Establishing Successful Organic Orchards

Final Report for FNC03-462

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Project Background
This is an organic apple orchard with a large patch of strawberries and another of raspberries covering approximately one acre of land surrounded by a wooded 14 acre parcel just west of Ann Arbor, Michigan. This started as an attempt to establish a viable small business. Due to cash flow problems, it has become a hobby farm.

The farm came into operation just before the grant and had provided organic produce, small scale, through vegetable stands in the area. An important component of the project was community building and networking. We provided a strong presence. The organic and sustainable agriculture communities in southeast Michigan are fairly strong, even though the economics are not.

Project Description and Results
Our objective is to establish and expand a demonstration organic orchard, work with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension and the Organic Growers of Michigan to develop and disseminate information for current and future orchard growers, and create opportunities for young people to enter and succeed in this field. There will be a total of four, viable, well-supported organic orchards in our area within a year and a half, where we currently have none.

Process: We networked quite a lot both formally and informally. We found no shortage of good ideas and people willing to help. We also found a lot of eagerness to learn about sustainable agriculture. Our first field day with the orchardist (Doug Murray) attracted about twenty farmers and students on a cold rainy day, and virtually the whole group stayed for the whole day. We published our own newsletter, very personal and fun and practical. It was hard to tell how well read it was, but it was a great network builder. We painted a lot to make our stand colorful. Our marketing strategy was to pair up with three local businesses that were thriving. They all hosted us for free and offered publicity, practical help, and moral support. I think this was a great strategy.

We never had enough good produce for a long enough stretch of weeks to increase foot traffic. We lost a lot of money -- approximately $20,000 over two years. The biggest “mistake” from a financial perspective was hiring employees. I don’t think a small farm operation can afford employees until it starts to have some momentum and cash flow. We thought we could sustain the effort, but we wanted to at least break even by the second year. Didn’t happen.

People: We were assisted by Matt Henry and Jean Banks, owners of Jefferson Market; by Todd Wickstrom, managing partner of Zingerman’s Deli; by the owner of Downtown Home and Garden; by friends and family, and by our customers. From the Extension, we were helped by Bob Bricault, mostly with technical advice. There are several other farmers around who opened their arms to us and whom we helped in turn. We spent a little time trying to help the fruit trees on one of the local farms. Some other folks getting into small scale orchards were also involved. The most important people were the “team,” which included Peter Ways, Joe Breakey (thus Breakaway Organics), Michael Lee, Melanie Swanson, Elissa Driker-Ohren, and Carol Ways – who hosted the farm and has become its primary shepherdess.

Results: We can share a list of 25 people who attended one of the field days, a mailing list of about 150, and we have 140 trees in the ground. We had many happy customers. Melanie has been extremely successful and says the farm experience was a big part of her education; we created an opportunity for her to succeed. She may well pursue sustainable agriculture in her education and career.

We have yet to produce any fruit off the trees. We are following the practice of allowing the trees 3-5 years before encouraging/allowing fruit. We basically feed and water them, mow a lot, fight disease and pests, and do a little staking. We also provide deer protection, perhaps the single most important achievement of our farm: deer free for over two years. We’d be happy to tell people about our electric fence. It’s cheap and easy and works great. There are not any thriving organic orchards now but there may be two or more in the coming years and we were part of making that happen.

Discussion: I think the most important thing we learned is that if you want to make it financially, you have to keep costs very low. Most of the farmers we know either work during the winter or are in major debt. We also learned that raising fruit trees is one of the more difficult things to do, conventionally or organically. It’s daunting to fight so many pests. The true organic method would suggest that soil fertility is as important as fighting pests. Meanwhile, your trees are a breeding ground for everything evil to the orchardist. As most farmers do, we learned that what worked for others didn’t necessarily work for us. We had to learn our own piece of land. The other important thing we learned is that organic produce needs to command a high price. That doesn’t mean you can’t obtain it through a co-op or CSA, but stores and restaurants should be prepared to pay a premium for local or organic produce. This means the consumer has to be educated. In Ann Arbor, this proved to be an uphill battle. It would likely be even more difficult in other areas.

Project Impacts
Organic orchards have a great potential for positive environmental impacts compared to conventional methods. The economic impact is not as clear. It seems that on a large scale, organic and conventional methods might be about equal. If demand for organic fruit continues to increase, then it would make sense to be in organics for the long term. The social impacts are probably minimal beyond the networking of the local community.

We had two field days with Doug Murray, the first attracting 25 people for a full day and the second attracting a dozen people for a half day. We put out seven issues of our newsletter, “Organic Matters.” It was mailed to 150 homes and an equal number were distributed from our stand.

[Editor's Note: These one-page (front and back) newsletters were informative and fun to read and full of experiences on the farm. They also answered queries about the workings of an organic farm from the curious, the young, and the young at heart.

In newsletter no. 7., Melanie Swanson articulately described how working on the farm changed her life, and helped her understand and embrace a sustainable food system:

"I arrived in Ann Arbor late at night after an interminable three-day train ride from Seattle. That was back in March, almost six months ago when the ground was just thawing out and little bits of green were tentatively appearing on trees and shrubs. My stint here is over now and I'm on to the next big adventure, but I've learned a lot and I believe I may have finally had the life-changing experience I've been seeking for several years now. It's true. I've gone looking in all sorts of places -- various foreign and exotic countries, on the tops of mountains, a hundred feet below the water, on the back of an elephant, jumping out of an airplane, in hammers and saws and homeless shelters and horrible retail jobs -- and have come up with my hands empty, though with good stories. Then I came here to the midwest and grew some vegetables and had some epiphanies.

I've discovered that food grows on plants. I realize that this is not astute. But I think that I am not in the minority, being a person who has been severely disconnected from my food sources from most of my life. Now that I have actively participated in the cultivation of food for myself and for other people, I will no longer be able to purchase any old vegetable from any old grocery store. Each and every vegetable sitting on its shelf has some story and some effect on the world at large. The same goes for processed foods and dairy, and I want the stories of my food to be positive and sustainable. If I can't grow it myself, I'm determined to purchase it from locales that are committed to sustainability, health, and preservation. And I'm not talking about Whole Foods. I'll be supporting my local co-op or natural foods grocery store wherever I go; I'll be putting my dollar into the hands of people whose end goals are not domination and expansion.

A sidewalk produce stand hawking an array of organic vegetables my not seem significant or world changing. It may even seem quaint; but beneath the simple concept lies soemthing revolutionary. If we grow our own food, or if we buy it directly from the grower, we eliminate countless steps in a process that is ultimately nothing but destructive to this planet. We empower ourselves and our growers through choosing food grown with care and in sync with the earth. We cast our vote against agribusiness and huge grocery stores that carry products that do little for well-being or healthfulness.

I'm leaving Michigan, but I'm taking with me countless lessons and a commitment to buying locally grown, organic food -- that is, if I can't grow it myself. I will surely have to pay more for my food, but I'd rather pay with something as fleeting as money that with the health of the earth, myself, and my loved ones."

In newsletter no. 6, twelve-year-old Anthony Sgro, described his experiences with organic farming, which started when he worked in a community garden with his dad when he was 5 years old. Anthony quickly learned to plant and care for a variety of plants, including his favorites: tomatoes, sunflowers, corn, and pumpkins. He says, "The most important thing about growing a good tomato is to water it as often as possible and to give it something to support it. The best way to do it is to take your leaves and let them decompose for a few years. Then you use this to fertilize the young tomatoes. It's better if you start with tomato plants instead of with seeds because it's easier. A tomato plant is like a masterpiece of music already started for you. You just pick it up from there."]


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.