Growing a Pear Orchard at an Organic Farm School to Increase Supply and Demand for Organic Tree Fruit in St. Louis, MO

Final Report for FNC14-970

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
Rachel Levi
EarthDance
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

To carry out the project “Growing a Pear Orchard at an Organic Farm School to Increase Supply and Demand for Organic Tree Fruit in St. Louis, MO” EarthDance farmers planted  an orchard consisting first of 60 pear trees.  Over the course of our orchard project, it expanded to include apples, tart cherries, service berries, and more. 

EarthDance found that all educational opportunities associated with organic fruit production were highly popular, and that public interest in the project was enthusiastic.  St. Louis area market shoppers and food vendors are eager for local, organic fruit.

Introduction:

EarthDance proposed to install a half-acre pear orchard at our Organic Farm School in St. Louis, MO, in order to educate other local growers about best practices in sustainable orchard production, and thus address the insufficient supply of local, sustainably-produced fruit in St. Louis.  After the grant was awarded, EarthDance’s Farm Managers continued to research cutting-edge practices in organic fruit production.  Through consultation with the broad-scale permaculture farmer, Mark Shepard, and ATTRA educator and orchardist, Guy Ames, EarthDance Farmer, Matt Lebon, proposed that we diversify and expand the orchard, and integrate the orchard with EarthDance’s annual vegetable production.  This report will delve into the specifics of this revised planting and management plan in the Methods section.

 

Project Objectives:

EarthDance completed the objectives associated with the original proposal, including:

  • conducting a survey of  food vendors/restaurateurs in the St. Louis region, assessing their interest in purchasing locally produced organic fruit
    • The survey was emailed to over 80 buyers of local produce, including chefs and grocers
    • follow-up phone calls were made to individuals who did not complete the survey
    • 13 responses were collected (EarthDance set a goal of hearing from 25 buyers but could not pin down any other responders)
    • 100% expressed interest in purchasing more locally grown fruit
    • 92% expressed interest in purchasing more local ORGANIC fruit
    • 57% said that they would like to purchase 1-50 additional lbs of local fruit per week
    • 28% said that they would like to purchase 50-100 additional lbs of local fruit per week
    • 15% said that they would like to purchase 100-300 additional lbs of local fruit per week
    • 100% said that they would pay more for locally grown fruit than its non-local version
    • Asian pears were the most requested fruit, followed by European pears, apples, and peaches.
  • planting pears in our orchard
    • EarthDance planted 62 pears, including 30 two-year-old trees and 32 pears grafted by EarthDance staff and participants in a grafting workshop
    • As the project expanded, EarthDance planted over 200 other fruit trees in addition to pears
  • educating our apprentices about orchard care
    • Provided several field walks about nursery tree care
    • Topics included pruning, tree guards, and deer protection
  • hosting workshops on topics relevant to organic orchard establishment
    • Goal: educate 50-100 individuals about organic fruit production
    • Met goal: 84 individuals participated in EarthDance’s workshops
    • Hosted the following workshops
      • Feb 2014: Organic Fruit Production and Grafting Fruit Trees, 35 participants
      • March 2015: Orchard Installation Workshop, 21 participants
      • May 2015: Organic Fruit Production class taught by Guy Ames, 28 participants
  • educating the public about the project

EarthDance provided tours of EarthDance Farm for 1,486 individuals since the first orchard trees were installed in 2014.  During each tour, EarthDance staff point out the fruit trees laid out on contoured swales.  The tour guide explains the unusual aspects of the orchard, including alley cropping, the diversity of fruit trees laid out in a designed sequence, the earthworks, and weed-suppressing landscape fabric.  During tours, EarthDance staff discuss the challenge of organic fruit production in the lower Midwest, and the ways that our orchard is designed to mitigate these problems.  Our aim is to increase public interest in purchasing local organic fruit, and to increase the consumer’s willingness to pay a premium for organic local fruit, based on increased understanding of the organic farmer’s obstacles.  

In addition to tours, EarthDance also issued a press release and posted a blog about the project to EarthDance’s website.  To conclude the project’s initial phase, we have published a factsheet available for download on the website and submitted to SARE with this report.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Guy Ames
  • Rachel Levi
  • Monica Pless
  • Molly Rockamann

Research

Materials and methods:

Earthdance fruit trees were alley cropped throughout the growing fields in parallel rows 80 ft apart.  Alley Cropping is the planting of rows of trees at wide spacings with an annual crop grown in the alleyways between the rows.  Plans to grow vegetables in the 75 ft alleys will continue for the next several years.  As the trees grow larger in size, the alleys will be narrowed.  

Before laying out the trees, EarthDance farmers established a system of swales and berms.  A keyline design was utilized to site the swales.  Keyline design is a technique for maximizing beneficial use of water resources of a piece of land. The Keyline refers to a specific topographic feature linked to water flow. Trees were planted into berms, which were mounded on the lower side of each corresponding swale.  

To manage weeds around the trees, a heavy duty landscape fabric was laid on top of berms and around trees, after the trees were planted.  While this method proved effective at minimizing weed pressure, it made for challenging cultivation next to the landscape fabric.  To mitigate this pressure we recommend that a low growing perennial be planted alongside the landscape fabric.  Presently, EarthDance cannot confidently recommend a suitable plant for achieving this end.  

Several other tree species, all well adapted for organic production, were added to the pears in order to create a diverse polyculture of tree fruits.  Those various trees were put in a repeating sequence so as to support the pollination needs of the trees and most effectively mitigate the spread of pests and disease.  

The sequence planted was follows:

pear- pawpaw- pawpaw- pear- tart cherry- pear- plum- pear- pawpaw- pawpaw- serviceberry- apple

 

Research results and discussion:
  • 84 individuals participated in workshops to learn more about organic orcharding.  More than 50% of participants at these workshops say they will plant fruit trees due to what they learned.  EarthDance is thrilled that our project has provided inspiration and tools to other growers to support their fruit production endeavors.
  • 1,486 members of the public are more informed about challenges to organic fruit production
  • EarthDance’s orchard will continue to grow in value as a teaching tool and an enterprise.  EarthDance will continue to provide lessons on grafting and pruning using the orchard.  In the coming 2-5 years, as the fruit trees bear a harvest, EarthDance will likely use the trees to educate apprentices about pest and disease control specific to organic fruit.  Harvesting the fruit will provide additional educational opportunities: postharvest handling for the various types of fruit; marketing strategies; and potentially the development of a value-added project

 

Impact of Results/Outcomes

  • Completed the installation of a 250+ tree mixed orchard
  • Educated 84 individuals about organic fruit production and orcharding through three workshops conducted over two years.
  • Provided orchard tours for over 1400 individuals who visited EarthDance 2014-2015.
Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

EarthDance’s outreach on behalf of this project took place primarily at the farm.  This came in the form of hosting a hands-on orchard installation workshop in March of 2015, and conducting tours for over 1400 attendees.   I have attached the fact sheet that EarthDance developed to provide other growers with information about this project.  It is also available for download on our website. Permaculture Orchard Fact Sheet

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

EarthDance considers our planting sequence to be a potentially important contribution to the advance of commercial scale permaculture orcharding.  The sequence was designed to provide a diversity of trees at intervals sufficient to discourage the spread of disease, with the trees’ pollination needs taken into account as well.

Future Recommendations

To continue our investigation of permaculture orcharding, EarthDance will plant a series of perennial herbs, fruiting shrubs, and flowering native plants in the berms, in the spaces between fruit trees. (Each tree is planted eighteen feet away from its neighbor).  EarthDance is excited to experiment with the great diversity of yields that could be realized from what would otherwise be wasted space, including numerous fruits and useful herbs, habitat for beneficial insects, and physical beauty.  

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.