Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Lessons From Owning An Apple Orchard

Some things in life sound soooo good at the time but the ultimate reality is rather different -- maybe still good, but not in the ways we first thought.  This is about one of those things in my own life.

WeeFolks Tending Their Orchard
Before retiring and moving from Ohio to Hawai'i, my wife and I owned a thousand-tree apple orchard for about 10 years as partners with another couple.  Sounds romantic, right? -- your very own apple orchard, all that luscious, colorful fruit and those rows upon rows of beautiful trees in an idyllic country setting of rolling hills and green fields, with soft, fragrant breezes and birds and butterflies and bees flitting here and there in the bright golden sunshine, and puffy white clouds dotting a deep blue sky. (Cue the violins.)  The reality was a little less Disney-esque.

Our involvement in the orchard took place while we were pursuing our full-time careers as university psychology professor and middle-school math teacher (i.e., our "real" jobs).  Besides posing physical challenges to us that were quite different from our regular jobs, owning the orchard also taught us many unforeseen lessons about agriculture, producing food as a business, and dealing with a very diverse group of people.

The orchard had been planted by two of my university friends and their wives 10 years earlier as part of their plan for retirement.  The idea was that the orchard would provide a stimulating and lucrative activity in their golden years, combining healthy exercise and fresh air with a supplemental source of income.  In 20/20 hindsight this was not a well-grounded assessment, for reasons that will soon become clear.  When one of the partners died prematurely his widow had little interest in continuing the project, and we were offered the chance to buy her share of the partnership.

My wife and I knew nothing about apple trees, but we loved gardening on a small scale and this seemed like a natural extension of our mutual interest.
Just a few bushels
Our soon-to-be-partner reported that in earlier years the work required by the orchard had been easily accomplished on weekends and occasional afternoons so that there had been minimal interference with career commitments.  Most of the crop had been sold through the local farmer's market on Saturdays and also through direct orders solicited at local public schools where the wives were teachers.  Sounded good.  However, lesson # 1 came very quickly when we learned that apple trees take years to reach their peak production and these were just approaching that point -- instead of a crop of a few bushels to sell we were soon faced with the challenge of marketing up to 23 tons of apples, something our partners hadn't anticipated in their idyllic retirement plan. Also, larger mature trees require much more work to maintain that small newly planted ones, with the attendant increase in time demanded. This was way more than a gentleman's hobby!

We sold the orchard shortly after our partners moved to Seattle.  It seems the wife of my friend had other retirement plans that didn't include farm work in southern Ohio.  Overall we regard our experience as a positive one, and we're glad we did it.  The lessons I learned were many, and I think they changed my outlook in ways I still appreciate.  Here are a few that stand out in my memory:

Nature Always Wins  

NOW what?
I now know why harvest celebrations are such a big deal -- that is the only time a farmer can truly regard the crop as a success.  In the case of apples, at any moment during the growing season nature can change a promising crop into something fit only for pigs.  In the spring, for example, a frost at the end of the blooming period can kill most of the developing fruit.  We used to cringe if there was a warm period at the end of winter because it might stimulate the trees to start blooming early and therefore be vulnerable to a cold snap.  Or too much rain during the bloom could keep bees from pollinating the blossoms and could encourage diseases that would stunt and disfigure the fruit, making much of it unsalable.  Or a fall thunderstorm right before the apples were picked could knock the fruit to the ground and turn a good crop to crap in a matter of hours. Or any number of other things outside of our control could make or break the year's production.  No matter how hard you work at growing food, nature always wins.  The best you can do is to encourage the factors that contribute to a good crop (pruning, fertilizing, spraying) and then hope for the best.

Growing Food for a Living is HARD WORK!

I also now have a keen appreciation for how much physical effort is involved in producing food, and I have a deep respect for anyone who makes a living doing it.  Remember, I'm talking about small-scale operations, not big corporate agribusinesses here. Our orchard was quite small by industry standards, and small enterprises often require more personal effort because expensive labor-saving equipment isn't available and relying heavily on paid labor is cost-prohibitive.  In our case we supplied most of the labor ourselves -- pruning, spraying, mowing, picking, transporting, and selling. Boy did I learn a lot during this process.  For instance, pruning has to be done carefully and correctly or else you can actually damage an apple tree and prevent it from bearing fruit.  But if you have 1000 trees to prune each spring in a matter of a few weeks, you have to do this skilled work quickly and efficiently.  I first read a couple of books on the subject and then practiced on the job -- lots and lots of practice over the years, to the tune of maybe 5 or 6 thousand trees total (I pruned half the trees each year, my partner the other half).

Likewise, picking apples may seem simple, but it actually requires skill to do correctly in order to avoid damaging the tree's "fruiting spurs," which are small branches near the current fruit that will bear fruit the following year.  Also, ripe apples are prone to bruising and have to be gently handled to reduce spoilage and preserve eye appeal.  And of course you have to do this quickly because there is only a few weeks' window to get it done.  We tried hiring helpers to assist in the picking but in southern Ohio there wasn't a pool of skilled migrant workers familiar with apples like there is in the big apple-producing regions of the Pacific Northwest.  Instead, we tried high school kids and university students but we found pretty quickly that most of them really didn't have a concept of "physical work," nor where their pay was coming from.  I remember one kid being very puzzled when I tried to explain that unless he picked at a certain rate, we were paying him more to pick a bushel of apples than we could sell them for -- in other words that he was actually costing us money, not helping us.  He was one of the many that didn't last very long.

[Warning:  I am probably going to offend some you in the next section.  My apologies, but tough Pippins.]

Anyone who has had an apple tree in their yard knows that much of the time the apples are small, shriveled, home to a variety of wriggling critters, and the leaves often look as if they have leprosy.  This is because humans like apples, insects like apples, fungi like apples, and moldy microbes like apples. The trees themselves do not care what the fruit looks like or whether it appeals to human senses as long as it produces seeds that can perpetuate the species.

Advocates of organic food often seem to have the belief that all you have to do is let nature take its
Organic!  Yummy!
course and plants will bless us with a bounty of attractive and healthy food.  I assure you nature has other ideas.  Growing food, including apples, without active management practices that increase our competitive edge against all the other critters who also consider apples their own food source, would be exceedingly difficult and wasteful. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the possible health and environmental consequences of non-organically raised food, but we should be discerning, selective, and realistic in our assessments.

In our orchard we followed something called "Integrated Pest Management."  We did use chemical sprays but we tried to minimize the amount and limit their ecological impact.  For instance, in the spring we switched chemicals during the bloom period to avoid killing bees, and at other times we used sprays that were less toxic to beneficial "predator insects" so they would provide some degree of natural biological control of harmful insects.  We tolerated a certain level of infestation and only took extra action if the problem exceeded reasonable limits.  Regular pruning and fertilizing to keep the trees healthy helped them fight off disease and insects and reduced the need for chemical intervention (but certainly didn't eliminate it).  Finally, our sprayer was a low-flow-high-effort rig that allowed us to confine the spray -- in contrast to large commercial orchards where the sprayers create a fine-droplet fog that covers everything in the area whether it needs it or not.  Our method was less effective in controlling pests, however, and we had a much larger percent of unsaleable fruit than a large orchard would tolerate.

Show Me the Money!

A major set of lessons from owning the orchard had to do with the economic realities of producing food.  The "bottom line" is that thankfully we weren't depending on income from the orchard as our main source of support.  We never actually lost money but we didn't make much either, and if we put even a minimal value on our own labor we were in the red most years.  I admire any small food producer who can make a living this way.

When you are producing food you are at the bottom of a supply chain with several links, and at each level the value and profit margin increase.  In our case, we sold our apples wholesale for 1/4 to 1/5 of what we could get for them selling retail.  However, this increased profit margin was tempered by the greater time required and by additional costs of selling retail.  Further, there were only so many bushels we could sell at the retail level and this didn't come anywhere close to the total production of the orchard.  The greatest part of our crop went at a wholesale price that was just a smidge above our production costs, or for cider apples that were pretty much a break-even proposition.  In short, owning a small apple orchard won't make you rich, at least in monetary terms.

Another lesson was in the effects of supply and demand on the price we received for the apples.  For example, in years when nature cooperated and we had a very good crop in terms of quality and quantity, we often got less money per bushel.  This is because in agriculture if you have a good crop, many others do too.  Supply up, price down.  This fluctuation, however, is greater at the bottom of the supply chain than at the top.  In other words, in a good year things might cost somewhat less at the grocery store, but the price farmers receive for each unit they produce is considerably lower -- what may save them is that they have more to sell, but of course more product => more work.

These economic lessons are still with me when I visit farmer's markets.  I don't complain that the prices are pretty much the same as in the grocery store because I've been on the other side of the counter and I know the profits are going directly to the people who deserve them the most.

 These are Really Good People

Without a doubt, the most positive and enjoyable lessons from our adventure into agriculture came from the people we encountered while selling our apples.  On Fridays we picked the best apples we could for the Saturday morning market in our town, and early in the morning we set up our stall for a 4-5 hour session of selling direct to our customers.  It is hard to describe the warm fuzzy feeling of having people buy something you have produced that gives them pleasure and enjoyment.  We enjoyed talking to them, explaining the qualities of the different varieties of apples and describing our growing process. We had many repeat customers and this enhanced our satisfaction and made all the hard work worthwhile.  The market was also a social affair in our small town, and many of the customers were our friends.  In this context, however, we were able to interact on a different basis and to explore a different aspect of our friendship.  Our other main retail outlet was through the schools where my wife and the wife of our other partner taught.  My wife would solicit weekly orders in fall, and then we will fill them on a personalized basis for pickup after school.  This was time-consuming but very enjoyable because it was such a personal interaction.

We also met many other people, including other sellers, whom we probably would not have encountered in any other way because our lives were otherwise focused in different social realms.  The people we dealt with in selling our apples wholesale, like the family that ran a roadside market and used our apples for their cider, were folks we would not have been likely to befriend if it had not been for the orchard.  In general the people we encountered were down-to-earth, hard workers, shrewd in business dealings and extraordinarily decent and positive in their outlook.  They taught me that intelligence and skill aren't always reflected in a college degree, that contributions to society don't necessarily correlate with your tax bracket, and that a reputation for being honest, fair and hard-working was more valuable than money.  Definitely worthwhile lessons.......


Dennis Nord said...

I like reading the lessons from your experience. My parents were fruit pickers in the Northwest after going bankrupt on a farm in the Depression, so I heard about picking apples for the farmers (along with berries and other fruits) from them. Therefore what you wrote sounds familiar regarding risks and payback. It sounds like an experience that was much work and little pay, but personally satisfying. Good job!

Coleen Hanna said...

Now I have a better understanding of why the merchants at my local farmers market charge so much. I like supporting them but I still haven't decided whether or not their produce is better than what I get at Wegmans.

Richard Sherman said...

Yes, I know what you mean Coleen. Here in Kona we regularly visit our Farmer's Markets for produce. Some of it clearly isn't as good as what we can buy in the store for the same or a lower price and we do have a cutoff that combines price difference and quality. I still feel guilty sometimes, though, knowing that the cheaper product may have traveled thousands of miles to get here....

We also have to watch out because at one market the vendors resell some items that they bought in bulk from Costco. Some of these are locally grown, at least (pineapples, for example) but some are imported from the Philippines, Peru, or Mexico. Nothing wrong with supporting those countries' economies, but the hidden environmental costs may be rather high.

Coleen Hanna said...

Now I am getting excited about Farmers Market season coming up. It starts here in May, every Saturday from 7:30 am until 1 pm. People get so excited about it. I walk to it (about a 30 minute walk), and if I buy too much to carry, I call my husband and he brings the car to pick up my load!! I need to check but I think this coming Saturday is the first day of the season.

Juan Casero said...

Very interesting article. I am creating a home backyard orchard of approximately 40 fruit trees. The production from this orchard if any will be for my own personal consumption and that of family members and friends. I don't have a commercial expectation for it but I can tell you that even with a tiny orchard in the beginning phases alot of work is involved. I spend most of my weekends mowing the lawn planting, inspecting the trees, pruning, spraying, watering, etc. I am exhausted by the time Sunday evening comes around. I can empathize with what you must have had to go through with a 1,000 tree orchard...yikes! I too have a deep respect for what farmers have to go through to grow and harvest a crop. The labor involved is beyond anything most people will ever experience in their lives. Maybe it is a cliche but that does not make it any less true. Most people have no idea the herculean effort required to make food so abundant in our society.