Buzz Ferver is on a mission.
The proprietor of Perfect Circle Farm in Berlin wants to find a persimmon that will grow well in central Vermont. So far, he’s planted more than 15,000 seeds. Last winter, just one plant survived.
But Ferver is working on something bigger, too. He is cultivating a whole collection of perennial crops — mostly fruits and nuts — that can thrive in Vermont as the climate warms. He envisions a future where farming has shifted away from annual planting and fertilizing, to a method that keeps the soil more intact.
“Climate change is in nobody’s favor, including trees. Because that kind of change, that's disaster — that's like meteor-hitting-the-planet kind of change,” Ferver said. “But because of climate change, I may have better luck growing plants here that historically wouldn't grow here.”
His work is also a sort of history project — and scavenger hunt. Ferver combs through historical records and Facebook groups to track down plants cultivated by previous generations of growers.
In this week’s podcast, Ferver talks persimmons, pawpaws and pecans. Plus, Vern Grubinger, a vegetable and berry expert at the University of Vermont Extension, explains some of the challenges and promises of cultivating perennial crops.
Below is a partial transcript, edited for length and clarity.
Riley Robinson: It’s the middle of July, and the temperature is hovering in the mid-80s.
But Buzz Ferver is still keeping the heat on in this greenhouse some nights. All on the ground, there’s grafted seedlings, bandaged in waxed plastic. Buzz is just finishing up his grafting for the season, attaching cuttings from one plant onto another. Nut trees need hot temperatures to heal.
Under the bits of plastic, the cambium wood grows over the cut, like a scab.
Buzz Ferver: The cambium is the part that will heal. That's the healing tissue. It's nonspecific tissue at the time it's healing. In this case, it's becoming bark. Cambium can become wood, it can become root, or it can become bark. It can grow those three things.
And so when you're making cuttings or grafts, you have this thing called callus, which is the nonspecific cambium healing, and the two pieces. If you match the cambiums together on the rootstock, and the what we call scion wood, those two cambiums, if they're the same genus and species, they'll heal together. And so the tree just keeps going, keeps growing.
Riley Robinson: Buzz owns Perfect Circle Farm, which sits on 45 acres near the Berlin airport.
I turn off the road onto a gravel driveway. There’s a barn with a large wind chime, and down a small incline there’s a few greenhouses, and some tables covered in buckets of plants.
Past the ends of rows of trees is the Worcester range.
Out in the field, a flock of chickens hang out under a silver maple. Buzz planted it a few years ago specifically so the chickens would have some shade.
Along the gravel driveway, there’s pawpaw seedlings, tagged by type: Shenandoah, mango, pina colada, Rebecca’s gold.
Buzz sells fruit and nut trees, both to home gardeners and other farms.
Buzz Ferver: I just planted like 40 really nice grafts of nut trees. And then pretty much all these plantings here are nut trees with a few persimmon and pawpaw thrown in.
There's chestnuts and then oaks and then more oaks, more chestnuts, some hazelnut, and a whole row of ultra northern pecan seedlings. And then come up here, you have all the fruit trees: plums, cherries, pears, blueberries, blueberries.
Riley Robinson: Some of what Buzz grows is unusual for Vermont’s climate. That’s kind of his thing. Central Vermont is in Zone 4 on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s map that shows which plants grow best in what regions. Zone 4 is too cool for a number of plants.
Buzz has a personal mission. He wants to cultivate a hardy persimmon that will grow well in Vermont.
And as a sidebar for the people like me who have never tried a persimmon — it’s an orange, sweet fruit.
Buzz Ferver: The actual Latin name of persimmon is diospyros, which means “the food of the gods.” That's what people think about them. They're so delicious. American persimmons, when they're ripe and perfect and “food of the gods,” they're so soft. They're so soft, they're like mush. They're just barely together. And they have to fall from the tree. You can't pick them.
They're very astringent until they're perfectly ripe. And when they fall, usually they crack. People put hay and straw, big mounds under the trees, so that the fruit can fall.
Riley Robinson: Buzz has planted thousands of persimmon seeds. It’s like he’s rolling the genetic dice: Out of thousands of plants, some of them will have that right combination of traits to survive Vermont winters.
Buzz Ferver: I have already planted 15,000 persimmons from seed, not counting this year’s four or five thousand, and have culled through them for hardiness, which is the first the first tier of, will they survive here? And a lot of them will survive. But a lot of them burn in winter, which means they freeze and die. So they'll freeze down, they'll freeze back, and out of 15,000 there may be 50 that don't seem to die back at all.
Riley Robinson: This past year, only one survived the winter.
I asked him why he’s so intent on this — why he keeps planting all these seeds, despite the odds.
Buzz Ferver: Legacy.
Riley Robinson: Tell me more.
Buzz Ferver: I want to be Buzz Ferver, the guy that brought persimmons to Zone 4.
For Buzz, this is about more than just persimmons. He has a larger vision.
Buzz is cultivating a collection of fruit and nut plants, mostly trees, that will grow well in Vermont’s climate. It’s part history project, part science project. He tracks down old plants and seeds from past generations of breeders and brings them to his farm.
Buzz Ferver: I'm standing on the shoulders of giants. There were some crazy people that were committed and devoted to this whole idea.
There are still a few people alive, and many people that are gone, whose work is there, who made a lot of crosses, and kept decent records. And so that material’s there, so I'm mining that, right? And I'm principally a seed grower. So I go to the best orchards from the best collections of the best people that have ever done this work.
Riley Robinson: He combs through the records from the Northern Nut Growers Association, a group that has met annually since 1910. But Buzz said he also uses social media to track down old trees.
Buzz Ferver: Yeah, because on social media, and specifically on Facebook, there are all kinds of groups. Like there's a chestnut group, there's a hickory —there’s multiple hickory groups, there's multiple pawpaw groups.
Riley Robinson: This is also his own protest against some modern farming practices that require tilling and replanting the soil every year.
Buzz Ferver: So that's what I'm doing here is, I'm trying to create a repository of Zone 4 hardy plants. So that if we ever need here in Vermont, to have, like, “Oh, we need to plant, you know, thousands of acres of nut trees to eat,” we'll have them.
Riley Robinson: So this is like a climate project.
Buzz Ferver: It is a climate project. That's exactly what I'm doing here. I'm making a germplasm here for climate change in Vermont. And I'm guising that in a nursery — I sell plants on the internet.
Riley Robinson: Climate change is already impacting what Buzz can grow here. Ten years ago, the USDA adjusted its zone maps. On this map, higher temperatures get higher zone numbers; lower temperatures get lower zone numbers. So Miami, Florida, is a 10. Central Vermont is Zone 4.
When the USDA published these updates in 2012, it was the first time any part of Vermont was rated Zone 5.
Buzz Ferver: Climate change is in nobody’s favor, including trees. Because that kind of change, that's disaster — that's like meteor-hitting-the-planet kind of change. But because of climate change, I may have better luck growing plants here that historically wouldn't grow here.
So pecan, for instance, is a great one. If you talk to all the people that know more about pecans than I ever will, they'll tell me — and they have told me — “You will never get a crop of pecans where you live.”
Riley Robinson: Have you?
Buzz Ferver: Well, not yet.
Riley Robinson: He’s been doing his own analysis, comparing heating and cooling patterns in central Vermont and Buffalo, New York, where people are growing ultra-northern pecans. Buzz thinks ultra-northern pecans will be able to grow in Vermont, if not now, then soon.
But in focusing on trees and bushes, Buzz is also looking to an entirely different kind of agriculture.
Trees don’t need to be replanted every year, they’re perennials. So there’s no tilling, and they’re not really dependent on yearly fertilizer. It helps keep the soil intact. Other crops can grow below the trees, and animals could graze on the underbrush.
Buzz Ferver: You know, the looming climate crisis is really being ignored, radically ignored.
At some point, it might be essential that we replace 200 million acres of corn with trees that produce enough food. They may not produce as much per acre as corn does right now, with yearly plowing, management with glyphosate, Roundup, and incredible fertilization.
You know, fertilizer’s made from oil. So we're basically pumping natural gas, fossil fuels, in the soil to support massive cropping. Rather than saying, hey, how do we design a system that will produce as many calories, as much protein, using perennial crops that we plant once every 100 or 150 years. There's no tilling.
Riley Robinson: Some people might call this permaculture. But actually Buzz doesn’t really like or use the term. He emphasizes that this isn’t some trendy thing that needs a new name, because indiginous peoples have practiced this kind of stewardship, and non-extractive growing, for generations.
Buzz Ferver: “Permaculture” is a white appropriation of what was happening prior to the white people rolling in here. So I don't like to say permaculture. I like to not really name it.
Riley Robinson: Sometimes he describes this approach as agroforestry – creating an edible forest, a farm forest.
Other organizations, like the Land Institute, based in Kansas, are engineering perennial grains, like wheat that doesn’t need to be replanted.
I wanted to understand the scope of this, of where people are pushing the science and practice of perennial crops. So I called Vern Grubinger at UVM Extension.
Vern Grubinger: There are lots of perennial crops we already grow and eat that are, you know, widespread around the world: tree fruits, obviously, berries, asparagus, rhubarb. So this is nothing new.
Vern is a vegetable and berry specialist. He’s also the director of a USDA grant program that funds sustainable agriculture projects across the Northeast.
Vern Grubinger: I think the challenging aspect is when there's an effort to convert something that's been grown as an annual crop to perennial crop, or to find very similar alternatives. So the Land Institute has been working on developing perennial grains, that would allow for systems that don’t require tillage, and all of the downsides that do come with annual crop production.
Because generally you're stirring up the soil to create a seedbed. Which means you have the potential for erosion. There's less permanent roots and carbon in the soil. And so, yeah, there's a lot to be said for leaving the soil alone and being able to get your food.
Riley Robinson: I mentioned Buzz’s work to Vern, and said one of the things that struck me is that Buzz is just sort of doing it on his own. He never went to college, but he’s learned from mentors and reading and his own research. He doesn’t have the backing of a university. He’s doing this out on his 45-acre farm in Berlin.
Riley Robinson: How common is that? Like, where? Who is pushing the needle? As you said, is it academic institutions? Is it just individual growers? Is it? Where's this happening in Vermont?
Vern Grubinger: That's a very deep question with a complex answer. Because you're really asking, Where does innovation come from?
There's different skill sets that are super complementary to figuring stuff out. You know, the people on the ground growing things, the farmers, the growers have, you know, observation and experience over anything academics will have. They’re growing these things every day and learning all the nuances. Sometimes it's the other way around. Something's discovered by academics, often in part because growers bring something up, like, “Hey, I’ve got this problem. You guys should look at it.”
Riley Robinson: Vern said it's pretty common for ideas and questions to flow back and forth between growers and academics. Growers are always trying to yield more or better quality or different produce. He said nobody was even growing sweet potatoes in Vermont until about 30 years ago.
But Vern did mention some bigger trends – over time, a lot of seed development has consolidated under large corporations.
Vern Grubinger: There used to be a lot of breeding programs at public universities. And most of those are gone. Cornell's done, still has some going. They did a lot of breeding back in the day. And you know, there's some famous cucumber varieties came out of there, and certainly apples. There was a lot of great breeding done in Minnesota for cold, cold varieties — peaches, Canada, you know, tomatoes at Rutgers, they were pretty famous for some of their good flavor, tomato sauce.
Riley Robinson: Vern described this kind of symbiotic relationship between universities and businesses and farms. Campbell's soup used to use the Rutgers tomato, bred by Rutgers plant scientists in the 1930s. Local growers then supplied lots of the tomatoes that Campell’s used.
Vern Grubinger: Some of it is those universities, bred, things that were, you know, grown by their farmers in their area, and usually processed by some company that was a big market for those growers. So it made sense to work on that.
Riley Robinson: In 1930, Congress passed the Plant Protection Act, which enabled breeders to patent their plants. This is one reason a lot of seed development moved into the private sector. Vern said there’s also been a trend of decreasing investment in public universities to do this kind of plant research and development.
When I talked with Vern and Buzz, both of them placed current interest in perennial crops in a wider sweep of history.
Vern Grubinger: Agriculture evolved, and certainly post World War Two, World War One, really, the invention of the tractor and, you know, tons of tillage, and that led to the Dust Bowl. And then after World War Two was more tons of chemicals, and that led to, you know, Silent Spring, and an awareness of like, Whoa, these things are way more dangerous than people were paying attention to.
So the Dust Bowl was a wake up call, like, whoa, if you just till the daylights out of soil all the time, really bad things happen. And you’ve got to keep it covered. And you know, that's evolved. Yeah, cover cropping, reduced tillage rotation, like all these best practices that still endure today.
Riley Robinson: The Dust Bowl, and in post World War Two, it sounds like a cycle of human-created problems, human-solved problems, and on and on.
Vern Grubinger: Solved is a big word. It's an ongoing challenge to grow food in a way that minimizes environmental impact. And the other thing is, you know, it's continuous learning, right? We do things, and then we find out oh, it had a consequence we didn't think of.
I think Vermont is full of fantastic farmers who are part of this long history of stewardship and trying to do it better.
Riley Robinson: Buzz is completely sold out of everything this season, except for seeds. He said he ships to nearly every state – including Alaska, but not Hawaii. He had a burst in orders when the pandemic started, as more people got into gardening at home.
Buzz Ferver: You cannot buy a grafted pawpaw right now. Can't. Prices have doubled. People are like, boom.
Riley Robinson: Now that Buzz is pretty much done with grafting, things at the nursery will be a little slower-paced for the next month or so. Then in September, as chestnuts and hickories start falling off tree limbs, he’ll travel around the country tracking down seeds. Then he’ll bring them back to his farm.
He said some of the people posting in these Facebook groups have found some really good trees and don’t even realize it, don’t understand how much work went into grafting and cultivating them.
He told me about some chestnuts that he went out to see in Pennsylvania.
Buzz Ferver: I tried for three or four or five years to go there, but could never get time. It's right outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I finally went, like I'm going, I don’t care. I'm going. But then people are like, oh, yeah, they had they literally raked the nuts up into giant piles, and thrown them over the bank. They're a pain. They're hard to mow around. They're all over the grass. We hate these things — many people feel that way about chestnuts because they have spiny burr.
Riley Robinson: Someone else from New Jersey posted about a patch of trees out behind a botanical garden, which turned out to be grafted nut trees from the 1920s.
Buzz Ferver: And I’m like, I'll be down there in a month. I pass right through there. I pass within ten minutes of that place every time I go south to do nut and scionwood gathering.
Riley Robinson: And did you go get some?
Buzz Ferver: Oh god yeah. We grafted ‘em all up.
Editor’s note: Since talking to Ferver in mid-July, he’s restocked on a few items, including grafted nut trees.
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