Since about mid-March I've been working at McLeaf's Orchard down in Adams County, PA, just north of Gettysburg. It's a beautiful part of the state with rolling green hills covered in fruit trees. I've enjoyed coming through the spring up into summer and on into fall seeing the crops come in and out of season. It's been a great summer for growing with regular rains and not-so-hot temperatures. I thought I'd share a little of what I've learned while realizing that there's quite a bit I need to learn.
Consider your market
McLeaf's Orchard sells a good portion of their fruits and vegetables through a number of markets in the Washington, DC area. Corey McLeaf has been doing markets for over 5 years and has a pretty good handle on what's worked and what hasn't. It's interesting to hear him talk about the habits of their customer and what goes into planning what will go to market each week. He keeps a log book of what is taken to market each week and what sold. Based on that, his knowledge of that particular market and what's coming into season allows him to plan for each subsequent week.
I have learned that diversity in what you sell is important at market: you need to offer a compelling alternative to the varieties of fruits and vegetables commonly seen at the grocery store. In addition to the grocery store staples, McCleaf’s grows a good number of heirloom tomatoes as well as a number of different leafy greens. In recent years they’ve branched out into small fruits to supplement the normal apples and stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines). Hardy kiwi (kiwiberries), raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries now find a place on their display tables and help draw customers. They’ve found that if, for instance, it's blueberry season and you don't have blueberries, people won't come to your booth and sales of your other produce (as good as it may be) will suffer. Even in the common crops, diversity is important. McCleaf’s grows some 30+ kinds of apples, including a pink-fleshed Pink Pearl and English-favorite Cox Orange Pippin. When it's Honey Crisp or Fuji apple season, folks might pick up an extra apple or three of an interesting but lesser-known variety.
Know your crop
I have learned that most fruit trees grow a little better if I know something about the conditions in which they thrive. Before I plant a fruit tree, I try to do a bit of research to determine if it grows well in our climate and whether I’m willing to do any maintenance required to get fruit off the tree. For instance, apples and stone fruit trees will grow in our south-central PA climate. However here in the northeast (and in many other parts of the country), it's difficult for these trees to produce marketable fruit without spraying them a good amount.
So I ask myself these questions: What kind of soil does this tree like? What kind of nutrition does the tree require? Will I need to supplement irrigation or is the natural yearly rainfall sufficient? Will spraying be required to produce marketable (or at least edible) fruit? Will it hold up to our winters? How about our summers? How much direct sunlight does the tree require and how much does my yard receive?
Manage your land
So much goes into planning the layout of a garden and orchard and I feel as though I'm just starting to get a grasp on the different concerns. Differing soil types, prevailing wind direction, windbreaks, slope and drainage (for both water and air), accessibility (from vehicles or people), aesthetics, proper plant spacing, pest considerations, beneficial and pollinator habitat, and irrigation design, to name a few, all play an important role in determining the layout of an orchard. At Threefold Farm we hope to create a space where all of these factors (and probably more) play a role in the design.
Bring in the beneficials and pollinators
Pests and diseases seem to be an ever-present threat in an orchard. My experience at a commercial orchard has me thinking a lot about the role of beneficial insects and pollinators in a garden, be it large or small. At Threefold Farm we'd like to avoid, if possible, the use of synthetic fungicides and pesticides wherever possible. We'd like to think that the best way to address these issues are through the design of a space which takes into consideration ways to naturally reduce pest pressure as well as take into consideration attracting beneficial insects and having a significant population of pollinating insects. Since pests and diseases are such a big concern, look for this to be a big part of the planning we do in the design of our future orchard.
Grow the soil
We've found that paying a little bit of attention to the soil pays off greatly. Great soil grows healthy, productive plants. As we plan our orchard, special attention will be given to growing the soil that will support healthy, productive plants. What might that look like? Perhaps a larger-scale compost production area, the introduction of nitrogen-fixing plants into the orchard plan, nitrogen fixers on the orchard floor, and the use of cover cropping to build up the soil prior to planting.
In my more sane moments I take a forest-level view of what we’re trying to accomplish and think, “Gosh, we’ve really gotten in over our heads, haven’t we?”. Getting into a field we weren’t educated in, planning and planting long-lived perennial crops, and developing a plan to care for it all: crazy. Then I think about the God we serve and the ways in which he constantly equips us to do what he’s called us to, and I breathe a bit.
I know it’ll entail a lot of work and continual learning, but that’s the fun part, right? In my prior field of software engineering the best developers constantly learn from others, tinker, and try new things in order to get better at building great software. Why should farming be any different? We’re excited to have the opportunity to constantly learn and grow and make a million mistakes along the way (okay, maybe not so excited about that last part).
To sum it up
It’s been quite a ride working for a commercial fruit orchard. I’ve learned probably way more than I now realize and it’s been a great experience. Look for one more update before my internship ends at the end of the growing season! In the meantime, enjoy these pictures from McCleaf's!