We are building a 500 acre farm in Utah and will be trying many of these ideas. Can’t wait!

  31. Definitely one of the best interviews I’ve heard.you’re right Jack, this guy is an excellent teacher. I would like to echo the request for another interview about the business practices too.as someone who goes to get a similar idea off the ground any business hero would be much appreciated, plus Stefan is just such a cool guy. Thanks again.Definitely a re-listener.

  32. Stefan is a treasure trove of information. If there were ever an episode that needs transcribing, this is at the top of the list. I might even do it myself.

    Classic interview. Well done Jack!

  33. Absolutely exceptional interview Jack!

    What is the process of trying to get someone to give a MSB discount? Should we contact Stefan and ask that he offer a discount, or is that something that you would contact Stefan?

  34. Awesome interview! I loved hearing both of you plant experts talk. I could see that you were both learning from each other and teaching each other in the conversation and I’m grateful it was recorded so that I can listen to it multiple times.

    There are so many people doing great work all over this planet right now that when I hear the negative news it doesn’t bother me too much anymore.

  35. Does anyone have a list of other true Apple varieties like the Antonovka?

  36. Just finished listening and there is so much commonality between Jack and Stephan , it was evident in the interview. I know where Saint-Anicet is, even though I live in PEI, I grew up in Cornwall Ontario.

  37. “Haul your ass to the tall grass”


  38. I just bought this. Looks good so far.

  39. I’m a little behind on my TSP episodes, and am just now listening to this one. I have to agree with some of the other comments – fantastic interview!!