Orchard Management for Direct Retail Sales
The farm walk at Brownfield Orchard in Chelan, Chelan County did not disappoint on any level. Owner, Mike Brownfield, led 15 attendees on an extremely informative walk as he shared about the organic management of his diversified orchard as well as their marketing strategies with direct co-op sales. Attendees included farmers, beginning orchardists, and buyers from the Bellingham Community Co-op. Resource people were Jeff Collins and Halli Winstead, both certifiers for the WSDA organic food program, and Jerry Harris, representing ‘Wonder Weeder’ – a tractor implement for mechanical weeding that all got to see in action. Representing WSU Small Farms team was Marcy Ostrom and from Tilth Producers, Board President Carey Hunter.
Attendees first gathered in the packing house, where Mike gave a history of the orchards. His great-great grandfather first homesteaded in an area near where the current orchard is at the turn-of-the-century. In the mid-1930,s his grandfather began planting orchards. In the 1970s, Mike’s father, John Brownfield, returned to the family orchards and began managing them organically as he opposed the application of harsh pesticides. Not only was John was a founding member of Tilth Producers, but we was the first Washington farm to become certified organic in 1987. Mike returned to the family orchard in 1988 after studying horticulture at Washington State University and working at an organic farm called Fairview Gardens in Santa Barbara, California.
Mike went on to explain the process of packing and marketing his fruit for both direct co-op sales and sales to Stemilt Growers, a wholesaler in Wenatchee. Brownfield sells 30% of the apple crop, 10% of the pear crop, 75% of the cherry crop, and 100% of the stone fruit crops (apricots, apriums, peaches) direct to co-ops – the rest is sold to Stemilt. At Stemilt they have controlled atmosphere storage for certified organic produce allowing Brownfield to store pome fruits through winter and be able to sell them as late as March (if they have any left to sell – they sold out by early February in 2014). They will complete timed storage (meaning they set a schedule for when bins will be removed from storage) for about 20 bins of apples in the Stemilt’s controlled atmosphere storage to extend the season past January.
Though Mike likes the ability to utilize Stemilt for sales through the winter and have near year-round income, he has really enjoyed selling direct to co-ops when fruits are in season. Further, much of his preference for direct to co-op is financially based since he can count on a steady (and often higher) price from co-ops. Brownfield fruit can be found at Skagit Valley Co-op and the Bellingham Community Co-op. The advantages for Mike in selling direct to co-ops is not having to sticker his fruit and being able to sell one grade of fruit – meaning he doesn’t have to spend time sizing fruit. Plus, it is logistically easier for them to sell the 40 different varieties of fruit that they grow to co-ops, which may not need a set quantity within a set time frame like a wholesaler. They are also able to sell some “seconds” or lesser quality fruit to co-ops at a lower price – something that is not feasible with wholesalers. Some farm walk attendees included employees of the Bellingham Community Food Co-op who were able to speak to the quality relationship that they have cultivated with Mike and how they and their customers are always pleased with the quality of Brownfield’s fruit.
In the packing house, Mike had several employees demonstrate the process of packing cherries. The cherries are picked into plastic bins, rinsed in water, and then transferred to cold storage that is kept at high humidity. When they get an order in, the cherries are spread out and sorted on a variable speed conveyor belt. While on the belt, cherries that have brown spots known as soft scald (from being too cold) or are otherwise damaged are discarded into a compost bin. The remaining cherries are packed into boxes lined with a cherry soaker pad and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) – both of which regulate moisture and gas exchange to prolong the freshness of the cherries. On the day of the farm walk, Mike’s employees had picked, washed, and packed 46 boxes of ‘Rainier’ cherries. It was really great to see the process of cherry packing in action.
After the packing shed, we headed out to the orchard where Mike explained the general scope of his nutrient and pest management. Mike is able to manage his 52 acres with one tractor that operates the Accutech sprayer, Wonder Weeder, and Perfect Mower. Jerry Harris of Harris Manufacturing (which produces the Wonder Weeder) demonstrated the front mounted implement in action, taking a few passes through the alleyways in a block of pear trees. He talked about the ease of using the cultivator that turns over weeds beneath the canopy without destruction of the tree roots or trunks. Mauricio, one of Mike’s employees, later demonstrated the use of the Wonder Weeder and sprayer as he drove the tractor through an apple block. The front mounted Wonder Weeder suppressed the weeds while the Accutech sprayer on the back applied a foliar feed – all in one felled swoop!
In terms of nutrient management, Mike utilizes Drammatic K, a cold-pressed kelp product, and Bio-Link supplements to feed his trees. Basically in every spray application – whether a fertilizer or organic pesticide – Mike said they also include a summer dormant oil to help smother a whole plethora of pest insects and their larva. He also utilizes a side shooter Perfect Mower which will mulch the alleyways to return to the soil around the trees. They also use a flail mower to mulch up tree prunings. In new tree plantings, Mike will plant a 3:1 mix of alfalfa and clover in the alleyways to provide some fertility – though he cautioned not to let the cover crops grow too tall as the extra moisture can harbor mildew. Mike also applies chicken manure from a poultry producer in Canada to the trees as a source of nitrogen.
As we walked through his oldest block of fruit trees – pears that had been planted in 1974
– Mike described his overall pest management strategy for his pears as well as the rest of the orchard. Even though he his certified organic, Mike doesn’t claim to spray less than a conventional grower as he utilizes the careful application of organic pesticides for every fruit crop. Mike stays current on pest threats through the WSU Decision Aid System (DAS) which predicts pest movement – pests include codling moths, aphids, pear psylla, and spotted wing drosophila. Organic products that he uses include neem, sulfur products, dormant oils, Entrust, and Sonata. For codling moth, Mike utilizes mating disruptors, which are twist ties that are tied into the tree canopy to release pheromones. These pheromones confuse male moths so that they cannot find the female moths to reproduce. Mike shared that these disruptors are really the best method for keeping codling moths under control. He attaches 400 mating disruptors per acre in a grid formation.
This year, Mike’s biggest management challenge was fire blight in a block of new pear trees. Fire blight (a bacterial disease) is usually not a big threat, but this year the conditions were perfect for its unfortunate establishment. Mike stressed finding the correct timing for applying organic pesticides in order to ensure their cost effectiveness, because many of them are quite expensive. Most of the intensive spraying for pest control occurs in the spring up through May. In the fall, Mike will spray pro-biologicals to help manage pests and diseases.
As we walked back to the packing shed through apricots and apples, Mike shared some of the challenges of being organic and being on his 53 acres. A major challenge for Brownfield is replant diseases – such as nematodes, fungal diseases, and fire blight – that make it hard to plant new, organically managed trees. At present, Brownfield is using every bit of its acreage to grow its diverse, high quality fruit. Looking towards the future, Mike wants to sustain their current production levels. He would also love to acquire some nearby acreage to experiment with more varieties, including hard cider apples.
This project is supported in part by the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, Grant # 2012-49400-19575. For more resources and programs for beginning farmers and ranchers please visit www.Start2Farm.gov, a component of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Summary by Angela Anegon, Tilth Producers Education Coordinator