We are not at the end of a rope, as it’s so easy to think. Humanity can yet choose to turn direction. The moment has come to leap into action with glad hearts. The seeds are germinating. The fungi are willing. And we must be, too.

Michael Phillips was willing. Always happy to linger a little longer among the apples, to listen and learn from nature, and answer the questions of perplexed orchardists.  His willingness to move in a different direction – against the current – and to bring others along with him made him both a legend among orchardists and a treasure to aspiring fruit growers. These qualities made Michael Phillips a stand-out instructor in Sterling’s School of the New American Farmstead – and a generous resource to our Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems faculty and students. It is with great sadness that we acknowledge his untimely passing and with reverence that we celebrate his life and legacy.  

We only become wise when we recognize that we need to emulate nature in our agricultural systems and in how we care for this planet.

In all of his work – as a farmer, writer, carpenter, orchard consultant, speaker and educator –  Michael Phillips took inspiration and instruction from nature. His Lost Nation Orchard, part of the Holistic Orchard Network, is the paradigmatic example of a thriving, diverse orchard with healthy plants resilient to pests and disease and strongly connected to a network of beneficial fungi which were in turn part of a rich soil community. Michael was the keen steward of the land. He stewarded the trees to a strong production and he coaxed exquisite flavor of place in his fruit. Rarely has systems thinking tasted so sweet and juicy. 

Michael’s work fundamentally respected the intelligence of nutrient exchange at several levels – underground between fungi and plant roots, within the tree, and between a nutrient-dense fruit and the organism that feasts upon it. He was also attentive to the power of knowledge exchange and skill sharing. He appreciated that humans, like trees, need to stay connected to each other – and because we are unable to communicate via mycorrhizal networks, Michael facilitated a vital and vibrant community orchard movement via www.GrowOrganicApples.com. When you attended a grafting workshop hosted by Michael, you would notice how attentive he was  to each individual student’s skill development, how generous he was with his knowledge — by the end of the training you’d have caught his contagious love of his trade. If you were not familiar with apple varieties before the experience, you would walk away with a tremendous appreciation of what genetic diversity has to offer us all. One need only navigate to the Memoriam page on his website to get a sense of the profound impact Michael had on contemporary farmers and fruit growers. 

When Michael taught at Sterling, we simultaneously learned how to improve the biology of the orchard and soil to support optimal production, manage for both  beneficial insects and beneficial fruit, and foster diversity in the orchard, the soils, and our microbiomes. He shared the recipes and processes used to create his signature natural sprays that boost plant immune response and avoid the need for synthetic pesticides. Most deliciously, he taught us to manage our orchards for optimal growth, harvest for peak flavor, and process for maximum nutrition and delight. He also helped us connect joyfully with each other. One late summer afternoon, after a visit to Cate Hill Orchard in Greensboro, Vermont, Michael gathered his students and hosts around one of the large apple trees to pause and appreciate all it had to offer. Michael led us in a traditional apple wassail song and dance while we all enjoyed some lovely cider! It was a true full circle appreciation of what this earth and its inhabitants have to offer each other and can achieve together. 

Though we are terribly sad that we won’t get to welcome Michael to The Farm Between for the Continuing Education class we were eagerly planning at the time of his death, we will continue to consult our well worn copies of his books: The Apple Grower (Chelsea Green Publications, 2005), The Holistic Orchard (Chelsea Green Publications, 2011), The Herbalist’s Way (Chelsea Green Publications, 2005). And we will turn back to his final book, Mycorrhizal Planet: How Fungi and Plants Work Together to Create Dynamic Soils, which was published by Chelsea Green in February 2017, when we need to inspire higher levels of fungal consciousness. 

Our condolences go out to Michael’s wife, Nancy, and daughter, Gracie, who continue to do the good work of growing many kinds of apples and medicinal herbs on Heartsong Farm & Wellness Center, their beloved New Hampshire homestead, which also serves as a community resource and educational center. Those who would like to support the Phillips family and Heartsong are invited to:

  • express their appreciation on the the Memoriam Page;
  • plant a fruit tree in Michael’s memory;
  • make a donation to the Holistic Orchard Network;
  • contribute to the GoFundMe campaign to enable completion of construction  projects at Heartsong that Michael had underway at the time of his passing; 
  • participate in a workday at Heartsong (contact organizer Rosemary Gladstar for details at [email protected]);
  • join a celebration of Michael’s life amid the apple blossoms at Heartsong on May 28, 2022 (details to follow here).

This summer at Sterling, we also look forward to raising glasses of holistically made cider and planting trees in his honor. 

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