Friday, July 15, 2016

Farmer Friday: J & W Orchards

The beauty of fruit trees in pristinely mowed rows struck me as I pulled into the driveway of J & W Orchards in Norfolk. Escorting me to the front door was a stone path lined with immaculate perennial gardens, completely weed free and in full blossom. Angie Conger opened the door to freshly mopped floors, but she immediately discredited her hard-work as she encouraged me to enter her home with shoes still tied to my feet. Here I met Fred, her husband, who also works as a full-time mechanic.

Up until last August, this dream plot of eight acres belonged to the late Walter Shine. The 800 fruit trees behind the house were the result of his life-long dream to cultivate 1000 trees- a feat Walt achieved over the course of forty years. When he passed away, the land was turned over to his daughter, Angie, who has helped on the orchard for many years now. “Helping compared to fully operating are two extremely different things…my father could name an apple tree by sight, but I’m just beginning to learn,” Angie said, expressing how difficult the turnover has been in the past year.

This is now Angie and Fred’s second year tending the plums, apples, pears, grapes, and raspberries. Last year, a hard late frost damaged a large portion of the crops. This year they are seeing the remaining repercussions of the late freeze coupled with this summer’s drought; the foliage on the trees thirsts for water, evident by yellowing edges, and the fruits themselves are below average size for this time of year.

While orchards are a great way to conserve farmland for future generations, a fact mentioned in David Rice’s profile, they certainly require constant attention, effort and a backup savings account. How much work is poured into each tree is a point Fred stressed. If a tree isn’t bearing fruit, then it also isn’t yielding profit. As we walked through the orchard, Fred pointed out which trees he planned to pull this season and replace this season. Each tree roughly cost $25, depending on the variety. Typically, an apple tree produces 3-4 bushels per season. At $20 a bushel for a “fresh” apple, which roughly figures into $60-80 a tree, the net revenue is approximately $35-55, not allowing for other costs.

To keep the tress producing, Fred sprays either Captain 15 or Boron every 10-14 days with a 100-gallon sprayer that attaches to his tractor. The two pesticides combat insects and other pests in ways that Fred simply does not have the manpower to do himself. Already he paints the base of his trees with white latex paint, which deters deer and vermin from girding the tree trunks. Fred would use more effective methods of pest control that would permit him to reduce the application frequency, but to do so requires a license. He hopes in the future to secure one. Future plans for the orchard also includes installing an irrigation system, which will help Fred and Angie meet their goal of 1,000 fruit trees.

Walking with the couple, I could see how much devotion both invest into the land. They share a mutual love for Walt’s dream, which they have amassed into their own, and are determined to make the orchard a success. This season, they are opening the orchard for a U-Pick, an option many farmers resort to because it cuts down on the labor cost. “Our orchard is a year-round job,” Angie said. “Farmers, whether fruit or vegetable, don’t really get a vacation.”

Angie’s point raised another in my mind: how hunger occurs daily for many in St. Lawrence County. The issue extends beyond the rumble in stomachs if one examines having access to processed v. fresh food. The latter is considered a luxury. When I asked Fred for his thoughts on the matter, he replied, “Hunger means you’re hungry.” His simplistic response reminded me having access to fresh, healthy and local food is not a matter that can afford a vacation. Like a farming, hunger is a year-round manifestation. Our bodies need nutritious meals to fuel our body. In order to ensure this access, we must support our local farmers in their vision and mission to feed our communities. This is a feat Angie and Fred are accomplishing as they continue Angie’s father’s vision of an orchard.