Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Kole Tonnemaker, Tonnemaker Hill Farm, Royal City, Washington. Credit: Kole Tonnemaker.

Sometimes the challenges of this year keep you from noticing the long term trend. I think that could be true in our case. I mean, truthfully, looking at the long range, I don’t know that we’ve really seen a big climate change effect here yet. It seems like our struggle is the variation from one year to the next. It just seems like that has overshadowed any long-term effect. Every year seems to be so different.

Kole Tonnemaker

Tonnemaker Hill Farm

Northwest Region | Royal City, WA

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 120 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add annuals, shifted to direct markets.

This story is based on a 2013 interview.

Tonnemaker Hill Farm is on the north slope of the Frenchman Hills near Royal City, Washington, a semi-arid region in the central part of the state. Brothers Kole and Kurt Tonnemaker are the third generation to own and operate the 126-acre farm, established in 1962 as one of the original farm units in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. The farm is home to 60 acres of orchard, 20 acres of vegetables and 40 acres of hay, all irrigated and certified organic.

Kole, his wife Sonia and their son Luke manage the production of more than four hundred varieties of apples, peaches, pears and other fruits and vegetables. Kurt manages direct sales to restaurants, a CSA and as many as fourteen weekly farmers’ markets in the Pullman–Moscow area, Seattle and along the I-5 corridor. Farm products are also marketed year-round at the Tonnemaker Farm’s popular retail store in Royal City. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, the farm sells a variety of value-added products made from farm-grown produce including apple cider, fruit leathers, dried and frozen fruit and dried peppers.

When Kole took over the management of the farm in 1981, like many other farms in the region, Tonnemaker Hill specialized in apples, cherries and pears grown for wholesale commodity markets. Faced with falling wholesale prices as the fruit industry transitioned into corporate ownership during the 1980’s, Kole began to diversify into higher-value direct markets to maintain farm profitability.

In 1992, Kole’s brother Kurt took on marketing and sales for the farm full-time and began to expand direct market sales. He also encouraged Kole to consider using organic practices as a way to add value to Tonnemaker Hill products. Kole started the transition to certified organic production in 1997 and a decade later all of the cropland on the farm was USDA-certified organic.

Kole can’t say that he’s really noticed any change in weather variability over the thirty-plus years he has been managing the farm; however, he believes that the fall season has lengthened. “We figure on our farm, if we can get past the tenth of October without a killing frost, that’s a great year. It’s been about ten years since we had a killing frost in September.” Because winter kill and spring freezes and frosts are standard risks in tree fruit crops, Kole wonders if year-to-year variability has made it harder for him to see any clear trend over the years.

Another factor influencing his perception of weather patterns may be the farm’s north-facing aspect, which makes the production of stone fruits particularly challenging. “The cooler conditions on these slopes just increase the winter kill and spring frosts challenges,” he explains. “That’s been an ongoing issue for a long time. We grow stone fruits, which are more sensitive to variable weather in the winter and spring. They bloom earlier and they’re more susceptible to winter kill, so that’s always something that’s on our mind. Once the stone fruits — cherries, peaches and nectarines — have broken dormancy and started to lose their cold hardiness, they cannot reacquire it. They’re very vulnerable to temperature variability. If you get a warm week in January and they start to lose dormancy, and then all of a sudden you get a cold spell in February, damage to the fruit bud is a big concern. The apples and pears, which are pome fruits, are less sensitive because they can reacquire cold hardiness if temperatures fall again after a short warm period in winter or spring.”

Kole remembers his first decade or so as farm manager went pretty smoothly weather wise, although major crop losses in 1985 and then again in 1991 and 1992 from extreme weather got his attention. “We’re growing perennial crops that are susceptible to just being totally wiped out by freezing weather,” he explains. “In 1985, we had a terrible freeze in early November. I mean, it was 25 below zero in the first half of November. The trees were not ready for winter yet and it killed all the fruit buds. We had lost all our stone fruit crops for the 1986 season and we weren’t even in 1986 yet. And then, in both 1991 and ’92, we lost most of the fruit crops again.” Abnormally low temperatures in December 1990 caused massive winter kill that devastated the 1991 crop. One of the warmest winters and earliest blooms on record in 1991–92 set the orchard up for total crop loss from the most devastating spring frost ever experienced in the region. “We just thought, oh my goodness, we have got to have something to plant that’s not a perennial. We need something we can harvest when we don’t have the fruit crops. Also, we started getting insurance on the most risky of the crops after the 1992 frost.”

Because Kole had already begun to diversity markets and Kurt was able to take on direct marketing full-time, the decision to diversify into vegetable crops in the 1992 season was relatively easy. Looking back, Kole appreciates the complementary nature of the vegetable enterprise to overall farm performance. The short-season annual vegetable crops allow them to change planting date, crop mix and production volume in response to variations in the fruit harvest and seasonal weather conditions. “We’ve seen these extreme variations, and that was the killer for us. With fruit production, you need a constant. That’s why we went to vegetables. You have some room to modify the production of the annual crops to fit your needs and the season. For example, although we like to plant vegetables in the field starting the first of May, if it’s cold, we can just wait.”

Access to ample water supplies, industry changes in the 1980s and the back-to-back crop failures in 1991 and ‘92 that pushed Kole to diversify production and marketing all served to enhance the adaptive capacity of Tonnamaker Hill Farm. Although access to water has not been an issue in his region, Kole has some concerns about future water supplies. “Sixty years ago, this region was just desert. Nobody lived out here. Nobody. The land that our farm is on used to be a massive cattle ranch that went fifty miles one way and sixty miles another way. Now it’s a big fruit-growing area. We all get our water out of the Columbia River. Right now, we basically have all the water we need. But already in the Northwest now, there is a struggle to make sure there’s enough runoff for the salmon to migrate. One thing they talk about here is if we do get this global warming, it is possible that the Pacific Northwest will get drier. There’s been talk about that.”

In 2013, Kole and Sonia Tonnemaker were named Farmers of the Year by the Tilth Producers of Washington for their leadership and innovation in “ecologically sound, economically viable and socially equitable farming practices that improve the health of our communities and natural environment.”

Shepherd Farms

Shepherd Farms

Dan Shepherd, Shepherd Farms, Clifton MO. Credit: Tim Baker, Univ. Missouri Cooperative Extension.

I’ve been out here for 40 some years, it’s really hard for me to notice any changes in weather patterns. As far the moisture, the drought and the frost and the freeze, we’ve always had those problems. I really can’t see a whole lot of change, even in 40 years.

Dan Shepherd

Shepherd Farms

Midwest Region | Clifton, MO

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 300 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Orchard renovation, shift to disease tolerant cultivars, improve on-farm processing, add custom-shelling operation.

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Dan Shepherd helped plant the first fifteen acres of pecan trees at Shepherd Farms near Clifton Hill, in north central Missouri, when he was fourteen years old. The pecan orchard was just the first of many alternative crops that Jerrell Shepherd, the farm’s founder and Dan’s father, put into place on the 1900-acre corn, soybean and wheat farm he purchased in the late 1960s in an effort to improve profitability through diversification into high-value specialty crops. Dan continued his father’s tradition of innovation when he took on full-time management of Shepherd Farms in 1985 by adding buffalo and gamma grass to the annual grains and pecans grown on the farm. Dan integrated all the crops and livestock through an innovative agroforestry system featuring alley cropping and management-intensive grazing.

Although the buffalo and gamma grass are now gone and most of the 4,000-acre farm is once again in an annual grain rotation, Dan still manages about 300 acres of mature pecan orchards. Pecans are processed on the farm, in a purpose-built facility that cracks, shells and packages them for direct market sales. Dan markets his pecans and other products through the Internet and an on-farm store open from October through December each year.

Like tree fruits, the production of tree nuts is complicated by variable weather during periods of temperature and moisture sensitivity in the annual life cycle of the plant. Over the years, Dan has learned how to produce a profitable crop of pecans despite the highly variable weather that is normal in his region. Pecans are sensitive to cold weather and frosts during the spring bloom, which typically occurs in late April. Drought in the summer and fall during the period of nut fill can cause small and misshapen nut meats. And although pecan trees are considered flood tolerant, flooding anytime except during winter, when they are dormant, can stress the trees and reduce nut yields.

Dan can’t say that he has perceived any change in the weather over the forty-plus years he has lived at Shepherd Farms. Through the years, the pecan bloom has been hit by frost pretty regularly, about once every four years. Sometimes this actually improves yields because a mild frost will reduce the nut load just enough to improve yield and quality. The diversity of pecan varieties also helps reduce the risk of spring freeze damage. In most years, at least some of the eight varieties grown in the orchard escape frost damage completely and rarely have any of them suffered a total loss due to spring freezes or frosts.

The Shepherd Farms’ orchards are not irrigated, so drought in the late summer and early fall has been a challenge at times; however, Dan says that summer temperatures or the frequency of heat waves or droughts have not changed noticeably at the farm over the last forty years. “Variability in precipitation affects the pecans more than anything else,” he explains; “I need a rain in August, and if I don’t get it, the pecans really suffer.” But pecan trees are tough once they’ve had some time to get established, especially to temperature extremes: “In the wintertime, I don’t care what the weather brings,” Dan says. “These pecan trees, the central and northern varieties that I grow, are pretty tough. The coldest day we’ve had so far this winter [2013] was 17 below, and I’m not worried about anything that’s three years or older. In summertime the heat just doesn’t affect them, it gets up to 100 or 103 degrees, it’s no big deal, they’re made to take that, temperature wise. Moisture wise, they can take a flood in the wintertime, it really doesn’t hurt them, but any other time, a flood does. And dry weather hurts them in the summer and fall.”

Pecans are native to the bottomlands of the Mississippi River basin and are well adapted to the wet conditions and recurring floods. The Shepherd orchard is planted in fertile floodplain soils along the east fork of the Chariton River. The river floods quite often, but the Shepherds built a levee in the 1970s that protects the orchard. “I’ve got a ten-mile levee on this farm,” Dan explains, “and that’s my life blood. My father put levees in, and we built them all ourselves, they’re private levees, and we treat them with great respect. We keep them mowed, it’s our main farm road, and we keep them up. That levee system is my whole life blood.”

“I do have a problem with flooding in my part of the country,” Dan goes on to say. “I’m in the river country up here in Missouri, and I’m on a river that does flood regularly. I’ve seen floods in every month of the year. Some of the worst floods we’ve had were in spring, when the ground’s still frozen. You get a bunch of snow on the ground, the frozen ground, and you get an inch of rain on top, you can have a pretty good flood. Even though we have a levee on the farm, and it’s probably one of the best levees in the country, it still can be topped like it was last year [2013].”

Shepherd Farms experienced unprecedented flooding and drought in 2013. “One of the worst floods we’ve ever had on the farm was in April 2013, and one of the worst droughts we’ve ever seen came that summer,” Dan says. “We got them both in the same year. Flooding really hurt the pecan trees in the spring, being underwater for a week or two, and that really set them back. Then turn right around and June 23 was the last rain we had until somewhere up in the middle of October, so that hurt the fill on the pecans.” Thinking back on that year, Dan says, “We got hit with water both ways in 2013. Too much water and not enough and at the wrong time of the year, that is tough.”

Although Dan has not noticed any clear trends in changing weather patterns, the last decade or so has included several unusually extreme weather events on the farm. He experienced total crop loss from a spring freeze for the first time in 2007, and the levee was breached for the first time since it was built in 1970 by a flood in July 2008, and then again in 2013. Dan can’t remember another time in the forty years he’s been on the farm when there were so many dry summers in a row, like those in 2011, ’12 and ’13. But Dan sees these events, though unusual, as just part of life in Missouri. “I think a lot of this is just typical of weather in my region,” he says. “We’ve got the Gulf of Mexico just south of us, it pumps a lot of moisture up. We have the big mountains in Colorado out there to stop those systems and dry them out before they come. We’ve got Canada up north that can drop a lot of cold air on us. Our weather is so variable that it’s hard to get a grasp on any changes that might be coming down the pike.”

Dan learned a lot from his father about using weather forecasts in farm planning and fieldwork scheduling. Dan explains, “My father was really an excellent weather forecaster. He was mainly in the radio business. He loved farming, but he also ran a bunch of radio stations. He had the first Doppler radar in Missouri in a radio station, right here in a little town nearby.”

Dan also has an interest in climatology and has read widely on the subject of climate history. “Do we have climate change? Sure we do!,” he says. “I can remember back in the mid ’70s to the early ’80s, we were going into a little ice age. Then we were supposed to be burning up and they’re going to call it global warming. And now they call it climate change. I’m enough of a climate history buff to know that we go through these cycles. We have twenty-year cycles, we have two-hundred-year cycles. When the Thames River froze up in the little ice age and when we had the terrible winters of the early 1900s. A lady here in Clifton Hill said that she remembered it snowing on June 6 in 1911, but that was in 1911, and we had global freezing then. Those are weather cycles.”

Thinking about the future, Dan expressed concern about the drought situation in California. “They raise so much of our food that we’re definitely in trouble there. I was just reading something the other day about some of the droughts they’ve had in California, and it wasn’t too long ago, like 500 to 650 AD, that California had a 150-year drought. And back before that, around the Year Zero, there was a 180-year drought. What are we going to do when we get a 180-year drought in California?”

Dan Shepherd’s work developing gamma grass as a native forage crop and his innovative agroforestry system integrating grains, nuts, forages, buffalo and seed crops has been nationally recognized by the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service, the National Agroforestry Center and the Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri. Shepherd Farms is one of sixty farms and ranches selected for the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

 

Red Fern Farm

Red Fern Farm

Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl of Red Fern Farm. Credit: Sustainable Iowa Land Trust

Tom Wahl & Kathy Dice

Red Fern Farm

Midwest Region | Grandview, IA

Main Product: Fruit & Nuts

Scale: 15 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to perennial polyculture, integrate livestock/mob grazing, add irrigation/tree shelters.

Story coming soon!

New Forest Farm

New Forest Farm

Mark Shepard, New Forest Farm. Credit: Restoration Agriculture Design

Since we’ve been here our longest drought was two calendar years where we had snow in winter time, but almost zero measurable rain in the summer. Then in 2018 and 2019, we had twice the annual amounts of rainfall. Seventy-five inches of rain one year to zero inches of rain the next year. That’s a challenge.

Mark Shepard

New Forest Farm

Midwest Region | Viroqua, WI

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 106 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to perennial polyculture, integrate annuals and livestock.

When Mark Shepard and his family first visited the land that would become New Forest Farm almost 30 years ago, they looked out over a Midwest landscape of degraded croplands typical of late twentieth century industrial agriculture. Gazing across the treeless property covered in empty corn and hayfields, the Shepard’s could see a different future for the land, one that would heal the land with a special kind of agriculture modeled on nature’s patterns. They could imagine how the landscape could evolve into something that was not a farm or a forest. Something completely new, yet rooted in the ancient wisdom of the place.

Drawing inspiration from native ecological patterns common in the region prior to European colonization, the Shepard family began to carefully place trees, shrubs, vines, canes, grasses, forbs and fungi throughout the 106-acre farm to create healthy plant communities designed to produce food, fuel, medicines, and beauty. Because they needed to produce income while waiting for the perennials to produce marketable products, the farm design also included areas of annual crops like vegetables, hay, small grains and pastured livestock. “We got started by selecting perennial plants that mimicked the oak savanna plant community that we could sell, feed to an animal or eat ourselves,” Mark recalls. “As things have matured through the years, we can afford to do less and less annual cropping. The products that we actually sell haven’t changed much over the years, but the proportions of each have changed through time.”

Today, New Forest Farm is a nationally recognized model for the successful transformation of an industrial grain operation into a commercial-scale, locally-adapted, perennial agriculture system. Hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, apples and elderberries are the primary woody crops on the farm. In the alleys between a diverse mix of trees and shrubs, livestock — cows, pigs, turkeys, sheep, pigs or chickens — graze pastures of mixed fescues, clovers and wild plants grown in rotation with annual vegetables. The farm’s principal products supply regional and national wholesale markets through the Organic Valley cooperative and the American Hazelnut Company. Small volumes of a diverse line of fresh and locally processed fruit, nut and livestock products are sold in local direct markets. The farm has been certified organic since 1995, is entirely solar and wind-powered, and farm equipment can be powered with locally-produced biofuels.

Want to read more? You can find the full version of this story in the Second Edition of Resilient Agriculture, available for purchase here.

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Jim Koan, pictured with daughter Monique Lapinski and son Zachary. Monique and Zachary represent the fifth-generation of Almar Orchards. Credit: Monique Lapinski

Two years ago, the whole state of Michigan had a ten percent crop of apples. Worst freeze since nineteen forty-five, I believe. Then this last year, again the same thing occurred, and we had another significant freeze. Two years in a row of those extreme freezes have never been seen before in my lifetime or even by fruit growers who started growing in the thirties and forties. Spring frost is getting to be a bigger and bigger problem.

Jim Koan

Almar Orchards & Cidery

Midwest Region | Flushing, MI

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 300 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Shift to organic, integrate livestock, add on-farm processing and retail store.

This story is based on a 2013 interview, with 2019 update.

Jim Koan has been growing apples at Almar Farm and Orchards in eastern Michigan near Flushing for more than forty years. Although the soils in eastern Michigan are heavier and the climate more variable than the ideal fruit-growing conditions found in western Michigan, Almar is Jim’s home and he wanted to continue the Koan tradition of growing apples there. When he took over the family business in the mid-eighties, Jim grew apples using industrial methods like his father before him. But after a decade managing the farm he became interested in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) as a way to cut costs and reduce environmental impacts. Early success with IPM encouraged him to make the transition into certified organic production.

Today Jim, his wife Karen and three of their five children work together on Almar’s 500 acres, producing thirty varieties of organic apples in a 150-acre orchard as well as pumpkins, corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and pasture. About 30 acres of apples are intensively managed for fresh market sales, while the rest are processed on-farm into hard cider and other apple products. About 150 pasture-raised hogs are farrowed and finished each year on the farm. Jim uses a Swedish sandwich system to reduce soil erosion and enhance soil quality in his orchards and manages native wildflower planting to encourage beneficial insects, reduce pests and improve apple pollination.

Jim has been recognized over the years for a number of innovative practices on his farm, but most recently he has received a lot of attention for the successful integration of livestock — pigs and poultry — into his apple production system. Jim pastures heritage-breed pigs in the apple orchards to clean up fallen apples that harbor the plum curculio, a weevil that is one of the most destructive pests of organic apples. The pigs also help to build soil quality and manage weeds. Jim feeds them on apple pomace, the paste left over from pressing apples for cider. Jim direct markets his finished hogs as pasture-raised, apple-finished pork and sells a number of other value-added products from the apples he grows on the farm, including apple cider, apple cider vinegar and an award-winning hard cider that has been made on the farm since the 1850s. The hard ciders are distributed nationally, while fresh apples and the other processed products are sold directly through an on-farm store.

Over the last decade, Jim has noticed a number of weather changes that have increasingly complicated his farm management. Weather extremes are getting more extreme and disease and insects seem to be getting harder to control. “With the changing weather that we have now,” Jim says, “every year the extremes seem to be getting more extreme. If we’re going to get rain, we’re going to get a lot more rain than usual. We’ll get deluges, not the three or four inches of the past, but we’ll get five or six inches. Or we’ll get snowstorms, or extreme heat, or droughts, and so forth. Those are very disruptive to the natural balance of nature, of insects and disease.

Variable spring weather has always been a significant factor in tree fruit production in Michigan and elsewhere, but as Jim explains, the risks have grown. “Recently, the biggest challenge has been the warmer weather in March. Normally we’ll get several days in the 60s and then we’ll drop down again to some 30-, 40-degree days, while the nights drop to freezing or below freezing. Now, instead of getting a few days of 60, 65, it will be 75, 80 degrees. Well, it doesn’t take many days of those kind of temperatures to accelerate our trees waking up and then we end up with earlier bloom even though we still usually have a few significant freezes in the later half of April or early May. Two years ago [2012], the whole state of Michigan had a 10-percent crop of apples. Worst freeze since nineteen forty-five, I believe.”

Jim wonders if part of the trouble has to do with the Great Lakes not freezing over in winter like they used to. “Michigan has always been a great fruit growing area for cherries and apples and peaches and what not, your perennial crops,” Jim explains. “Because the Great Lakes, that ice was a huge cold sink. So in March, when we did get these little warming trends that might wake the trees up, we had that ice all around us to help buffer that. The Great Lakes haven’t been freezing over like they have in the past and therefore we have lost that buffering.”

Heavy rainfall and storms are becoming increasingly destructive, according to Jim. “Two years ago [2012], in August, we had the most rain in a hundred years,” says Jim. “Broke the hundred-year record, okay? In one night we got six inches of rain — unheard of. The orchards and everything was all flooded over. The water overflooded the banks for the first time that I can remember and ripped out a bunch of trees and fences. The animals were all running around the farm. It seems like we are getting one snowstorm after another now, followed by extreme temperatures and windchills, and then warming trends. It’s not just one event every ten years anymore. It’s just going from one extreme to the other and those changes are extreme within the weather cycle.”

In an effort to reduce the risks associated with more variable weather, Jim has made several adjustments in production and marketing. He has added more drainage to his orchard, transitioned to more disease-resistant varieties and diversified his product mix. Jim began installing tile drainage in his orchard about fifteen or twenty years ago. Initially he laid tile drains every fifty feet: “In any new orchards before that, nobody tiled orchards. Now on my new orchards, I tile every twenty-eight feet. It’s not just that I’m tiling, but that I’m actually having to get them closer together to get the excess water out of the soil more quickly.” Jim is quick to point out that not all growers in his region have had to add additional drainage. His orchards are on heavy soils with poor drainage to begin with, but more extreme rainfall events have made drainage even more important.

Jim says that other fruit growers in eastern Michigan have adapted to more variable spring weather by adding wind machines for frost protection, and many are abandoning high-risk areas. Jim explains, “Almost all the apple growers in Michigan that can afford it have bought wind machines to protect against frost. If they had two wind machines, they bought two more for other sites where they weren’t needed before. They’re also looking at replacing fruit crops with grain crops in the poorer sites and only using the very best sites for fruit crops because the input costs for fruit production are so high today that you can’t afford not to get a full crop.”

Jim used to grow sixteen different kinds of fruits, but today he grows only apples. Increases in production costs, weather-related risks and changing consumer preferences have all played a part in his decision to reduce the diversity of fruit types at Almar Farm and Orchards. “When I first started growing thirty years ago,” Jim explains, “it was nothing to sell two hundred bushels of peaches in a couple of days from the farm store. A housewife would come out and buy a bushel or two of peaches and then take them home and ripen them and can them and then two or three days later come back and get another batch, and come back a third time maybe three weeks after that and still get another half bushel to eat out of hand and maybe make some peach pies and cobblers and whatnot. But now, people can go to the store and buy fresh peaches to eat on the table, put in their fruit bowl and eat almost year round. Those peaches are going to be from Chile or whatever, but at least they can buy them. So they don’t can them anymore. People quit canning pears, same thing with peaches. So I don’t grow peaches and I don’t grow pears. Now I don’t sell two hundred bushel of fresh fruit in the whole season, you know?”

While he still maintains a diverse mix of apple varieties in the orchard, Jim says it can be difficult selling them in a market defined by year-round availability of a limited variety of apples. Like Steve Ela, Jim finds direct marketing gives him some flexibility to select apple varieties that are well adapted to the changing climate conditions on his farm. As the weather has become more variable, Jim has transitioned to more disease- and insect-resistant varieties, which sometimes require some consumer education. Jim explains: “I’m planting varieties that are more disease- or insect-resistant, but consumers don’t want them because they’ve been programmed by advertisements to think that Gala is a wonderful apple or Red Delicious or Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Fuji or whatever. More than two thousand commercial apple varieties have been grown in the United States in the past. We’re down to just a few varieties now because consumers have been brainwashed that these are what tastes best.”

Jim tells the story of how he successfully sold his customers on an apple variety that he is particularly fond of growing, called Gold Rush. “It is a fantastic eating apple, but it is ugly,” he says. “It has these big pores in the skin called lentils and people didn’t think it looked good. If I took a Gold Rush apple and put that in a grocery store, the grocery store couldn’t sell them because consumers don’t know what a Gold Rush is. They know what a McIntosh is, so the Gold Rush is not going to get sold sitting next to a McIntosh. But that’s a big problem, because it is extremely difficult to grow an organic McIntosh. We grow four, five thousand bushels a year, but they’re extremely difficult to grow. But the Gold Rush is a more sustainable apple. So I put up a sign in our farm store one year, a really big sign that said, ‘Gold Rush, the ugliest, best-tasting apple in the world.’ That aroused customer curiosity. People went and bought them and they came back and bought more. Now we’ve got a really strong Gold Rush consumer demand in our area. I introduce the people to these other varieties and they love them and they come back and buy them for eating fresh out of hand. But it’s an education. I’m educating a consumer in order to sell these apples. You can’t do that for thousands of bushels of fresh apples. You don’t have the time to do that, you know?”

Jim has increasingly focused on marketing processed products in an effort to build a sustainable business model. He has sought out products that allow him to avoid competing in international and national commodity markets, as well as allowing him to continue to use sustainable practices like the integration of livestock into his orchard production system. Jim saw the federal food safety regulations like GAP and the FSP as a real threat to his freedom to farm sustainably. So he began thinking about how to transition from fresh products to processed products that would allow him to meet new regulations without having to change production practices. Jim explains, “We raise pigs because they’re part of the system. I use them for insect and disease control and I can sell their meat as a protein source. Almost all of our apples are processed on the farm and made into juice. Fifty percent of that bushel is still food. Even though the juice is taken out and fed to humans you’ve got all this other good nutrition left in the pomace. That goes to feed our pigs and then we use their manure for fertility in the orchard. We work as a team. It looks like with the GAP and new food safety regulations I won’t be able to raise livestock on my farm anymore. For a sustainable farm you have to have an integration of livestock and crops. It’s not like CAFO operations where somebody’s got a thousand head of swine locked up in the barn and they’re pumping corn through them for six months and then selling them.”

Jim wanted to find a way to keep the pigs in the production system under the new food safety regulations. He started thinking about processing apples into an alcoholic beverage that would eliminate any food safety concerns. In 2009, just a few years ahead of the boom, Jim developed a line of hard ciders under the JK Scrumpy’s label. The new product allowed him to keep pigs in his apple orchard and provided other unexpected benefits as well, like expanding his customer base. “Now I sell interstate all over the United States,” Jim says. “I have distributors for my product. It’s shelf-stable so I don’t have to worry about having to sell it right now.”

Jim also learned that a shelf-stable addition to his product mix provided a buffer to weather variability and extremes. “In 2012, as an example,” he explains, “we had only had 10-percent crop of apples. I had half a million dollars invested in those apples. That was not as big an issue for me as it would have been if we hadn’t had JK Scrumpy’s, because the year before that I had had a huge crop. I had fermented a whole bunch of those apples and they were just sitting there on the farm, in the bank, so to speak. I still had a non-perishable profit from the year before, so 2012 didn’t disrupt my cash flow too much. I can walk away comfortably saying that I actually made a profit in 2012, not only because of the surplus I had stockpiled from 2011, but also because I was forced to think out of the box and do things differently. I really came out ahead of the game.”

Jim appreciates the opportunities that recent weather challenges have created for his business. He says they have forced him to think out of the box, anticipate what could go wrong, and plan for the worst-case scenario. He has focused a lot of attention on developing a business that is robust to what he views as both political as well as climate risks. Thinking about the future, Jim is confident he can handle the biological challenges, but he is concerned about political and regulatory challenges to sustainable agriculture and local food production. “I’m better prepared than people who just go along thinking everything is business as usual,” says Jim. “You could say I have developed a sustainable business plan that protects me from both political and weather extremes.”

Since 2013, the Koans have continued to develop their business in response to changing weather patterns as well as changes in labor availability and customer behavior. The farm now supports 10 year-around full time employees, plus 12 seasonal experienced apple pickers for the apple harvest season from late August to November. For the last five years, Jim has participated in H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers to recruit experienced apple pickers that return to the farm each year.  Jim says the program is “expensive, but workable.”

The hard cider operation, now managed by Jim’s son Zach, has been expanded and automated and a new tasting area and on-farm store has been developed, complete with seating and a children’s play area.  “We’ve moved back into giving more attention to the agritourism end of our operation,” Jim explains, “because more and more families seem to understand how important healthy food is to their long-term health and they are seeking out fresh organic food. Since we last talked, we’ve seen a big change in our customers – now most of the customers visiting our farm are buying apples to make their own apple sauce and other products just as they did 25 years ago. And people are curious about our unusual varieties. They want to know the history of each variety and how they taste. I would never have believed we would come full circle and get back to eating homemade food together.”

Weather has become the most important factor in the success of the farm, according to Jim. “It used to be that about once every 7 years we could expect less than half a crop of apples because of a late spring freeze. We’ve had these kinds of losses 4 out of the last five years. We are surviving because we’ve cut our orchard size down from 150 to 80 acres, we’ve quit selling our apples to big companies, and we’re focused on growing only the very most profitable varieties.”

Jim was the first apple grower in Michigan to transition to certified organic production. He has been actively involved in the leadership of many sustainable agriculture and organic farming organizations over the years and is a longtime collaborator in on-farm experiments with Michigan State University faculty and staff. In 2013, Jim’s long years of dedication towards the improvement of the Michigan fruit industry was recognized with a Distinguished Service Award from the Michigan State Horticultural Society.