Our family fruit farm consists of about 100 acres of organic apple production, a few acres of vegetables and another 140 acres of woods, meadows, and rented out crop land. My wife and five children (ages 14-24) all actively participate in the farming and fruit growing at AlMar Orchards. The two oldest are pursuing graduate degrees in agricultural related fields (veterinary science and research chemistry) at a near by college, Michigan State University. They spend any free weekends and the summers helping out on the farm. The other three children still go to public school and have their daily chores and weekend jobs on the farm.
Five years ago we started transitioning a ten acre apple block into organic production and each year after that added another block of orchard. This next spring we will be transitioning our final orchard into organic production. This is truly a challenge since all of our apples and vegetables are grown for fresh sales and not processing. Growing blemish free fruit organically under Michigan weather conditions is next to impossible.
Some of our apples and cider is sold at our farm market and the rest is sold to distant stores and markets in other states. We also started making and selling fermented cider a couple of years ago. The “hard cider” is really catching on and our production is barely keeping up with the demand.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
One of the many challenges in organic apple production is controlling orchard mice and voles so that they don’t harm our trees. We have to maintain a lot of rodent predators in or orchards in order to keep the mice population to a minimum. Upon researching rodent predation, I became intrigued with the idea of utilizing barn owls for rodent control. Like so many sustainable agricultural practices of the past, this use has been forgotten. The barn owl numbers have dropped to the level that it has been put on the endangered species list because of current farming practices and loss of safe nesting sites. It became clear that I should provide a safe harbor for this bird and under organic orchard horticultural practices this bird would flourish and help control my rodent populations. I built two types of nesting boxes for my barn owls and placed them in three different locations on my farm in hopes of attracting a nesting pair the first year. It didn’t happen…probably because there are so few in the area. Remember… they are on the endangered list. Eventually some will find my nesting boxes, have babies and return each season with increasing numbers.
The most important component of this project was not to establish barn owls the first year but to encourage other farmers to establish safe nesting sites on their farms. This would help the barn owl reestablish itself in the great lakes region. To accomplish this I chose through a poster presentation at the Great Lakes Fruit and Vegetable Expo this December 9-11 to educate the 3000 fruit and vegetable growers at this conference of the need for them to help save the owl and at the same time control their rodent pest.
The poster had three components:
1) Educational information about barn owls, which should get and hold the readers attention
2) Discuss the need for farmers to establish safe nesting sites as an aid in controlling rodent pest and as an aid to increasing this endangered species population
3) Demonstrate how cheap and easy it is to build special predator proof owl homes.
Michigan State University’s David Eipstein has put together a video on proper IPM scouting and IPM practices and has included some discussion and pictures of my owl houses, describing how useful as a rodent control tool they are. Most fruit and vegetable growers in Michigan and the other Great Lakes will view this movie.
I can confidently state that this was a very successful project. Many growers will be erecting owl boxes in the next couple of years on their farms to help control rodent pest and these new safe nesting sites will help the barn owl reestablish itself in our area. As the owl’s presence becomes know, the farmers will quit using mouse poison to kill rodents. Other creatures that would have been inadvertently poisoned will also escape and thus a greater biodiversity of life will flourish on these farms.
Finally, the poster will be hung on a wall of our classroom at the orchard where we have thousands of students visit each year to learn about the sustainable horticultural practices that we use to grow our apples and vegetables. The educational component of this project is very far reaching.