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.”

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.

 

 

Bishop’s Orchards

Bishop’s Orchards

Bishop’s Orchards

Jonathan Bishop, Bishop’s Orchards, Guilford CT. Credit: Jonathan Bishop.

We always talk in the course of a year, about how the weather seems one way or another, how it’s different from normal. I think it also gets to the point over time, of not really knowing what normal is. I can remember unusually warm spells and cold spells from when I was a kid. I think what may color my responses somewhat is that Guilford is a shoreline community. Our orchards, many of our orchards, are within a few miles of the coast. So we get a very moderating influence from Long Island Sound.

Jonathan Bishop

Bishop’s Orchards

Northeast Region | Guilford, CT

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 320 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Increase field equipment, diversify perennial crops, add annual crops, shift to direct markets, add agrotourism and on-farm retail store, add on-farm processing (winery).

This story is based on a 2014 interview.

Effective adaptation to changing market conditions has been a hallmark of Bishop’s Orchards, a 140-year-old farm located near Guilford, Connecticut. Through six generations, the Bishop farm has evolved from a small general farm peddling ice, milk, fruits and vegetables door to door in the local community, to a wholesale grower of fruits and vegetables supplying regional markets, to a thriving retail market offering a diverse line of fresh and processed products, many produced on the farm.

Jonathan and Keith Bishop are cousins, fifth-generation co-owners and managers of Bishop’s Orchards and related businesses. Jonathan is responsible for production, harvesting and warehousing of all crops on the farm, including disease and insect control, integrated pest management (IPM) and the management of farm equipment. Keith is responsible for retail marketing, sales and management of the family business, and is also Bishop’s winemaker.

While apples are a focus of production on the 320-acre farm, Jonathan also manages a diverse mix of vegetable, berry and flower crops for direct sales through an on-farm, full-service retail market and bakery, a winery, a pick-your-own operation and a CSA. Bishop’s was an early innovator of IPM methods for fruit production in Connecticut. Jonathan has reduced the use of pesticides on the farm by up to eighty percent through a program featuring scouting, fumigant cover crops, trap crops, agroforestry and other practices that serve to increase biodiversity and reduce pest pressures. The farm and associated packing/cider operation at Bishop’s Orchards employs a full-time staff of fifteen and adds as many as thirty seasonal employees during the growing season, while the retail side of the business employs about fifty-five people year-round with an additional sixty seasonal staff.

When Jonathan thinks back over the thirty-five years he has been managing production at Bishop’s Orchards, several long-term production challenges come to mind. Changes in pesticides, novel pests, insects and disease management and wildlife — particularly deer and voles — have been continually challenging. “Most of the complication on the insect and disease side,” Jonathan explains, “is changing chemistries, the phasing out of the organophosphates and some of the longer residual fungicides, the pest-specific nature of the replacements, and some introduced species.

The spotted wing drosophila [fruit fly] has become a huge pest for small fruit growers and the brown marmorated stink bug is another one that, knock on wood, we haven’t had to deal with yet. It’s another one that’s out there. These recent pest introductions have happened, I think, as a result of global trade, the nature of trade these days. We’ve maybe let down the guard a little bit over the years and the focus has shifted towards trying to find terrorists and bombers and not concentrating so much on some of these other imports that can have major impacts on agriculture.”

Weather is always a challenge in fruit and vegetable production and that has also been true at Bishop’s. Like many fruit growers, Jonathan has continuing challenges with variable spring weather, summer drought and periods of moisture that encourage plant diseases. He thinks that dry periods might be the biggest challenge because of all the extra work involved in watering. “On a lot of our small fruit crops, we have trickle irrigation in place,” he says. “With the tree fruits and some of the vegetable crops, you get involved in moving pipe around and getting water to the pipes. The dry periods are difficult to deal with in that regard.”

Jonathan can’t say that he has seen any kind of changing trends in weather. There have always been extreme events through the years and he doesn’t think these have increased in frequency or intensity during his lifetime. He can recall some extreme weather events throughout the years. “For instance, we just went through a pretty cold spell with the Polar vortex [in 2014]. Yet I can remember in 1981 we lost our peaches from three days of minus 12 temperatures. We haven’t had that kind of cold since then. We had a really warm February in 1976, the apple buds actually started to swell, and then it dropped back to normal winter temperatures, and some varieties were 100-percent loss that year. The earliest season I can ever remember was in 2012. We started five weeks earlier than normal, but it was followed by last year [2013], which was a fairly late season for us. Of course, there was the Halloween snowstorm in 2010. It’s hard to say that there is a trend even in the variations because there’s been some pretty big swings going back thirty-some years. Like I said, I’ve seen extremes but I haven’t seen an increase in the extremes.”

Jonathan thinks that the farm’s location on the coast of Long Island Sound may have provided some buffer against weather extremes. “The sound may be moderating the absolute cold temperatures in the winter and the hot temperatures in summer. Growers inland often face much bigger issues with spring cold temperatures or frost than we do. That maybe part of why our experience may be a little different from what other people might have noticed.” Over the years, Jonathan has learned to be prepared for whatever the weather might bring. “Every season we plan for the quote-unquote normal situation,” he says. “We’re prepared for reacting to unusual events. If we had an unusually heavy rain and we needed to reapply a protectant to a crop or something, we just figure out what we’re going to need to do in terms of having the systems ready to go when we need them. I guess we just try to be prepared for anything.”

Although the last thirty years have brought a lot of changes to Bishop’s, most have been driven by marketing considerations, not changes in weather, Jonathan explains. “There are so many factors other than weather that are driving crop choices. We’ve been moving very steadily away from apples, which used to be our biggest crop by far. Apples tied us to wholesaling. Since then, over time we’ve been using alternative marketing methods that are pick-your-own, through our own retail or the CSA. We have been trying to adjust our mix of crops to match our production to our retail needs. We have been expanding into other crops like peaches, small fruits and a number of vegetable crops. If one thing doesn’t work out one year, it’s better the next. We’ve always looked at our diversity as our insurance.”

Jonathan appreciates the benefits to risk management provided by diversity, even within just one crop. “It’s always interesting — even within a single crop like apples, there will be a year when one particular variety is just outstanding and the quality of another one is just not what you’d hope it would be. We’re always looking at our diversification and adding different things to the mix, trying them out, sort of move it around and doing a little bit of our own research and development in-house to find stuff that hits a niche that we want to try to hit.”

A number of severe storm events over the last few years confirmed the benefits of scale, experience and crop diversity. Jonathan explains, “Because we’re a fairly good size farm for our area and we’re pretty diversified, when we do get a bad weather condition, something that might drive another farmer to have a bad crop, typically has less of an effect on us.” One example is with the CSA. “There are quite a few CSA’s starting up in our area. There’s a small farm not too far from us who suffered pretty badly a year or two ago. And that’s okay, their CSA members understood that it was a bad year. But the following year when they’re looking to be in a CSA, and they have a choice between a CSA that’s supplied people with something all season long or a CSA that basically gave up in July… We have a lot of people that have previously been with somebody else who signed up with us because we have more capacity to make sure people get their value. It’s a scenario where both the scale and the diversification mattered.”

Jonathan is upbeat about the future of Bishop’s Orchards. He believes that the diversity of their crop production and marketing practices will help the business remain successful even if weather becomes a more important risk factor as climate change intensifies through mid-century.

Jonathan Bishop has been active in local and state civic and agricultural organizations for many years. He has served as a member of the USDA Farm Service Agency State Committee and is currently on the board of New Haven Farms, a nonprofit organization that promotes health and community development through urban agriculture in New Haven, CT. In 2001, Bishop’s Orchards was named the Mass Mutual National Family Business of the Year. Bishop’s Orchards was one of sixty American farms and ranches selected for the USDA-SARE publication The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation.

 

The Happy Berry

The Happy Berry

Walker Miller, The Happy Berry. Credit: The Happy Berry

I knew that frost was the biggest risk going into this. It’s still the biggest risk, and it has gotten worse. In the 80s, we would typically start frost protection in April. Now we start as early as the first week of March, so we’re also at risk for a longer period of time, because we still can get a freeze through to the end of April.

Walker Miller

The Happy Berry

Southeast Region | Six Mile, SC

Main Product: Fruits & Nuts

Scale: 22 acres under management

Featured Resilience Behaviors:

Add frost protection, add cover crops, drop sensitive species, shift to frost and disease tolerant cultivars, interplant shade trees, shift to less sensitive species.

When Walker Miller was looking to start a fruit farm, he knew that one of the biggest risks he would have to navigate would be late spring frost. He also knew that kudzu could help him find some frost-protected land, because kudzu flourished in the warmer places in the mountains of South Carolina. He was looking for the perfect place to grow fruit, a place just above the colder bottom land as his first line of defense against late spring frosts.

Forty-two years ago, Walker found what he was looking for. “We have mountains to the north and west of the farm,” Walker explains, “with Lake Keowee in between, and a ring of hills around the farm. When the cold air slides off the mountains into the Keowee River valley and settles on Lake Keowee, the warmer air on the surface of the lake is pushed up and over our farm.” And so Walker and his wife Ann got started bringing new life to an old worn-out cotton hill farm, farming at night and on weekends when they weren’t busy with their day jobs working in agricultural research and extension at Clemson University. Until her death in 2021, Ann and Walker managed the farm with the help of their daughters, Betty Ann and Zoe, a few seasonal workers and volunteers.

The Happy Berry Farm produces blackberries, blueberries, seedless grapes, muscadines, seedless muscadines, figs, persimmons and pussy willows, plus a number of minor crops such as mulberries, olives, chestnuts, and tea.1 The farm totals about 22 acres of steeply sloped, highly eroded and erodible land that was farmed for cotton starting in the early 1800s and then abandoned from about 1930 until Walker and Ann purchased the farm. Market production is focused on about 14 acres, with about three acres in infrastructure support land, parking, driveways and buildings. “From the get go, marketing the farm was a key part of our plan,” Walker says. “We wanted to focus on the pick-your-own market with wholesale as a secondary, so finding a location that was surrounded by five medium-sized towns and one major metropolis was ideal.”

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