Burnt Ridge Nursery and Orchards
Michael Dolan, Member Spotlight, December, 2012
Michael Dolan and I talked a day after a November storm raged through Lewis County, creating power outages and flooding. Michael was upbeat nonetheless, still eager to talk about trees, the harvest, the ridge, past storms.
What’s the weather like on the ridge right now?
Yesterday we had an incredible blow. In winter, the ridge gets snow and weather even when surrounding areas get less. But there are good reasons for being on a ridge, most importantly a longer frost-free season than the surrounding valley by about a month.
How did you find your land on the ridge?
I found the land by cruising around on a bicycle in 1979 (I had no car). At the time the property was logged-over land. Its view land: we can see three volcanoes.
How did you clear the land?
After being logged previously the land was never cleared. It had stumps, black berries, brush,young alder. I tried to remove the large stumps with hand tools at first; I had no clue. Then I talked to neighbors and learned they used dynamite. At the time it was fairly easy to get: you took a test and paid a fee. Dynamite was less than a dollar a stick.
Do you sell produce in addition to the nursery plants?
Yes. We have a mail-order business of fruit, nut, berry plants, and vines and we have a produce stand at Olympia farmers market. We grow 20-acres of food, selling certified organic fruits and nuts: apples, pears, kiwi. Nuts are popular – hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts – and we are the only grower of nuts at the market.
Do you have a favorite apple?
Liberty is my favorite. It tastes good and is dependable. It is also so disease resistant. Our nursery grows plants that are suitable for our region and those that are insect and disease resistant are doing well.
Have you had any successes to share?
I have been collecting and evaluating varieties. Kiwi is the main crop that is most successful. The hardy kiwi with its origins in Siberia grows well here. We have had an impact on introducing it to America. We ship truckloads of harvested kiwis each September and October to co-ops, specialty stores, and into the wholesale market across the U.S. It is a growing crop for us.
Have you tried breeding?
I crossed a fuzzy Kiwi with a smooth Siberian, wanting a result of an early-ripening fruit with smooth skin. I crossed the two, growing to fruition from seed, and got mostly males. The ones that fruited didn’t work out and didn’t sweeten earlier as intended.
What’s among your best crops?
Kiwis are one of our biggest successes. Advice for new farmers: there is a long window of harvest opportunity and room for more kiwis in the market. A drawback is in the trellis work. You can get 50-100 pounds in a year but you need a strong trellis and will have to rebuild after heavy snows. New growth can be susceptible to frost. The new vines come in April, and even though they bloom in June, frost on the tender vine will take out a lot of potential fruiting. Kiwis grow well in the sun or shade, growing high into evergreen trees in Russian forests.
Chestnuts are also a great success. We have the biggest variety of them in the country. Motivated by the marginal growing conditions of Burnt Ridge, I wanted to test and evaluate varieties from all over the world, from Asia to Europe, and now market and grow nursery stock. Chestnuts are versatile as a fresh nut: in mountain regions in erosion prone areas they stabilize the site. They are long-lived trees, up to 1000 years old, and can produce massive crops. “Prolific” is one variety I named from Centralia that produced 400 to 1200 pounds in a year. Plus, prickly husks protect them from critters.
What advice would you give to new farmers in your area and/or in this field?
Don’t plant a nut orchard next to a forest. Squirrels can jump right in. I packed the property with fruit and nut trees right to the forest edge, and it’s a highway for the eastern grey squirrel. Wild life is a big issue: deer, bear, and coons are fiercely competitive for crops. With a lack of fencing in our first years the deer slaughtered us. Now we have fencing.
It’s the only farming I know. The whole appeal of farming is the more sustainable food supply. Trees go beyond my life time, for generations to come. Trees have a real stabilizing influence on the soil. I haven’t used a tiller in years, not even for our garden. I like the sustainability of nut trees, and you get wood as well, nuts, fodder, bark, tannins, medicine, and flowers for honey.
Do you keep honey bees?
Not anymore – bears got them – though we don’t lack for pollinators. We spend a lot of time thinning fruit. Pollination is not a problem because we don’t use pesticides. Bumble bees and mason bees are prolific. We have good nesting places for them because we minimize disturbing the soil.
Is your family involved, and if so, how?
Carolyn and I have been doing this together for over 20 years, more than full time. She manages the workers and the office. She has a degree in computer science, which is critical to our success in mail order, marketing, and catalogue lay-out. Carolyn is diversifying the co-ops and wholesale buyers we sell to.
Our sons are in high school and help sell produce and plants at the Olympia Farmers Market.
Did you grow up on a farm?
No, not at all. I grew up in some of the biggest cities of the world. I was drafted and sent to Korea in 1972, to one of the highest, fortified areas in the world. When I was off-duty, I rented a room from a subsistence farmer nearby and worked with him on 2 to 3 acres. Behind the rice paddies was a forest of chestnuts. I enjoyed living in the country, an escape from the military. It planted a seed in my mind. After service I wanted to be self-sufficient and went to Evergreen State College, in the Back-To-the-Land program. I took basic farming with Woody Deryckx (adjunct faculty at Evergreen). He was my inspiration: Woody really got me going. He had enthusiasm and knowledge.
What is your on-going goal?
To keep selecting the best for this area, promoting edible plants, spreading the word. Chestnuts remain popular for me, as a main producer and the only source of so many varieties. I have a big collection of hardy kiwis; 40 varieties of blueberries, which are a commercial crop; and 60 to 70 varieties of apples. We grow a big collection of fig varieties, too. We are such a marginal area at 900’ -1100’ elevation, having some of the coolest summers in North America. It takes the right varieties. Mulberries, a largely forgotten tree, are a real success story: great with poultry, casting shade and feeding the flock. There are varieties with exceptional flavor, ornamental value, white fruits, dark fruits, dwarf varieties. It’s a plant that can grow just about anywhere in North America, a forgotten, under-appreciated plant.
What do you do for soil?
We don’t till the soil. We mow to keep black berries from taking over and fertilize only if needed. We encourage nitrogen-fixing plants: goumis, autumn olive, and clovers in understory.
Why are you members of Tilth Producers?
We are members of Tilth because we want to support its mission of promoting a sustainable food supply.
Find Michael Dolan and Burnt Ridge Nursery and Orchards at: www.burntridgenursery.com/
By Jacqueline Cramer